"Strivers’ Row” (sometimes spelled “Striver’s Row") is located on West 138th and West 139th Streets between Adama Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard (Seventh Avenue) and Frederick Douglass Boulevard (Eighth Avenue) in Harlem. The name “Strivers’ Row” dates to at least 1922. A 1929 newspaper article (below0 described “striver” as “the nearest equivalent in Harlemese to nouveau riche.”
Wikipedia: Strivers Row
Strivers’ Row is three rows of townhouses in western Harlem, in the New York City borough of Manhattan on West 138th and West 139th between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Originally called the “King Model Houses” after developer David King, they were designed for upper middle class whites and constructed between 1891 and 1893. Different architects worked on each of the three rows, and they are collectively recognized as a gem of New York City architecture.
The northern part of the 139th street group was completed by McKim, Mead and White in neo-Italian style. Designers who contributed to the complex on 138th street include James Lord Brown, Bruce Price, and Clarence S. Luce.
The houses sit back-to-back with each other, which allowed King to specify that they would share rear courtyards. The alleyways between them are gated off (some entrance gates still have signs that read “Walk Your Horses"). At one time, these alleys allowed discreet stabling of horses and delivery of supplies without disrupting the goings-on in the main houses. Today, the back areas are used almost exclusively for the parking of cars. Strivers’ Row houses are among the few private homes in Manhattan with space for parking, but also among the few townhouses that do not have gardens in the rear.
David King’s speculative development failed, and most of the houses were soon owned by the Equitable Life Assurance Society, which had financed the project. By this time, Harlem was being abandoned by white New Yorkers, and the company would not sell the King houses to blacks. As a result, they sat empty. When they were finally made available to black residents, for US$8000 each, they attracted hard-working professionals, or “strivers,” who gave the houses their current name.
“Between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, is 139th Street, known among Harlemites as “strivers’ row.” It is the most aristocratic street in Harlem. Stanford White designed the houses for a wealthy white clientèle. Moneyed African-Americans now own and inhabit them. When one lives on “strivers’ row” one has supposedly arrived. Harry Rills resides there, as do a number of the leading Babbitts and professional folk of Harlem.” [Wallace Thurman, Negro Life in New York’s Harlem, (Girard, KS: Haldeman-Julius Publications, 1928)]
Among those who lived in Strivers’ Row were Eubie Blake, Fletcher Henderson, Vertner Tandy, W. C. Handy, Dr. Louis T. Wright, Henry Pace, heavyweight boxer Harry Wills, comedian Stepin Fetchit, actor/singer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and preacher/congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
By the 1940s, many of the houses had decayed and were converted to single room occupancies (SROs). Much of the original decorative detail inside the houses was lost at this time, though the exteriors generally remained unaltered. With the post-1995 real estate boom in Harlem, many of these buildings are being restored to something resembling their original condition.
Time Out New York, a New York publication, ran a cover story where they ranked “The 50 Best Blocks in New York City.” All 5 boroughs were included in the ranking that was based on seven criteria: aesthetics, amenities, “green factor,” noise and traffic, public transit, “New York-ocity,” and affordability. Strivers’ Row ranked 16th on this list.
Every one of the Strivers’ Row houses is a designated landmark. The buildings afford a view of the City College of New York, atop the hill to the west.
Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, a Harlem native, named a contrafact of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” after Striver’s Row. This performance is available on the 1958 Album “A Night At The Village Vanguard”.
Abram Hill’s 1940 satirical comedy of manners, “On Strivers Row”, produced with the American Negro Theatre (ANT), concerns “the follies of both social climbing and subtle racism among African Americans during Harlem’s Renaissance”.
29 July 1922, Chicago (IL) Defender, “Hidden Secrets in History of Harlem” by Charles T. Magill, pg. 15:
No story of Harlem would be complete without mention of Strivers Row. Originally the name was applied to West 139th Street, taking in that section between Seventh and Eighth avenues and was supposed to have distinguished those who were among the “ultra” act living there. Some of those who did live in that particular section and others who lived in the side streets between the two avenues mentioned really did begin to think that residence there, usually it was as a roomer, entitled them to be known as the ultra-ultras. In dismissing Strivers Row, we might add that if the sidewalks, and if the walls of some of the houses on those streets could talk, some highly interesting and spicy tales would be told.
20 June 1925, Afro-American, “Colored Citizens Kidded Buyers About Living On Strivers Row,” pg. A8:
The second is those colored folk who spoke of the St. Nicholas avenue section as striver’s row, intimating that residents thereof were merely putting on a good “front.”
23 March 1929, Afro-American, “Harlem’s English,” pg. 6:
Probably the most apt term in this group expressing snootness is “striver.” It is the nearest equivalent in Harlemese to nouveau riche. And a certain street in Harlem, where the swells reside, is locally known as “strivers’ row.”
17 July 1929, New York (NY) Amsterdam News, pg. 12 ad:
“AMERICA’S LEADING COLORED THEATRE”
Earl Dancer Presents His Newest Sensation
New York panorama;
A comprehensive view of the metropolis
By Federal Writers’ Project. New York (City)
New York, NY: Random House
The section on 138th and 139th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues is known locally as “Strivers’ Row,” because so many middle-class Negroes desire to live there; and “Sugar Hill,” on upper Edgecombe an St. Nicholas Avenues, possesses the newest and tallest apartment buildings in Harlem, as well as many fine priate homes.
I had no idea Sonny Rollin’s named his contrafact after Striver’s Row. Wow, that’s a pretty cool fact. Thanks for writing about that and including that in this article.