History of Harlem Children’s Zone

Ours is a story of relentless evolution in the name of a revolution — to innovate a series of place-based, cradle-to-career services designed to systematically break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

The Harlem Children’s Zone project began as a one-block pilot in the 1990s. Today, it is a world-renown organization serving tens of thousands of children and families across 97 blocks in Central Harlem. It is as a model for place-based organizations across the country to help their communities achieve life-changing social and economic mobility.

Keep scrolling to discover the history of Harlem Children’s Zone.

Black-and-white photo of Harlem’s first Block Party

Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families hosted a block party on 119th Street, part of the organization’s early community-building efforts, in the early 1990s.


Early History — 1970 to Mid-1990s

The history of Harlem Children’s Zone begin in 1970. That year, Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families opened its doors as New York City’s first truancy prevention program.

In 1991, Rheedlen Centers opened its first beacon center at PS 194 Countee Cullen, a space offering high-quality programming and a safe destination for local children and families to come together.

By the mid 1990s, the HCZ project began in earnest. As the next major step toward realizing the vision of HCZ Founder and President Geoffrey Canada, Rheedlen Centers officially launched as HCZ — a one-block pilot that provided comprehensive, critical support to children and families residing within that area.

 

Harlem Children’s Zone headquarters in the evening, time-lapsed

The building now known as Geoffrey Canada Community Center, home of Promise Academy II, opened at 35 East 125th Street in 2004.


Middle History – 2000 to 2010

Building on the success of this early initiative, HCZ launched a 10-year strategic plan. From one block, HCZ committed to steadily and systematically expand its programs and services from 24 blocks to 60 blocks, and ultimately, to 97 blocks.

In 2004 and 2005, HCZ marked a major milestone with the opening of Promise Academy Charter Schools.

In 2010, HCZ officially completed its expansion to 97 blocks, fulfilling the goal laid out in its 10-year strategic plan.

 


Later History – 2010 to Present

More than 20 years after HCZ launched its strategic plan, the organization is fulfilling Geoffrey Canada’s vision in Central Harlem. Having once served several hundred families in one New York City block, HCZ now serves tens of thousands of children and adults — and counting — across 97 blocks.

Now, HCZ is endeavoring to fulfill the next phase of its vision: to help vulnerable communities not only in Central Harlem, but across the country and the world. To that end, HCZ launched several National Leadership initiatives to scale the organization’s impact.

A woman from the Harlem Children's Zone community picks up food as part of HCZ's COVID Relief and Recovery

During the COVID-19 pandemic, HCZ provided emergency food to residents of Central Harlem.


Those efforts positioned HCZ to confront the greatest crisis of our generation: COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, HCZ acted quickly and at scale. Fueled by a catalytic investment from The Audacious Project, and as the first initiative of William Julius Wilson Institute, HCZ partnered with six cities across the country and three national organizations to implement its National COVID Relief and Recovery Effort.

Looking back on the last 50 years of the history of Harlem Children’s Zone, we are proud of our evolution, and we look forward to creating a bright future for our scholars, families, and communities for generations to come.