I Live in Harlem... I Think

By Minnette Coleman


September 10, 2007 marked the 75th Anniversary of the A train. I recalled a passage from the Billy Strayhorn biography1 about the origins of the song that would soon become a subway anthem. Most people think Duke Ellington wrote the song but Strayhorn actually composed the catchy tune from instructions the Duke gave him to find the “quickest way to Harlem.” The first time I came to New York on my own, I just knew the A train would take me anywhere in Harlem I wanted to go. I soon found out that Harlem is a big place and not every New York resident is sure where it begins and ends.

Because I am from the south, my initial understanding of the boundaries of Harlem came from a movie, Barry Shear’s 1972 film Across 110th Street. [2] The title gave the code that every New Yorker at one time understood: anything north of 110th Street was considered Harlem. Once I had moved to the Big Apple, I wondered why the A train didn’t stop at 110th Street. In another movie, Brother from Another Planet [3] (John Sayles, 1984), the silent brown skinned alien sits on the A train while a brother, from this planet, tells him that he knows how to make all the white people disappear. The for once ungarbled voice comes over the intercom of the train: “This is 59th Street Columbus Circle. Next stop 125th.”

Of course, that was before living in Harlem became once again in vogue.

In 1984, I resided on 143rd St next door to one of the actors in the movie. My husband and I had decided to forgo our Southern suburban roots and look for a brownstone in the city that never sleeps. Within a few weeks, I could tell that Harlem was the most convenient place to live in New York City. I lived between the IRT and the IND subway lines; I had easy access to the bridge to New Jersey; and on a good day, I could get to LaGuardia Airport in under 15 minutes.

So we started looking for brownstones in the only affordable bastion for home ownership on the island. Because my husband had a job with a fortune 500 company, everyone steered us to Strivers Row, [4] an elegant area on 138th and 139th Streets originally built for middle class black families. While totally out of our price range, I learned the historic significance of the area I visited. The name came from the ambitious people that lived on those streets in the 1890s. The rowhouses were built by David H. King. Ironically Vertner Tandy, the first registered black Architect in New York resided there.” [5]

Then someone suggested we look for a place in Hamilton Heights since we already lived there. Not wanting to appear ignorant, I did not say, “But I thought we lived in Harlem.” Listening to new friends and neighbors, I soon learned that Harlem contained many different communities.

Hamilton Heights extends from 135th Street on the south to 155th on the north, the Hudson River on the west, and St. Nicholas Avenue on the east. [6] The name comes from the founding father and statesman Alexander Hamilton who lived the last two years of his life in the area when it was still farmland. His home is the Hamilton Grange National Memorial. [7] The area today includes City College and beautiful St. Nicholas Park.

Even though most brownstones in 1984 were contracted by word of mouth, we got a real estate agent to show us one on 150th Street between Convent and St. Nicholas Avenues. She explained that the lavish interior wood carvings and designs were thought to have been done by the carpenter accused of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. And she also let us know in no uncertain terms that we were now shopping for a home in the community of Sugar Hill. [8] This new label only added to my confusion. Sugar Hill, it seems, is a part of Hamilton Heights but my friends said “not really.” There were too many confusing border issues for Sugar Hill as well as too many different reasons for the name. Of the stories I have heard, I believe the one that sticks is that the name came about during the Harlem Renaissance when those who lived in the area were known to enjoy “the Sweet Life.” Sugar Hill boasted the Cotton Club, Smalls Paradise, and the Savoy. Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, WEB Dubois, Thurgood Marshall, and Paul Robeson lived there. [9]

All of this was very interesting and it was gratifying to know that we would be living in an area that boasted more history than we could have imagined. For my family and friends in the south, Harlem was still basically the ghetto. The bottom line was I just wanted to live in a brownstone in Harlem. Of course, it was not that simple.

It was suggested we look in Washington Heights, [10] even though at the time some of my acquaintances swore that Hamilton Heights was part of Washington Heights. The area was named for Fort Washington, a hilly fortified area occupied during the Revolutionary War. Originally its southern border was considered 125th Street. Troops moved to the highest point on Manhattan Island to defend the area from the British. If you go to the Morris-Jumel Mansion [11] (Jumel Terrace at 160th Street), you will learn that not only did Washington sleep in this oldest surviving house in the city but that during the Revolutionary War, one could actually see all the way to Staten Island from this place atop Harlem Heights.

Harlem Heights???? I thought this was Washington Heights!

It turns out Harlem Heights is just an area designated by an important battle that took place on September 16, 1776. [12]

Today, Washington Heights is considered the northern most neighborhood in the borough of Manhattan, running north from Harlem (it’s not a part of Harlem?) at 155th Street to Inwood around Dyckman Street. It also boasts being the highest point in Manhattan, 265 feet above sea level. Besides Fort Washington, the neighborhood contains The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to Medieval art;[13] the Hispanic Society of America, which houses the largest collection of paintings by El Greco and Goya outside of the Museo del Prado;[14] ‘Minnie’s Land,’ the home of John James Audobon;[15] and of course, Hilltop Park, the original home of the New York Highlanders (aka the Yankees) from 1903 to 1912. [16]

But in 1984, everyone I knew still considered it part of Harlem. After all it was across 110th Street.

Next we looked in the area of Mount Morris Park, a place, according to everything I heard, located in Central Harlem. It’s a 16 block area from 118th Street to 124th Street and from 5th Avenue to 7th Avenue. Nobody seems to know where the name came from, but its sites include the Apollo Theatre, the National Black Theatre, the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Marcus Garvey Park. [17]

We finally settled on a comfy brownstone on 148 St. between Broadway and Amsterdam. The area is not as high as the Fort Washington area, but if I stand on my front steps, I can actually look down the hill to Riverside Drive and across the Hudson to New Jersey. Over the years there have been many different maps drawn of Harlem. In fact, one report says that Harlem now begins at 96th Street. [18] (I get that feeling more on the east side where Spanish Harlem runs from 96th Street to 125th Street) In some reports and maps, sometimes the block I live on is not included as a part of Harlem. The news media often gives the area the distinction of being Sugar Hill, Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights and occasionally plain old Harlem. We are too far north to be considered part of Manhattanville or Morningside Heights and too far south to be part of Upper Manhattan. One thing that’s certain is that we are definitely part of Community Board 9. [20]

So when those living outside New York City who would not be able to tell where Museum Mile begins and ends, where the Village meets SoHo, or where exactly to find the Bowery, ask where I live, I usually say that since 1985 I have lived in Harlem.

Or Hamilton Heights.

Or Sugar Hill.

Most of time its simpler to just say, I live in New York City. That works. . . I think.

Minnette Coleman is an actress and writer still living in Harlem and working for The New World Foundation.

1 Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn by David Hajdu, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996
2 http://imdb.com/title/tt0068168/
3 http://imdb.com/title/tt0087004/
4 The Black New Yorkers, Dodson, Moore and Yancy, the Schomburg Center, John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 2000
5 http://www.nyc-architecture.com/HAR/HAR.htm
6 www.hamiltonheights.org
7 www.nps.gov/hasgr; www.harlemonestop.com
8 www.sugarhillmap.com
9 www.sugarhillharleminn.com
10 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_Hieghts%2C_

11 http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_about/parks_divisions/historic_houses/hh_morris_jumel.html
12 The War for Independence and the Transformation of American Society; War in Society in the United States, 1775-83, Harry M. Ward, Routledge 1999
13 www.metmuseum.org/events/ev_cloisters.asp
14 www.hispanicsociety.org/hispanic/museum.htm
15 http://www.audubonparkny.com/AudubonParkBrief/History.html
16 www.sportsecyclopedia.com/al/nyyanks/yankees.html
17 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Morris_Park_Historic_District
18 http://uptownflavor.wordpress.com
20 www.cb9m.org