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Is Harlem Safe? | Travel Tips & Safety Concerns

Is Harlem Safe? | Travel Tips & Safety Concerns

New York City is a dream vacation destination for millions of people. World-class cultural amenities, entertainment options, and iconic landmarks are just a few reasons over 66 million people visit the Big Apple annually. 

Amongst New York City’s famous historic attractions is Harlem, an uptown Manhattan neighborhood renowned for its literary, musical, and theatrical contributions to American culture.

Harlem broadly refers to the area between the East River, Hudson River, 155th Street, and 96th Street east of Fifth Avenue, 110th Street between Fifth Avenue to Morningside Park, and 125th Street west of Morningside Park to the Hudson River.

Aside from the Bronx (Harlem’s neighboring borough), Harlem contains some of the final holdouts against gentrification. Harlem’s diverse food culture, renaissance history, and live music scene are draws for tourists who want to experience “authentic” New York. 

Historically a dangerous neighborhood, Harlem has seen a steep decline in crime over the last decade.

Harlem’s recovery from decades of violence began in the 80s when pressure from the community forced government officials to address the issues plaguing the community. Harlem has been on the up-and-up ever since. 

Today, Harlem offers tourists authentic Spanish and African American food options, easy access to Central Park, and a chance to experience literary history at poet Langston Hughes’s former residence.

Harlem’s growing popularity as a tourist destination has contributed to an overall decrease in crime, but the neighborhood’s impressive improvements in crime may be over.

In 2022, crime in Harlem increased by 44%. Harlem’s 2022 crime statistics are far below historical averages but indicate that the area is becoming increasingly unsafe.

Is Harlem Safe to Visit?

Row of Brownstones in New York for a piece titled Is Harlem Safe to Visit

MisterStock/Shutterstock

Yes, Harlem is safe to visit. Decades of urban renewal programs and community involvement have effectively erased Harlem’s reputation as a war zone, but have failed to make the neighborhood as safe as other communities in Queens.

And recent police data suggests Harlem may be slipping back into a vicious cycle of crime. Crime rates remain below historic highs but are a rising concern for many residents.

Tourists visiting Harlem should be aware of the rapidly evolving crime situation but understand that most egregious crimes occur between residents with personal conflicts. Still, tourists are at an increased risk of experiencing crime when visiting Harlem.

Tourists visiting Harlem are most at risk of experiencing some form of theft. Tourists may experience anything from robbery to grand larceny when visiting Harlem but are statistically the most likely to experience petit larceny (petty theft). 

Intimidation and verbal assault also affect tourists visiting Harlem. New Yorkers have a reputation for being rude, aggressive people, and while this stereotype is false, tourists often invite confrontation with locals because of their lack of social awareness.

Many residents spurn the fact that Harlem — once a neglected urban community — is now a tourism hotspot. Animosity about the shifting demographics of Harlem underlies many interactions between foreigners and locals.

Tourists unaware or unsympathetic of the plight of residents are more susceptible to harassment than others. Even so, altercations between locals and visitors rarely escalate to the point of crime.

Altercations are more likely to escalate on Harlem’s east side. Colloquially referred to as Spanish Harlem, East Harlem experiences more gang and drug activity than West or Central Harlem. As with any urban neighborhood, pockets of crime exist across greater Harlem. 

When asking if Harlem is safe, the real question is, compared to what? When compared to the South Bronx and East New York, Harlem is very safe.

Similarly, Harlem is very unsafe when compared to suburbs like Forest Hills and Rego Park. In the context of Manhattan, Harlem falls somewhere in the middle between safe and unsafe.

When visiting Harlem, the best way to ensure your safety is to, as most Harlem residents put it, “mind your own business.”

Crime in Harlem

The most common crime in Harlem is petit larceny. In 2022, across the greater Harlem area, petit larceny increased by 41%. Of Harlem’s three areas, West Harlem experienced the highest increase in petit larceny.

Somewhat surprisingly, Central Harlem experienced a decrease in petit larceny, roughly 5%. Other common forms of theft in Harlem are robbery, burglary, grand larceny, and auto larceny.

On average, all forms of criminal theft increased in Harlem in 2021 and are still rising in 2022. Aside from property crime, tourists visiting Harlem may experience misdemeanor assault.

According to New York City law, misdemeanor assault is the intention to physically harm someone. Depending on the situation, misdemeanor assault may include verbal assault, intimidation, or physical assault.

So far this year, 718 misdemeanor assaults have been reported in Harlem. This cumulative statistic is greater than the number of misdemeanor assaults recorded in 2021 and will increase as the year continues.

The most effective way to avoid theft in Harlem is to remain aware of your surroundings. This means paying attention to an area’s atmosphere, as well as its general reputation.

Crime doesn’t occur within strict boundaries. In most cases, trusting your gut will serve you better than arbitrarily avoiding the streets associated with rough neighborhoods.

Other tips for avoiding theft while visiting Harlem include storing your valuables in your accommodation before venturing onto the street and securing valuables to your person with a strap or chain. 

In the event that you have a car with you while visiting Harlem, remove the keys from the ignition while the car is not in use. Remember to lock your vehicle no matter how briefly you will be away from your car. 

Tourists can avoid most instances of misdemeanor assault by avoiding nighttime travel. When nighttime travel is necessary, tourists should never travel through parks. 

In the greater Harlem area, East Harlem experiences the most violent crime. The boundaries of East Harlem are 124th Street, 126th Street, Broadway, and Second Avenue.

Tourists should avoid this area if possible and should never travel through this area at night. The NYPD has compiled a list of resources to help visitors and residents stay safe while in NYC. Tourists are encouraged to browse these resources before visiting Harlem.

The boundaries of Harlem fluctuate according to who you ask. Even official borders, set by the NYC government, are somewhat fluid depending on which agency maps are referenced.

Because of the fluidity of Harlem’s boundaries, this article uses NYPD CompStat 2.0 program to calculate average crime rates across the precincts that police the greater Harlem area.

Avoiding Bad Neighborhoods

East/Spanish Harlem, one of the worst areas in Harlem

KazT/Shutterstock

The most dangerous area of Harlem is East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem. East Harlem’s average crime rate is 94% higher than the national average, with a violent crime rate 317% higher than the national average. 

The most common crimes in East Harlem are petty theft and assault. To a lesser extent, sex offenses are also a concern. Women should exercise extra caution in East Harlem. 

The boundaries of East Harlem are 96th Street to the south, Fifth Avenue to the west, and the East and Harlem Rivers to the east and north. There are few tourist attractions in East Harlem aside from Spanish restaurants.

To sample the cuisine in Spanish Harlem safely, consider visiting the area during the day with a group of friends. Locals agree that areas around public housing tend to be more dangerous.

Tourists have no reason to visit the public housing projects but may encounter them as they explore Harlem. Most projects tend to be red brick highrises surrounded by waist-high black fences. Tourists should never walk through public housing complexes.

Other areas locals avoid are 151–155th Street and 8th Avenue, 141–144th Street and 8th Avenue, 137–145th Street and Lenox Avenue, and 140–151st Street and 7th Avenue.

The NYC Crime Map offers current data about the location and frequency of crime. Tourists visiting Harlem should cross-reference their accommodations and itinerary with this map before planning a trip to limit their exposure to crime.

Those familiar with NYC may know that the city is built on a grid. Because of the grid layout, safe areas quickly transition into dangerous areas with little more than a street crossing.

As part of the grid system, Harlem experiences fluid boundaries between safe and unsafe areas, so always pay attention to how people on the street react to your presence. 

Navigation Tip

Navigating New York can be difficult for tourists. If you find yourself lost, listen to the languages spoken on the street. East Harlem is a predominantly Spanish neighborhood, so if you hear more Spanish than English, you’ve likely wandered into East Harlem and should act accordingly.

Things to Consider

NYC in West Harlem featuring a photo of the Fairway Market

NEW YORK, USA – MAY 10, 2019: Fairway Market in West Harlem (2328 12th Ave)/Popova Valeriya/Shutterstock

Here are some do’s and don’ts that will help tourists blend in when visiting Harlem.

Do:

  • Practice common courtesies such as “hello”, and “thank you”. You don’t have to greet everyone you cross paths with, but you should acknowledge those you make eye contact with or interact with in shops and restaurants.
  • Understand that long-time residents resent gentrification, and tourism is an extension of gentrification. When possible, patronize local establishments over chains.
  • Enjoy the parks near Harlem during the day rather than at night.

Don’t:

  • Use subways after dark. Unless you are familiar with the subway system, you should opt for rideshares or cabs at night.
  • Travel alone at night. It is always better to travel with at least one other person.
  • Stare or otherwise exhibit absentminded behavior. Not only will you stick out, unduly exposing yourself to opportunistic criminals, but you’ll also risk offending the locals.
  • Engage with strangers. Most New Yorkers are too put out by tourists to engage with them of their own free will. Be wary of anyone offering free advice or commodities. It’s likely a scam.

Frequently Asked Questions

People walking on the streets on a rainy day for a piece on Is Harlem Safe to Visit

NEW YORK CITY – DECEMBER 2018: Harlem streets on a rainy day with people and traffic. Slow motion/GagliardiPhotography/Shutterstock

Below are some additional questions tourists ask when considering a trip to Harlem.

Is it safe to walk around Harlem?

It is safe to walk around Harlem during the day. Walking around Harlem at night is also ok, but safety risks do increase the later it gets. Exploring Harlem during the evening and nighttime hours is unadvisable. 

Unless you have a destination in mind, avoid traveling at night. As a general rule of thumb, the farther east you walk, the more dangerous Harlem becomes. Remember that in Manhattan, streets run east to west, and avenues run north to south.

How dangerous is Harlem?

Harlem presents a medium-low risk to tourists. Central and West Harlem are generally considered safe. Crime is increasing in Harlem, but most crimes involve residents with personal disputes. By the numbers, Harlem is a moderately dangerous neighborhood, and tourists should exercise caution when visiting.

Is it safe to stay in Harlem?

It is safe to stay in Harlem. It’s unlikely that tourists will spend all of their NYC trip in Harlem, but economical prices and plenty to do within the neighborhood make it a good home base for exploring Manhattan.

Tourists are safe to stay in Harlem, whether it be a rental share or a traditional hotel. When booking accommodations, prioritize Central or West Harlem over East Harlem.

What part of Harlem is safest?

According to current crime data, Central Harlem is the safest part of Harlem. West Harlem is generally considered safe but has recently experienced an uptick in property crime. 

Generally speaking, areas near public housing tend to be more unsafe than areas populated by privately owned homes. The further toward the East River you travel, the more dangerous Harlem becomes.

Is 125th Street in Harlem safe?

125th Street is not necessarily safe. 125th Street is home to famous Harlem attractions like the Apollo theater, so brazen crime is not typical. However, at night, the situation changes. 

125th Street consistently ranks among the most dangerous streets in New York City. Tourists visiting Harlem should avoid 125th Street between Second and Fifth Avenues.

Is Central Harlem safe?

Central Harlem is currently the safest portion of Harlem. While the area has lower crime rates than East and West Harlem, the area is home to many long-term residents that vehemently oppose displacement caused by gentrification. 

Many residents consider tourism an extension of gentrification, so while the area is safe on paper, Central Harlem can feel tense. Tourists can minimize tension with locals by being friendly, accommodating, and patronizing local businesses.

 Locals are happy to share their rich culture with genuinely interested visitors, but tourists who exhibit a blatant disregard for the native population will likely experience rough treatment.

How safe is West Harlem?

West Harlem is safer than many other sections of Manhattan, including the Lower East Side and Midtown. Crime does exist in West Harlem, particularly violent crime, so avoid traveling alone or at night.

So, Is Harlem Safe to Visit?

So, is Harlem safe? Harlem is a culturally rich and diverse neighborhood with numerous amenities for tourists. It has historically been considered an unsafe neighborhood, but community involvement and government investment have increased neighborhood safety dramatically. 

Overall, tourists visiting Harlem are at a medium-low risk of experiencing crime.

To reduce the chance of becoming a victim of a crime, you should avoid East Harlem. Be polite, use good judgement, and be aware of your surroundings, and you’ll reduce the chance of having an unpleasant experience. Happy travels!