Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood is a stately enclave of 19th and 18th century houses. In the 1920’s they were the epicenter of the Harlem renaissance, but by the 70’s, the area had deteriorated. Much of Harlem has been gentrifying since then. Sarah Laing tells us about the growing interest in reviving what locals call Sugar Hill’s “sweet times.”
The Sugar Hill Inn is a Harlem Renaissance themed bed and breakfast at 141 and Amsterdam.
It’s owned by Irish transplant Jeremy Archer, who’s been restoring this century old mansion for seven years.
jangling keys, door open…
Like all the houses on this block, it was built to impress.The front door has scrolling wrought iron, and sits between dignified pillars. There’s a mosaic of a star of David in the foyer floor…an ornate fireplace, and wood panelled walls.
Archer says the house was a wreck when he bought it. But he adds the tourists who stay with him now are less nervous than they used to be.
For this he credits another neighbor – a former president.
When Clinton took his office there on 125th, that made a big difference. A lot of white people thought oh, maybe it’s okay to come to Harlem.
This was the hope of white speculators who bought land here in the early twentieth century,thinking the new subway would bring comfortable Jewish families uptown.
A stock market crash in 1907 changed that. The white buyers never materialized – and the development was suddenly within reach of well to do African Americans.
In 1944, author Langston Hughes wrote of Sugar Hill:
“Don’t take it for granted that all Harlem is a slum -
there are big apartment buildings on the hill…
nice high rent houses with elevators and doormen”.
Three years earlier, Sugar Hill got a name drop in Billy Strayhorn’s tune “Take the A Train”…
(fade up song, fade under)
Duke Ellington’s instrumental version made this song a classic, but the little known lyrics tell listeners to “go to Sugar Hill, way up in Harlem”.
At the top of that hill is the Morris Jumel mansion, the oldest house in Manhattan. Ellington called it the “jewel of Sugar Hill”.
(x-fade music to outside noise)
Rich Foster works at the Jumel mansion.
In the front garden he points at a grey stone house across the street. It belonged to singer Paul Robeson.
Foster says Robeson bought that house to overlook the mansion, where his freed slave ancestor was a baker for George Washington’s troops.
Before that, Robeson lived at 555 Edgecomb Avenue…
…also known as the triple nickel, which is famed for so many of the members of the Harlem Renaissance period
The list of famous residents includes band leader Count Basie, actress Lena Horn, director Canada Lee, the first female heart surgeon, and … Duke Ellington.
Author Theresa Mulligan’s family weren’t celebrities, but she did grow up two blocks down, at 369 Edgecombe.
Mulligan’s new memoir called Sugar Hill: Where the Sun Rose Over Harlem.
It’s a love letter to the neighborhood where she grew up in the 40’s and 50’s.
She says she’s wanted to write this book for almost forty years – ever since she left Harlem as a new bride to settle in Missouri …and met her incredulous new neighbors.
They said I was too nice, I didn’t act like I came from Harlem…this is me, I’m Harlem, and Harlem is as much a character in my life as the people who raised me, and it’s so misunderstood.
Mulligan knew the Harlem her neighbors were thinking about - a violent place cut down by poverty and racial strife. She says many of her contemporaries did get caught up in drugs later.
But she says Sugar Hill used to have a different atmosphere - even in the way people dressed up to sit in the park after dinner.
There was a certain decorum. Nobody would sit on a fire escape, or even look out the window – my grandmother was an exception, but she kept inside the window because she was watching me. The women didn’t sit on the bench – a woman on Sugar Hill did not hang out.
Sugar Hill did feel pressure from the world outside.When Mulligan was in tenth grade, a girl named Minnijean Brown arrived quietly at her progressive private school.
Brown was one of the Little Rock Nine - black students who’d unsuccessfully tried to attend a white high school in the segregated South.
Mulligan was stunned.
I thought we were rich. Our elders shielded us a lot from what had happened in their life. I knew from television what was happening in the South, I could drive through Harlem on the bus and see how lucky we were, and see how quote unquote rich we were.
The tour buses that visit Sugar Hill today would have been unthinkable when Mulligan was a child.
But then, it didn’t seem possible that Harlem would be as diverse as it is now. She thinks that has the potential to make Sugar Hill rich in a whole new way.
Sarah Laing, Columbia Radio News.