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Davida Siwisa James on the Legacy of Harlem’s Iconic Neighborhoods

23rd January 2024

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Praised by Herb Boyd for bringing “a lively descriptive narrative to this timeless section of Harlem,” Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill: Alexander Hamilton’s Old Harlem Neighborhood Through the Centuries is coming in April. Author Davida Siwisa James talked with the blog.


Q: Let’s start with some coordinates. Where are Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill?

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DSJ: Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill are in the elevated part of West Harlem, adjacent to Washington Heights. The historically recognized boundaries are approximately 135th Street and Edgecombe/St. Nicholas avenues to about 165th Street stretching from the Harlem to the Hudson River. They are both named heights and hill because they rank as some of the higher elevations in Manhattan.

Historically, its neighboring Washington Heights began across Broadway somewhere in the 160s. Now, there are people who incorrectly identify the West Harlem neighborhoods ending at 155th Street, as far south as Edgecombe and St. Nicholas. They say that is the start of Washington Heights. According to the New York City Archives Office, the City of New York does not have official designations as to where neighborhoods begin and end. But with that erroneous 155th Street parameter, more of Harlem’s centuries-old historic boundaries are chipped away at by simply quoting the new borders as fact. Duke Ellington famously said that the Morris-Jumel Mansion at 162nd Street off Edgecombe was the “jewel in the crown of Sugar Hill.” That’s a great affirmation of what the neighborhood has meant to its residents.

Q: I’m hearing Hamilton and thinking of the Founding Father. What’s Alexander Hamilton’s relationship to the neighborhood?                   

DSJ: Hamilton has several connections to the neighborhood. At the start of the American Revolution, he was part of Washington’s advisors that headquartered at the Roger Morris Mansion in 1776 after winning the Battle of Harlem Heights. After the Revolutionary War, Hamilton and his family sometimes vacationed in Harlem Heights, the future Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill. Hamilton had friends with estates there, like Dr. Samuel Bradhurst and Jacob Schieffelin, who created Manhattanville in another section of Harlem. Hamilton loved the area’s hilly vistas full of flowers, streams, and wildlife. In 1799 he purchased approximately 35 acres from Schieffelin and Bradhurst.

He built his country estate, which was completed in 1802, and named it the Grange after his father’s ancestral home in Scotland. His widow Eliza and their children remained in the home for another thirty years after he was killed in the 1804 duel. In the 1930s, the neighborhood started being called Hamilton Heights. The house was moved twice, once by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in 1889 to use as a temporary sanctuary. The second move was in 2008, when it was relocated to St. Nicholas Park, the outer edge of Hamilton’s original property. The Grange stands to this day as both a national landmark and a lasting tribute to Alexander Hamilton.

Q: Hamilton’s not alone in having called Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill home—you note connections to George Washington, Thurgood Marshall, John James Audubon, Duke Ellington, and many other notables. Why do you think these neighborhoods have attracted such an eclectic range of important figures?

DSJ: Harlem, particularly West Harlem, had been a favorite rural getaway of the wealthy from downtown Manhattan from the seventeenth century. Of course, Harlem was mostly white then until the start of the Great Migration in the early twentieth century. The hilly elevation allowed for spectacular views, the air was cleaner, and it provided a country way of life. Downtown—which was called New York City—became densely populated, and its buildings were taller and closer together. Many of the old-guard wealthy people like the Grinnells, Schieffelins, and James A. Bailey built large estates there. And because Manhattan narrows in Hamilton Heights, as does the Wall Street area, one can easily walk between the two rivers.

When African Americans began to integrate the heights in the 1920s, they moved into these beautiful buildings erected during the building boom from the late 1880s to the early 1900s. Harlem was growing into the Black Mecca. Because Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill’s architecture was so stunning and the area more expensive, it became the elite neighborhood where professional people of means and entertainers aspired to live. From there, people of a like mind just started calling the neighborhood home and this community of entertainers, Civil Rights leaders, doctors, and lawyers blossomed.

Q: You write: “The history of a city, and even a particular neighborhood, is not fixed on a straight line. It is an ever-changing flow of alliances, stories, conquests, defeats, and the brave and cowardly deeds of major and minor players.” How does the deep history of these neighborhoods, stretching back to the era of colonial conquests and Native displacement, shape it today?                                

DSJ: Some of this neighborhood’s aura is shaped by people like William De Forest, a direct descendent of one of the earliest Dutch colonists. He helped to define the original architectural character of Hamilton Heights during he 1880s building boom. Another of his family members, Robert W. De Forest, was the fifth director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The expanded roads that helped colonists navigate the island and develop it were first Native American paths that stretched across Manhattan, like the Wickquasgeck Trail. It later became St. Nicholas Avenue and Broadway. Evan T. Pritchard wrote in his book about the Indigenous people, Native New Yorkers, that “Wherever you live, you owe it to yourself to know the history of the land you live in and who lived there before.”

Not every neighborhood is going to make you stop and feel there is something magical about it. Others do, like this one. It has always made me pause and wonder about its growth, even as a teenager over fifty years ago. My research for the book only intensified my love for it, as I hope the book will do for others. I go back to some of Pritchard’s thoughts when he said, “The spirit of the people before you is still there in some sense, so it is appropriate and necessary to do a spiritual and moral ‘title search’ wherever you live.”

Q: Nightlife is a significant element in Harlem’s history. What has been distinctive about the music scene in Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill?                             

DSJ: One of the most distinctive things about the music scene in Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill was that for decades it was a vibrant and thriving “jazz pub crawl” in these tiny little clubs. Its patrons were largely local residents, jazz aficionados, but also stage and film stars. There were incredibly talented musicians yet to become famous. But Sugar Hill’s clubs never achieved the same attention as the famed ones in Central Harlem, like the Cotton Club, the Savoy, and Minton’s. People in the know were aware that this was a happening scene where riveting music was being made. St. Nick’s Pub, the Mark IV, Branker’s Lounge, and the Shalimar were just a few.

Among the regulars were Kenny Burrell, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, and Patience Higgins, a longtime Ellington band member. And then there were the private salons where many accomplished musicians sang and performed in people’s homes. NAACP leader Walter White could brag that George Gershwin played “Rhapsody in Blue” for a small gathering in his home shortly after he completed it or that Paul Robeson sang a tune. That vibe lives on in Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Jazz, where, for 30 years, this wonderful woman has held a free jazz soiree in her home on Sunday afternoons.

Q: The built environment, too, is a central part of your narrative. What do Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill look like?                 

DSJ: Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill became historic landmark neighborhoods largely because of the unique architectural characteristics that gave them a charming semi-suburban ambience on many streets. Most of the two and three-story townhouses and brownstones, built in the late 1880s and early 1900s, are set fifteen feet from the curb, and many have a flower garden and shrubbery or trees in front. Some houses have unique designs and carvings on the exteriors, and the interiors are often combined with working fireplaces and ornately carved mahogany features. There is a combination of delightful row houses in Flemish Revival, neo-Tudor, and Romanesque Revival styles. The round tower and conical cap that graces many private homes and rowhouses give one this medieval feel. It’s also unique in that you have a combination of mansions, brownstones, and apartment buildings with stunning river views.

Parts of it look like any other neighborhood in the city—with mixed-use apartment buildings, shops, clubs, and restaurants. Then you turn a corner, and there’s the Romanesque 8,200 square-foot James Bailey Mansion built in 1883 with its turrets, stained glass, and towers that feel like a mirage in its elegance. Walk a dozen blocks west and you come to the 1765 Morris-Jumel Mansion, where George Washington headquartered. That’s all pretty special.

Q. Like much of New York, Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill underwent gentrification beginning in the 1980s. What do you see as the wider lessons about urban change that can be taken away from the story of gentrification in the neighborhoods you study?

DSJ: Gentrification is a mixed phenomenon. It invariably displaces those who have lived in a neighborhood for generations and have developed their own cultural rituals. Yes, it brings improved infrastructure, more policing, safer streets, and big-name stores. But residents rightfully ask why the neighborhoods could not have been improved before gentrification. Quite often, there is a lack of respect from the new residents or investors for the people and places that came before. If there is a lesson to be learned, it might be to be more tolerant. There is also the notion that one could support the existing businesses, rather than immediately pushing to replace them.

Q: Can you say something about your own relationship to Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill? What inspired you to write the book?             

DSJ: I lived on Convent Avenue in Hamilton Heights as a young woman in the late 1960s through 1976. My father had moved us there from Morningside Heights, where we lived when I was a child. Dad had an apartment first at the landmark 555 Edgecombe Avenue, then Convent. There was this understated grandeur to the neighborhood. I loved to walk the avenues, over to City College, then to the Hudson River, down Riverside Drive, and back. There were elegant apartments with working fireplaces and hardwood floors and these mansions with old-world charm.

I was compelled to write the book because, living in L.A. and the Caribbean, I was stunned at people’s negative reactions when I said I used to live in Harlem. I could not convince them that Harlem had well-kept neighborhoods with tree-lined streets, stately brownstones, mansions, and the Gothic spires of City College. There were terrible stereotypes that I hoped to dispel. I often mentioned that I lived in Hamilton Heights in Harlem. But after Miranda’s wonderful play came out, people thought I was making it up. They could not conceive of a Harlem that had been a rural haven where Alexander Hamilton chose to build his home.

Davida Official Headshot 2

Davida Siwisa James was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a child, she lived alternately in her hometown and in the Morningside Heights section of Harlem in Manhattan. As an adult, she lived in Sugar Hill in West Harlem, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Los Angeles, California. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California, Los Angeles, and attended Penn State Dickinson Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her works include the memoir The South Africa of His Heart; Senior Services for the Financially Challenged; and Life in Brief: A Collection of Short Stories, Essays, and Poems. She lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband, Robelto. Her son, David Hudson Obayuwana, is a screenwriter.

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