The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone is one of nine empowerment zones established by the Clinton Administration in 1994 to revitalize distressed communities by using public funds and tax incentives as catalysts for private investment. The borders of the empowerment zone in Upper Manhattan were created to assist the residents that had the highest concentration of poverty as indicated by the 1990 Census.

Our initial 10-year designation was accompanied by a federal grant of $100 million. In a collaborative effort unique in the nation, the governor of New York State and the mayor of the City of New York each matched the federal funding commitment, creating a total investment pool of $300 million. Of that pool, $50 million was designated for the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, leaving $250 million for investment in Upper Manhattan.

The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation (UMEZ) began operations on February 14, 1995, and made its first round of grants and loans in October 1996. In the years since, UMEZ has invested nearly $238 million in the neighborhoods north of 98th Street, catalyzing an impressive reinvestment initiative in urban America and revitalizing Harlem, East Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood. UMEZ has leveraged over $1.1 billion in investments and allocated $57 million in bonds.

Under the leadership of Kenneth J. Knuckles over the past decade, UMEZ has focused on workforce development programs aligned directly with employment opportunities, support for cultural programs and organizational development.

In 2004, UMEZ consolidated its nonprofit investments to focus on the arts, in order to leverage the strengths of Upper Manhattan's cultural organizations and artistic leadership. UMEZ recognized that this significant gathering of arts organizations, representing multiple art forms, traditions, and aesthetics, held a natural appeal for a wider public and conserve as a powerful economic driver.  These cultural investments have resulted in significant job creation, expanded tourism, and increased  economic activity, while strengthening the organizations' capacity to nurture new cultural legacies.