During the 19th century, Randall’s and Ward’s Island were used primarily as garbage dumps, cemeteries and poorhouses, as well as to process immigrants until the operation was transferred to Ellis Island at the end of the century. As the century wore on, the islands also became known for their hospitals. The earliest was built in 1843, followed by the Manhattan State Hospital in 1890, and by two ten-story military hospital buildings in 1918.
As Randall’s Island became dedicated to health facilities East Harlem was beginning a socioeconomic descent into a troubled area with a concentrated number of health issues. At this time, the idea to build a hospital on an island was regarded as a way to keep population out of diseases and infections. Yet, it served to build the gap (at least a functional gap) between the Island and East Harlem.
After the Great Depression, the proffered solutions to the health and social issues of neighborhoods such as East Harlem increasingly came to focus on slum clearance and the construction of modern housing. With the 1937 National Housing Act, cities were free to establish their own housing authorities to build public housing. In 1938, the New York City Housing Authority began clearing the neighborhood’s slums and in 1941, the East River Houses were built, the first modem high-rise housing projects in East Harlem.
At the same time, while erecting the Triborough Bridge, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses set about converting the surplus area on Ward’s and Randall’s Islands into parks. Joining with landfill and an additional 46 acres, the built out island would have see the introduction of 22,000 seat Downing Stadium, numerous athletic fields and a parking lot for 4,000 vehicles.
This intervention on the urban fabric intensified across the Harlem River with Title 1 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1949. Robert Moses, now chairman of the New York Committee on Slum Clearance, designated all of East Harlem for demolition. Though in the end one third only was destroyed the intent was clear: The physical order of East Harlem was deemed responsible for many of the issues that plagued it. The proponents of Urban Renewal had believed that clearing the slums and replacing defective housing by modern high rises would solve the health and social problems of East Harlem. However, the radical transformation of the neighborhood would instead negatively affect the social fabric of East Harlem as well as its economy. Low-rise buildings continued to be replaced by massive public housing developments, and by 1967 15,657 units had been built. The housing projects cut across old neighborhoods and communities and created physical barriers to travel even as they created unappealing or off-limits “green belts” of air, space and playgrounds within East Harlem.
After an all time population high of over 200,000 in 1950, numbers in East Harlem declined significantly through 1980 before finally slowing during that decade and ultimately picking up again in the last two decades to reach 120,511 in the 2010 Census. The last decade’s 2.4% population increase has been accompanied by a 9.3% increase in the total number of housing units.
Within East Harlem, the areas that saw the biggest increases between 2000 and 2010 are at the neighborhood’s edges. In particular, two census tracts in the southern part of the neighborhood, near Central Park and East 96th street, have seen their population increase by over 35%, while three other areas – all along Park Avenue – have increased by over 20%.