By Bohemia Agent Jeremiah Wiggins
My very first visit to Harlem was in the Spring 1998. I was an MFA student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts studying acting and was taking a class called the Culture of Style, sort of a high falutin name for Dramaturgy. The gist of the class was to read plays and understand the culture from which they were wrought which often entailed field trips! For instance, when we studied Oscar Wilde, we went for high tea at the Mark Hotel’s Edwardian Tea Room on the Upper East Side. For Chekhov we went to Coney Island for Vodka and Dark Rye. Coward was a sojourn to the Algonquin. But once we got to August Wilson, Alice Childress, James Baldwin, & Langston Hughes, to name a few, there was only one obvious destination just a short A train ride up the great island of Manhattan. Harlem.
Our professor had enlisted the help of our Dean, a Harlem resident herself in the bucolic tree-lined section just south of Sugar Hill proper on Convent Ave. I’m embarrassed to say, I’d never been north of 110th but was excited to embark on a new adventure in this city I was just beginning to call home.
We met her at the 135th street stop of the B and C train on St. Nicholas and was immediately struck by this “Castle in the Heights” that is City College which is a stunning monument to the Neo-Gothic, casting a shadow over the plains of Harlem.
As we turned up 141st Street toward Convent Ave. and wound our way through Hamilton Terrace I was greeted by one gorgeous brownstone after another. But unlike the row house style brownstones of the Upper West Side or Brooklyn Heights, each home had it’s own Dutch influenced character. (Harlem, originally called Nieuw Haarlem, is named after the Dutch City of Haarlem after all.) Every façade had it’s own personality; astrangely shaped portico here or an oddly situated steeple over there. Not to mention a completely misplaced wooden structure with southern style porches and eaves sandwiched between a church to the south and midrise prewar apartment building to the north. This was Alexander Hamilton’s Country Estate, commonly referred to as the Hamilton Grange. (It has since moved to the northwestern corner of St. Nicholas Park).
As we continued north across 145th Street into the Sugar Hill/Hamilton Heights section of Harlem, the architecture changed to the Neo-Classical. Low and midrise apartment buildings with grand columns and decorative masonry built just after the turn of the century. Then we came upon a limestone Romanesque Revival mansion on the corner of 150th and St. Nicholas Place; The Bailey House, built by James Anthony Bailey of Barnum and Bailey Circus and a pair of Queen Anne Style semi-detached homes that have history in Feminism, African American History, and Podiatry! Then between the blocks of 150 & 155th and St. Nicholas Place & Edgecombe we passed the apartment buildings that were once homes to Langston Hughes (66 St. Nicholas Pl.), W.C. Handy (393 Edgecombe), Duke Ellington (379-381 Edgecombe), Mercer Ellington, Billie Strayhorn, Thurgood Marshall, Jimmie Lunceford, Aaron Douglas, Walter White, & W.E.B. Dubois (409 Edgecombe, the terracotta ornamented big daddy of them all.)
I was fascinated. Obviously I’m into history. But how was all this still standing? I had grown to expect things to simply be torn down and built anew in this city of reinvention, the way of Penn Station, The Astor House, or The Hippodrome, to name a few heartbreaks. How could these historical structures have been spared? Our professor had pointed out that this could possibly be thought of as a silver lining to redlining. Redlining? This is a term none of us had ever heard. What’s redlining?
Well, as a part of FDR’s Depression era New Deal, The National Housing Act of 1934, in an effort to strengthen the economy, mandated that mortgage banks literally draw red lines around certain sections of big cities that were thought to be poor investments. By refusing to give out mortgages, property values dropped precipitously resulting in urban decay. Those who could fled and those who couldn’t stayed; often in rapidly deteriorating apartment buildings that were once great monuments to modern architecture. It was a form of economic segregation often falling along racial lines. Of these sections in New York were Harlem, Bushwick, and the Bedford Stuyvesant section of the Brooklyn. In the following decades, ghettos were the result.
As the years went on, however, the Landmarks Preservation Commission of New York came into existence, gained strength, (spurred on by Robert Moses’ insatiable appetite for Urban Development) and began to save our Municipal treasures. In a way, if you think about it, had it not been for redlining, a number of these structures could very well have fallen prey to “improvements” (Stuyvesant town, Coop City, Madison Square Garden, etc.). But instead, as you walk around these neighborhoods and look around you will find History, not buried beneath the concrete and ersatz façades you find in Midtown, Madison Square, and Chelsea, but history staring you in the face saying “look at me! I am Hamilton Heights! I am Sugar Hill! I am Harlem! Welcome Home!”