There is a wonderful and all-too short video of Faith Ringgold talking about Harlem’s Sugar Hill, and the many people who lived there on the New York Times website from 2010. This comes just above a map that shows building by building where some of the people I admire most once lived.
I wish I had found this earlier. I love hunting down the homes of people who have inspired me, because it always takes you into residential streets, among the everyday places of the city that as a tourist you never see. It also allows you a slightly different glimpse of the person themselves — after all, I believe places shape us just as we shape places. Of course, a lot has changed in Harlem since these incredible days. There is so much nostalgia not for segregation, but for these spaces that concentrated community in such a way. Look at all of the people who lived only a few blocks from each other.
We did, however, know to find 409 and 555 Edgecombe. But the best site I found (also post-visit), was from the NY architecture site from a report prepared by Elisa Urbanelli, Landmarks Consultant (excerpted here, there is another good history of sugar Hill found in the docs establishing Sugar Hill as a historic district, much of it reintegrated into the arguing documents to extend the Sugar Hill historic district to include Hamilton Heights).
The Ebony article characterized Sugar Hill society and the residents of 409 and 555 with the observation that “Harlem’s most talked-about men and women in law, sports, civil liberties, music, medicine, painting, business, and literature live on Sugar Hill.” Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. presented a portrait of the Hill’s residential grandeur in 1935:
On Sugar Hill…Harlem’s would-be ‘sassiety’ goes to town. ‘Midst panelled walls, parquet floors, electric refrigeration, colored tile baths, luxurious lobbies, elevators and doormen resplendent in uniforms, they cavort and disport themselves in what is called the best ofay manner.”
There were racketeers and gamblers who called the Hill home, living side by side with judges, scholars, and writers. In the 1940s Ebony reported that Sugar Hill incomes ranged from $3,000 to $7,000 per annum, most being within the upper half of wages in the United States, yet also estimated that one-quarter of Hill dwellers had to take in boarders and make other sacrifices in order to meet expenses. Rents in Harlem were generally high, but in Sugar Hill they were even higher. At 409, tenants paid from fifty to ninety-eight dollars per month, while at 555 Edgecombe, two-and-one-half rooms rented for sixty-six dollars and five rooms for eighty-seven dollars. As one observer commented, “…Harlem prices leave little for luxurious living. The main difference between those on Sugar Hill and those in the slums is the knowledge of where their next meal is coming form and, at night, a spaciousness which helps erase the memory of a Jim Crow day.”
There’s a link to http://www.hometoharlem.com/ at the end of this, but it connects to nothing. I honestly do not know why I didn’t become a landmarks consultant. Best. Job. Ever.
But to return to who actually lived here — I’ve pieced this together from multiple sources, which I find astonishing. There is also an absence of plaques or markers, though it was nice to see a number of streets named after the famous people who had lived on them.
363 Edgecombe is where Faith Ringgold herself lived — I was hoping to see her quilt at The Studio in Harlem, but much of it was closed in preparation for new exhibits. Still.
365 Edgecombe – Cecilia Hodges
375 Edgecombe – Roy Eaton
377 Edgecombe – Sonny Rollins
381 Edgecombe – Joe Lewis
409 Edgecombe: Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. Du Bois (Du Bois!), Aaron Douglas, William Stanley Braithwaite, Clarence Cameron White, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Jimmy Lunceford (conductor at the Cotton Club), Dr May Chinn.
I remember from Walter White’s autobiography that he shared a building with Du Bois, it’s actually hard to imagine the two of them and Roy Wilkins occasionally meeting in the lobby. Back to Elisa Urbanelli:
No. 409 Edgecombe was certainly the most prestigious of addresses on Sugar Hill in the 1930s and ’40s. Counted among the residents of this very special enclave were people of national and international significance. As one who grew up at 409, Arnold Braithwaite eloquently explains, “…nowhere in New York City, and perhaps the country, will you find any other apartment building, whose halls and suites echo with the ghosts, as it were, of distinguished men and women, many of international repute, who were forced to over come the obstacles of poverty, for most; of pernicious racism, for all.”
As Ebony stated in the mid-1940s, “legend, only slightly exaggerated, says bombing 409 would wipe out Negro leadership for the next 20 years.” Indeed, residents have included such notable African-American luminaries as scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois; former N.A.A.C.P. leader Walter White; White’s successor, Roy Wilkins; and Thurgood Marshall, who was then special counsel to the same esteemed organization and later became the first African-American Justice on the U.S.Supreme Court. They were joined by New York State Assemblyman William Andrews, Assistant Attorney General of New York State Harry G. Bragg, and Charles Toney, a municipal judge, as well as others who had crossed the racial barrier into the fields of politics and law. Residents involved in the arts included renowned poet, critic, and literary anthologist William Stanley Braithwaite; Aaron Douglas, the famed painter and illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance and head of the art department of Fisk University; Luckey Roberts and Jimmie Lunceford,, popular jazz musicians; actor and singer Jules Bledsoe; and classical composer Clarence Cameron White. Another long-time resident, prominent physician Dr. May Edward Chinn, had an office at the ground story and lived upstairs. (For more information about these and other tenants of 409, see the Appends.)
What it looks like now? Sadly with scaffolding — it felt like almost every building we hoped to see had scaffolding:
A view beyond to see how it sits on this street, looking down Edgecombe towards the more modest buildings (but still Sugar Hill):
An atmospheric view down the backside of this stretch of Edgecombe:
And from here you can see all the way (looking up, it must be said) to 555 Edgecombe.
A 2010 New York Times piece lists Paul Robeson Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Lena Horne.
It left off that list Zora Neale Hurston. Wikipedia notes Kenneth Clarke (who wrote an amazing study of Harlem) but forgets his wife Mamie who was equally brilliant, Andy Kirk and Canada Lee. Joe Louis lived here a while too, he, Basie and Robeson are noted in the AIA Guide to New York City. The Lonely Planet adds Billy Strayhorn.
One of the few old pictures I was able to find:
Here is Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train’ up to Sugar Hill (though we took the C)
The loveliest thing of all is that musician Marjorie Eliot opens her room up in the building, inviting people into her living room on Sundays for live jazz.
The saddest thing — that the National Park Service listing for this historic building only lists Robeson. Which is fucking crazy.
I did find one lovely site — While We Are Still Here — that is displaying information about 409 and 555 Edgcombe Ave.
While We Are Still Here (WWSH) ensures that the “post-gentrification” community of Harlem and beyond will honor and find a meaningful connection to the legacy of African American achievement, and its paramount importance to world culture.
What we didn’t see?
749 St Nicholas Ave — Ralph Ellison
773 St Nicholas Ave — C. Luckeyth (lucky) Roberts
But here’s the view down St Nicholas Ave:
Harlem though…Harlem is so much more than this of course. We Went to the Schomberg Library, I remember Ella Baker describing coming out of the subway here, staying in the Y.
Saw The Studio, saw the Apollo, walked past this:
Walked down some of these streets of the famous brownstones I have read so much about (how can I see these the same after reading Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones?)
Found 267 W 136th St, a rooming house where almost everyone from the Harlem Renaissance stayed: Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Bennett and others, and closely connected with Fire! magazine.
Nothing here either to note the brilliance these walls have contained.
We saw memories of Marcus Garvey:
A bit of East Harlem (SO not enough), memorialised in a Tito Puento street sign:
There is so much more we didn’t see here of course. So much left to see, I should say.