Close-Up On: Sugar Hill


Portions of this article have been updated.

Forever earmarked as home to many Harlem Renaissance artists, Sugar Hill, steeped in rich folklore, continues to draw both young and old. The neighborhood has generally avoided gentrification, holding tightly to its plethora of picturesque churches and row houses. It derived its name in 1919 as the area where affluent artists and businessmen with money (“sugar”) settled. However, it wasn’t until the early 1930s that established African Americans moved en masse to the Hill, including many who would become notable in 20th-century arts and letters. Today the faces of aspiring college students mesh with briefcase-carrying, upper-middle-class African American and Dominican American residents.

Boundaries: Between 155th and 154th streets in the north, and approximately 138th Street in the south. To the west, Amsterdam and Eighth avenues; to the east, Edgecombe Avenue.

Mass Transit: A 15-minute ride from midtown on the A, B, C, or D trains to 145th Street; B or C trains to 135th; or the C to 155th. There are also numerous bus possibilities.

Average Price to Rent: Studio: $1,000 and up ($800); one-bedroom: $1,200 and up ($1,000); two-bedroom: $1,900 and up ($1,250).

Average Price to Buy: One-bedroom condos start at about $400,000 ($85,000), while two- and three-bedroom condos range from $450,000 to $650,000 ($105,000 to $180,000). Pricey brownstones are hot in Sugar Hill and average $2.1 million ($450,000 to $750,000 and up for a four-floor walk-up).

Cultural Institutions: Opened in 1963 by opera diva Dorothy Maynor, Harlem School of the Arts offers underprivileged students the chance to study fine arts. Maynor taught and was executive director of the school until 1979. That same year Aaron Davis Hall opened on the main campus of CUNY. It has showcased new works by Ron K. Brown and the Alvin Ailey dance troupe. The Hamilton Grange branch library on 145th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway features guest speakers and movies, usually for free.

Landmarks: Hamilton Terrace, filled with three-story row houses built mostly around the late 1890s, is one of the most impressive streets in Manhattan. The ornate details of the iron and brickwork amaze newcomers. One of the last freestanding mansions in Harlem is the Nicholas and Agnes Benziger House on Edgecombe Avenue. Today it is owned by the Broadway Housing Development Fund Company, which finds permanent housing for the homeless. Our Lady of Lourdes Church at 463 West 142nd Street is a bizarre collage of three famous 19th-century structures. Lastly, 409 Edgecombe Avenue must not be forgotten for lodging in its 12 stories many of the black elite between the 1930s and 1950s. Thurgood Marshall and W.E.B. Du Bois are two of the esteemed who made 409 their home.

Famous Residents: In addition to Du Bois and Marshall, there are too many to list, but Ruby Dee, Ralph Ellison, Joe Louis, Babe Ruth, Butterfly McQueen, and even George Gershwin once called the Hill home. Current residents include Reverend Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, and
John Kerry’s Deputy Campaign Manager, former deputy mayor Bill Lynch.

Notable Event: The Entertainers Basketball Classic happens annually between June and August. It was first held between two celebrity rap groups in 1982 at Holcombe Rucker Memorial Park. Today, top college and NBA players battle it out along with rappin’ gurus in front of thousands.

Best Bar: St. Nick’s Pub, 149 St. Nicholas Avenue, has sweet jazz tunes and mixes a mean after-work drink.

Best Restaurants: Soul food choices Copeland’s, 547 West 145th Street, and Ethel’s Southern Quarters, 747 St. Nicholas, will hit the spot, but for something unique try Famous Fish Market at 684 West 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. You can’t pick out your own trout, but the fish-and-chips are a standout. For a Caribbean feel try Sunshine Kitchen right across the street.

Local Politicians: Congressman Charles Rangel, Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell, State Senator David A. Paterson, and City Councilman Robert Jackson—all Democrats.

Crime: For the 30th Precinct, which includes the Hill as well as Hamilton Heights and West Harlem, as of September 2005, there were 4 murders, 19 rapes, 234 robberies, 177 felony assaults, and 99 burglaries. (As of May, crime rates for the 30th Precinct, which includes the Hill as well as Hamilton Heights and West Harlem, had decreased in five of the NYPD’s listed categories. There were two homicides, compared to five at this time last year; seven rapes, down from nine; 98 robberies, down from 103; 103 felony assaults, compared to 116 last year; 62 burglaries, down from 85; and 59 reports of grand larceny, up from 49 last year).