“Perched on the highest elevation in Manhattan, the neighborhood feels like a slice of Colonial Williamsburg airlifted into the city… The mansion’s tree-shaded grounds offer sweeping vistas across the Harlem River to Yankee Stadium and down to the spires of Midtown, glittering like Oz in the distance.”
New York Times writer, John Strausbaugh goes on to call our neighborhood a “complete pocket of almost startling gentility between uppermost Harlem and Washington Heights.” When I first visited from the Midwest to New York in 1973, I came uptown on a pilgrimage looking for and not finding Sugar Hill. I took the A train to 145th St., walked St. Nicholas Avenue, found Ralph Ellison’s address, had a drink in St. Nick’s Pub, crossed the line (155th St.), checked out Duke Ellington’s apartment building, got the creeps walking the drug addled streets and left before I found the Audubon Ballroom, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, 555 Edgecombe, or saw anything that lived up to my vanity of the place.
Which was only a block or two beyond what I now knew. St. Nick’s was gritty, not pretty. What I wanted to see was the where of the jazz aristocracy I’d immersed myself in as a dilettante teen. Not that I knew shit. I was nineteen and so new to the city that I couldn’t tell north from south when I’d come up out of the subway. I’d never been Uptown before.
The tenement blocks were out of Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets. You couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a junkie, there was livestock (goats) living in vacant lots and poultry (chickens & ducks) living on fire escapes, the score was in Spanglish and the Boogaloo I fell for came out of every speaker. Had I consulted an architectural guide rather than LP liner notes and pulp novels, I’d have found my hypothetic quotient of the Renaissance on Convent Avenue and the quazi-mystical fulfillment of Warren Miller’s Cool World in the environs of Harlem Height’s Morris–Jumel Mansion, that Ellington dubbed “The Crown of Sugar Hill.”
The grandiose Neo-Palladian manor is the oldest residence in Manhattan (1764) and was headquarters for George Washington during the 1776 Battle of Harlem Heights, his first and only military victory, considered by many the psychological turning point of the American Revolution against British Colonialism. For visitors, the presences of the founding fathers – Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Henry Knox (the bookseller), Alexander Hamilton, and (my man) Aaron Burr – in the Mansion are nearly overwhelmed by that of Madame Jumel, who haunts it.
Born in a mixed race brothel in Providence, Rhode Island in 1775, her mother’s Madame a free black woman, white girl Eliza Bowen was raised in what we in Harlem call The Life. Had Daniel Defoe wholly set Moll Flanders in the New World he might have titled it Eliza Jumel. While less competent hands than Defoe’s have embraced the popular history she’s inspired – Harlequin-style grand horizontal romances involving several of the founding fathers and a good deal of bodice ripping – her Whoracio Alger story tells us as much of the place of women in Revolutionary America as Gone With the Wind does of the Civil War. Her home is the crossroads where the Founding Fathers meet the Founding Brothers – W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, Malcolm X – and conjure the uniquely African American culture that made Harlem the Capital of the Black World in the 20th Century.
Approaching the Morris-Jumel Mansion, visitors pass houses and apartment buildings that were once homes to Carl Van Vechten, Billy Strayhorn, Lena Horne, Madame Sinclaire, Ralph Ellison, Ethel Waters, and Marion Anderson. The Mansion itself looks at 555 Edgecombe Avenue, an Afro-American landmark. One of Robeson’s two addresses adjacent Washington’s headquarters, the “Triple Nickel,” was also home to entertainment legends Count Basie, Joe Louis, Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman, Russell Procope, Johnny Hodges, Lena Horne, Canada Lee, Erskine Hawkins, Andy Kirk, and Charles Buchanan – owner of the Savoy – and intellectuals like Dr. Kenneth Clark, Thurgood Marshall and Charles Alston. Perched on Cogan’s Bluff, it overlooks what was once the Polo Grounds, where baseball started, and Yankee Stadium, where most season’s still end up. For over 16 years every Sunday afternoon, from 4 to 6, you can step upstairs into Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Jazz, Apt. 3F, back in time and in style. Ms. Eliot’s buffet-flat soirée’s swing Sugar Hill’s picture perfect past into the still jazz age present. Donations, welcome.
Equally prestigious, 409 Edgecombe attracted so many members of the nation’s black elite that in 1947 Ebony commented “that legend, only slightly exaggerated, says bombing 409 would wipe out Negro leadership for the next 20 years.” As residence to DuBois, Walter White, Ralph Bunche, and Roy Wilkins it is sometimes called “The Negro White House” & “Home of the NAACP.” Among its prestigious occupants have been William Stanley Brathwaite, Aaron Douglas, Dr. May Edward Chinn, Madame Stephanie St. Clair, Julius Bledsoe and Babe Ruth.
A considerable literature signifying Harlem’s Renaissance, and pointing to its Enlightenment, is nourished here. Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Richard Bruce Nugent, Dorothy West, and Carl Van Vechten all contributed to Sugar Hill ‘s reputation for eloquence, perpetuated by Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes and Larry Neal. Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and James Van der Zee made its streets and people represent the Black capital of the world. Its jazz became the soundtrack of American cities at night.
Recently closed for trafficking in dime bags of herb, St. Nick’s Pub, at 147th and St. Nicholas Avenue, has been a jazz bar since 1942, when George Gershwin’s (520 West 144th St) piano teacher, Luckeith Roberts (“Moonlight Cocktail”) opened Luckey’s Rendezvous in the same location. Reliable authority Willie “The Lion” Smith’s memoir credits Luckey with mentoring not only Gershwin (over 400 lessons) but stride masters James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Leslie Hutchinson, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Locals Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, and Ben Webster were all known for accompanying them and setting their seductive tones to Ethel Walters’s, Lena Horne’s and Billy Holiday’s glamorous torch. All are known to have played the club.
After a decade as The Pink Angel, a piano bar featuring transvesticle chanteuses catering to the neighborhood’s effete elite, and another decade as Duke’s - hard bop’s haven, as St. Nick’s Pub there’s been jazz and cocktails seven nights a week, no cover, no minimum, straight up, no chaser, down the same couple of steps for 65 years. Much missed and, come the revolution, likely to reopen.
Still, “Sugar Hill” has retained its landmark status as “Harlem’s smartest residential area” and its reputation as the intellectual and artistic home of Black America for a century. Locally, it means not so much a neighborhood as certain addresses in the Jumel and Hamilton Heights historic districts synonymous with a degree of sophistication. Hamilton Terrace, abutting Alexander Hamilton’s residence, and Convent Avenue, running through the City College campus, represent some of the finest residential architecture in New York City.
The James Bailey Mansion, the monumental Victorian folly at 150th and St. Nicholas Place, may well be the most spectacular residence in New York City. The neighborhood is home to cultural institutions like The Harlem School of the Arts, The Classical Theatre and Dance Theater of Harlem. George Nelson Preston’s The Museum of Art and Origins on 162 and Jumel Terrace and The Hispanic Society, on Audubon Terrace at 156th and Broadway are perpetually being rediscovered as the neighborhood’s “hidden treasures,” for most New Yorkers being too provincial to cross 110th Street.
If the majority of the addresses and residents Uptown don’t qualify as Sugar Hill they are as much our history as the accomplished. In the 1990’s, Harlem’s Heights was still 1950s Down These Mean Streets ghetto classic. Three blocks away from the gentile Jumel Terrace Historic District, 158th and Amsterdam had the dubious reputation of being the geographic center of murder in the United States and one of the three highest density drug trafficking neighborhoods in the world in the mid-’90s. On the four blocks of 160th running from river to river there were nine major drug spots, cinematic open fire hydrants, gang rule and police imposed curfews protecting the vested interests exposed by the Iran/Contra scandal.
All that has changed and is over. The mark up on Manhattan real estate seems to have exceeded the mark up on narcotics but the battle for turf remains the same. Whether Uptown goes the way of Downtown remains to be seen. Thus far we’ve been spared the gentrification that’s malled-up Lower Manhattan. It’s like living in ‘70s NYC except the streets are safe. But for whom? As a local wit had it, “For everyone but black people.”
Will Columbia University’s incursion into the neighborhood change Harlem’s duo status as cultural capital and ghetto the way New York University changed Greenwich Village from an artist’s quarter into a shopping center? Will south of 125th Street go grey? The recession has accelerated the pace, inflation pricing both the urban poor and middle class out of Manhattan. Every time the price of oil goes up, real estate on public transportation will go up. Will the Lenox Lounge follow St. Nick’s Pub in closing? Now that the new Yankee Stadium has gone up will Donald Trump, who owns the Polo Houses where baseball was born here on the Harlem River, tear them down and put up some more gold gilt glass?
The hope is for Harlem to turn more, not less, than itself by seizing, not ceding, the means of its culture’s production. In this BOOKS ARE WEAPONS.
WATCH THIS SPACE.