The Land Where St. Patrick Walked

March 17, 2011

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue is the world’s biggest, noisiest, happiest celebration of Ireland and its patron saint. Between the dancing, drinking and green hair, it is easy for an observer to think that those who hail from “the land with 40 shades of green” have always been welcome and accepted here.

But the story of the Irish in New York has many a tragic side. Most terrible is the reason that so many Irish citizens arrived on our shores 150 years ago; they were fleeing the disaster known as An Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger). The devestation began in the late 1840s, when a virus attacked the potatoes planted in the fields of the land where St. Patrick had walked.

Cheap, filling, and easy to grow, potatoes were an essential source of nutrition for poor, rural Irish families. When the virus caused the potato plants to wither and their crops to fail, it wasn’t long before starvation set in.

The Great Hunger, also known as the Great Potato Famine, lasted from 1845 to 1852. During that period approximately one million Irish people died and two million more emigrated, many of them landing in New York Harbor. Now, in a quiet corner of Battery Park, near the spot where those desperate survivors arrived, stands the Irish Hunger Memorial.

Created by New York artist Brian Tolle, the memorial opened in 2002 on a quarter-acre of land shaped to resemble a burial mound cut from an Irish hillside. The base of the memorial is made of slabs of concrete interlaced with bands of plexiglass-covered metal bearing excerpts from reports, poems, songs, sermons and letters describing the desperation and destitution of the victims of the famine. These are intermingled with information about world hunger today.

After walking around the base, visitors walk through a short, dark corridor where recorded voices recite facts about the Hunger and emerge into a small atrium lined with stone walls. A dirt path winds up the hill past thirty-two massive stones, each marked with the name the Irish county that donated it, a roofless stone cottage, wildflowers and grasses, all imported from Ireland.

Every aspect of this small patch of land is significant and symbolic; even the size of the space reflects the Irish Poor Law of 1847, which denied relief to those living on land larger than a quarter of acre. Small, subtle and enormously moving, the Irish Hunger Memorial helps illuminate the wonderful, terrible history of the Irish in New York City.

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Approaching the memorial from West Street

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Closer to the entrance

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Plantings overhanging the concrete

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Through the entry corridor

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Words on the walls

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More quotations on the walls

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The words stretch on

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Climbing the hill

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The view from the top of the hill

CRG Gallery: Brian Tolle
The New York Times: A Memorial Remembers The Hungry
New York Magazine: Irish Hunger Memorial
NYC: Battery Park
Battery Park Conservancy


The Dudley Memorial Building

August 10, 2009

At first glance, the building at 110 Amity Street looks as though it might be a grand residence. But upon closer inspection, the brick and limestone structure reveals broken, boarded up windows, a slew of paper notices taped to the front door and a dusty-looking “for sale” sign.

Two names appear above the entrance: The Dudley Memorial, which is carved into the facade, and, painted directly below, The Long Island College Hospital Stanley S. Lamm Institute for Developmental Disabilities. So, what’s the story here?

This empty structure at the corner of Amity and Henry Streets was built in 1902 in memory of Dr. William Dudley, one of the founders of nearby Long Island College Hospital, which is now celebrating its 150th anniversary. Designed by Charles Hough, for five years it served as a private pavilion for the hospitals patients, then became a residence for its nurses.

Later, the building housed the Stanley S. Lamm Institute, a facility for the comprehensive care of the developmentally disabled. Several years ago the Lamm Institute’s programs were moved to other locations and the stately-looking building has been vacant ever since.

Most recently, a developer proposed a plan which included the construction of a rooftop bulkhead and six townhouses in the rear. A combination of community opposition and fallen real estate values has resulted in any plans being delayed indefinitely.

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The view from Amity Street

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At the corner of Amity and Henry Streets

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The names above the door

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For sale sign

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Notices taped to the door

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A broken window

Brooklyn Daily Eagle: LICH Consolidation and Buildings’ Fates
Opposition to 110 Amity Plans Grows
The Long Island College Hospital


Fannie’s book finds a new home

June 15, 2009

A few months ago I was walking past a thrift store when I noticed several cartons full of books piled on the sidewalk. The shop was emptying their shelves for a special event and giving away the items they deemed unsalable.

It was starting to rain, so I glanced through the books, selected three that appeared interesting, stuffed them into my bag, and hurried home. When I got inside I gave them a closer look. One of the books was about classical music (I gave it to a musician friend), another was about vitamins (it turned out to be too wet to save).

The third book, however, was something else entirely: dark, small and slim, in rather poor condition with the words “Album of Love” embossed on the cover. I picked it up, flipped it open, saw a name, Fannie C. Ashmore, written inside the cover and an illustration on the first page followed by quite a few blank pages.

I assumed that it was a fancy old blank notebook or an empty photo album, but when I looked further, I saw that some of the pages did have writing — spidery words formed with an old-fashioned fountain pen. The inscriptions (mostly poetry) were by several different hands, but all of the messages were addressed to Fannie, and I realized that it was some sort of autograph or friendship book.

A few items were tucked between the pages: a scrap of paper with Fannie’s name and town, Trenton, New Jersey, one of her calling cards, a bit of a dried fern and two newspaper clippings concerning the death of Alexander B. Green of the Fourteenth New Jersey Volunteers, who lived in Ewing and died in the battle of Monocacy Junction “in his youth, away from home … in the fierceness of battle.”

One of the inscriptions in the book was to Fannie from her “coz, Alex G,” and with a bit of online research I learned that Alexander B. Green of the Fourteenth New Jersey Volunteers died July 5, 1864 and is buried near Trenton at the Ewing Church Cemetery.

I couldn’t imagine how the book that was once so important to Fannie wound up in a thrift store, or why it was discarded, or even how it managed to make its way to this city, but I thought that the little Civil War era book would be of value to someone. Unfortunately, I don’t know who, or where, or how to find them.

Over the past few months, I’ve tried to locate an historical society, museum, or similar instituation where the book would be appreciated, but the places I contacted never seemed to be quite the right fit. A couple of people offered to “take it off my hands,” but I didn’t want the recipient to act as though they were doing me a big favor — I wanted it to go to someone who’d be happy to have it.

Finally, it occurred to me to offer the book to the library in Trenton, Fannie’s hometown. I had a long conversation with a librarian who told me that similar books were a fad among the girls who attended the Normal School (a teacher’s college) in Trenton around the time of the American Civil War. She was delighted to accept my offer and will be giving Fannie’s little book a safe and secure new home in the Research Department’s Trentoniana Collection. She also expressed her hope that somehow, someday, a descendant will walk into the library and ask to see Fannie’s little book.

Perhaps, someday, they will. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

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Front cover

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Fannie C. Ashmore

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Beauty

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Album of Love

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Autographs

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To Fannie from “your affectionate cousin”

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“The clear, cold question chills to frozen doubt …”

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“Your sincere friend, Mary F. Sheppard”

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The Mountain Sprite

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Dried fern

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To Fannie from J.J.S.

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“To Fannie, Trenton, April 14th 1861″

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Light of the Harem

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“Ever your loving cousin, CMG”

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“Remember me when far away …”

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“A despatch, received from Alexander B. Green, of Ewing, by his wife, on Saturday night …”

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From the State Gazette, lines of the death of Sergeant A.G.

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“Still think of Alex G”

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Fannie C. Ashmore, Trenton, New Jersey

Trenton Free Public Library
14th New Jersey Volunteer Regiment
New Jersey Civil War History Association: History of the 14th Regiment
National Park Service: Monocacy National Battlefield
Friends of the William Green Farmhouse: Alexander B. Green
Report of State Normal School, Trenton, 1864


The 31st Annual Museum Mile Festival

June 9, 2009

There are two things I dislike about the Museum Mile Festival:

1) It happens only once a year.
2) It lasts only three hours.

There simply isn’t enough time to take in everything that happens during this event which stretches along Fifth Avenue from 82nd Street to 105th Street — 23 blocks offering nine museums (all providing free admission) along with concerts, clowns, jugglers, face painters, and arts and crafts projects.

In past years I’ve started at the lower end, near the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 82nd Street, and attempted to work my way up but never made it past the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum at 91st Street. This time I decided to start at the northern end of the festival, heading down from El Museo del Barrio at 105th Street.

Unlike the rest of the institutions on museum mile, El Museo does not have its own building. Instead, it is one of variety of Latino arts organizations housed in the massive, block-filling, neo-Georgian Heckscher Building at 1230 Fifth Avenue (other tenants include the Raíces Latin Music Museum Collection of Harbor Conservatory and La Casa de la Herencia Cultural Puertorriqueña).

Although El Museo is currently closed for renovations, the Latin-flavored music issuing from their loudspeakers inspired passersby to dance in the street. Inside the Heckscher Building, through corridors of worn linoleum and flickering florescent lights, they offered a mask-making workshop, a salsa jam session, and promises that they will reopen in the fall.

The next stop was across the street to the Museum of the City of New York, which is charged with a “unique mandate: to explore the past, present, and future of this fascinating and particular place and to celebrate its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation. A variety of exhibitions, public programs, and publications all investigate what gives New York City its singular character.”

The current programs are tied to NY400: Holland on the Hudson, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Dutch. In 1609 the Half Moon, guided by Captain Henry Hudson, landed on the shores of what is now New York City. Hudson’s arrival led to the establishment of New Amsterdam and the New Netherland colony.

This was my first visit to the museum and, while I was eager to rejoin the celebrations outside, I couldn’t drag myself away from the programs including exhibits about Manhattan before Hudson’s arrival, the Dutch city, and the acapella concert by the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus.

I kept checking my watch, thinking that I was missing the rest of the festival, but remaining unwilling to leave as I learned about the many Dutch influences that continue to touch our lives in New York City today. I lingered at a map that shows areas of the city with their original Dutch names: Breuckelen (Brooklyn), Vlackebos (Flatbush), Boswijck (Bushwick), Conijne Eylandt (Coney Island), Midwout (Midwood), Nieuw Utrecht (New Utrecht). I listened to recordings based on diaries and letters written by the Dutch colonists. I gazed at the rare artifacts, books, manuscripts, maps and globes.

I stayed until the museum was ready to lock its doors for the night. When I got back to the street, the festival was over. The street had reopened to traffic and a few stragglers were using discarded pieces of chalk to make their marks on the sidewalks and walls.

Perhaps next year I’ll take in more than one or two museums during the festival. Then again, perhaps not. Why rush to “get through” a good experience?

I once read a highly-recommended guide to Paris by Rick Steves which included instructions on how to see the Louvre Museum in less than an hour (maintain a brisk pace and glace at certain key works in case your friends back home ask what you thought of, say, the Mona Lisa). When I got to Paris I ditched the book and spent an entire day inside the Louvre, lingering after dark to watch the skateboarders clattering on the stairs and terraces above the Seine. The “in a hurry” crowd never knew what they missed.

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Dancing in the middle of Fifth Avenue

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Drawing in the street

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Another little artist

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Inside the Heckscher Building

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Jam session in El Museo del Barrio

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Viewing the NY400 exhibits

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Photographs of Dutch citizens

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Moving up and down the stairway

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Exploring the galleries

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A figure originally used to hold a compass on a ship

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Looking at Dutch photographs of New Yorkers

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A guide to Nieu-Nederlandt

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Viewing a video about New York history

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Map of New Amsterdam

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Inside the galleries

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The crowd straggles out of the Museum of the City of New York

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Writing on the walls with chalk

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Chalk message on a museum wall

Annual Museum Mile Festival
El Museo del Barrio
Museum of the City of New York
NY Times: Voyaging Up the Hudson to Rediscover the Dutch
NY400
New York City Gay Men’s Chorus


90 Years After The War to End All Wars

November 11, 2008

It started on June 28, 1914. While traveling through the streets of Sarajevo in an open car, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was shot and killed by a Serbian assassin. One month later, in retaliation, the Austro-Hungarian government declared war on Serbia.

That declaration marked the beginning of World War I. The scope and reach of the conflict was unprecedented: more than 65 million men battled around the globe for four years, resulting in the death of more than nine million soldiers.

This was the first war to employ advanced technology such as airplanes, tanks and submarines, the first time that governments achieved wholesale killing with automatic weapons and poisonous gasses. The slaughter continued until the morning of November 11, 1918. It was close to dawn of that day when British, French and German officials gathered in a railway carriage to the north of Paris and signed the Armistice – the cease fire – that brought about the end of the fighting.

At the time, it was widely believed that when society saw the horrors and costs of modern warfare, no nation would ever again be tempted to fight, and led to the conflict being described as The War To End All Wars. Sadly, of course, it wasn’t; in fact, there have been more than 150 wars in the 90 years since the Armistice was signed.

If you visit Sarajevo, you’ll have a hard time locating the place where it all started. The spot where Franz Ferdinand was shot is marked by a small bronze plaque set in the pavement. If you don’t search closely, you could easily miss the obscure memorial.

In contrast, the memory of WWI’s fallen troops is preserved by countless monuments and markers, including this one, which stands on Brooklyn’s Van Brunt Street outside post No. 5195 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.

On the base of the statue is a plaque that says, “Red Hook Memorial Doughboy. Erected in honor of those men and women of the Third Assembly District who served in the World War and in remembrance of those of their number who lost their lives and whose names ware here inscribed.”

Below the bronze plaque is a list of more than 90 names; schoolmates, friends and neighbors, all lost from a small, working class area in a remote corner of Brooklyn.

Chances are, no one alive today remembers those boys. Their parents, sweethearts, wives and children —  those who were touched by their lives and deaths — may have vanished into the mists of time, but today, on the 90th anniversary of the end of “The War to End All Wars,” we should all pause and remember.

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Red Hook Memorial Doughboy

The Heritage of the Great War
First World War
BBC: WW I
The Great War Society
The Western Front Association
National World War I Museum
Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States


OHNY: Brooklyn Lyceum

October 4, 2008

Today, this structure, which is almost entirely hidden by scaffolding, contains an enterprise known as the Brooklyn Lyceum. Located at the corner of 4th and President Streets, it offers patrons an unusual mixture of dining and entertainment, including a small cafe with Internet access, live music, dance and theater performances, open-mike nights, film screenings and “an occasional restaurant.”

But once upon a time, this building was New York City Public Bathhouse #7. When the bathhouse opened in 1908, many homes in the city lacked adequate indoor plumbing. Back then, residents of an entire tenement building would share a single backyard outhouse, mothers bathed their babies in washtubs, and children squatted in filthy, flooded gutters to cool off during the sweltering summer months. Vermin and disease, including cholera and typhoid epidemics, ravaged the city’s impoverished neighborhoods.

New York’s municipal bathhouses were part of a public health effort to improve conditions for the poor, and provided the city’s most crowded quarters with much-needed sanitary facilities. The first such structure, the Baruch Bathhouse, opened on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1901. As they went up, the bathhouses became larger and more elaborate, some of them modeled on ancient Roman baths.

This building, #7, designed by Raymond F. Almirall, was the largest and the last bathhouse constructed. For three decades, it gave the 150,000 residents of this area, then known as South Brooklyn’s “Little Italy,” access to extensive, sparkling-clean bathing and dressing facilites, two gyms and a swimming pool. The city finally closed the bathhouse in 1937.

After a renovation effort during which the swimming pool was filled in and half the showers eliminated, the bathhouse reopened in 1942 as a city-run gymnasium. Closed once again in the early seventies, it was sold to a local businessman who used it as a warehouse for his nearby transmission repair business.

When he moved his business away, the building went through several more owners, none of whom used it. The former bathhouse stood unused and unmaintained for decades. Leaks were unrepaired, broken window panes unreplaced, holes opened in the roof and stonework chipped off. Eventually, the empty structure was vandalized and stripped of all of the original decorative elements. Even the tiles, pipes, water fountains and plasterwork were carried off or destroyed while the building crumbled.

In the late 1980s, the bathhouse reverted to city ownership and a local community group, which leased it for $1.00 a year, briefly used it as a recreation center before it closed again. By the early 1990s, the bathhouse was considered a neighborhood blight, and there were cries for it to be demolished. Instead, in 1994, the city held an auction where it was purchased by Eric Richmond, who had long wished for a theater space of his own.

Today, as part of Open House New York, Richmond greeted visitors, explained the history of the building and escorted them on a short tour of the space. He explained that not only are the original decorative elements gone, the city lost the original drawings and he has been unable to locate any photographs of the original interior. As visitors gazed at the bare brick walls and looked at the dance troupe rehearsing in the basement, music boomed from above, where the top floor had been rented out for a bar mitzvah party.

A bar mitzvah in a bathhouse? Only in Brooklyn.

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The view from the street

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One of the last original elements: the name

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The doorway

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Inside the cafe

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View from cafe to basement theater

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Basement performance space

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Basement restroom

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A peek at the bar mitzvah

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The owner

Brooklyn Lyceum
All About Jazz: Brooklyn Lyceum
The Brooklyn Paper: Lyceum Site Under Construction
Forgotten NY: A Lost Opportunity
NYC: Asser Levy Recreation Center
The Villager: Don’t Let LaGuardia Bathhouse Go Down the Drain


Open House Harlem Pt 2: Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill

October 6, 2007

The OpenHouseNewYork Weekend continued with a trip to another section of Harlem, the areas known as Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill.

Like Manhattanville, the western boundary of Hamilton Heights is the Hudson River, the eastern end at St. Nicholas. The neighborhood’s name derives from its most notable early resident, the first Secretary of the US Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who spent the last years of his life here at his country home.

As with Manhattanville, development here started in earnest when the railway lines were extended. A jewels of the area is the Church of the Intercession, built on one of the highest points of Manhattan. Its origins date to 1843, when sanitation problems downtown led Wall Street’s Trinity Church to stop performing burials in their yard.

To create a solution, Trinity reached beyond the city limits and purchased a large parcel of land in the tiny country hamlet of Carmansville for use as a graveyard. The land, which they dubbed Trinity Church Cemetery, became the last resting place of many notable and affluent citizens.

Within a few years, demand began for a convenient chapel, eventually leading to construction of the Gothic style cathedral that adjoins the Cemetery. Now celebrating its 160th anniversary, the Church features an altar designed by Tiffany, notable terracotta floor tiles, and an Aeolian Skinner organ.

Nearby is Audubon Terrace, which fills a block that was once part of a farm owned by naturalist John James Audubon. Created by railroad heir Archer Huntington, Audubon Terrace was intended as a modern-day acropolis, a sophisticated center of art and culture. At the dawn of the 20th century, Huntington hired the leading architects of the day, including Stanford White and Cass Gilbert. They designed the Beaux-Arts plaza and buildings that today house the Hispanic Society of America, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Boricua College.

Sugar Hill, a residential section of Hamilton Heights, was once the country’s most fashionable address for African Americans, the place where life was sweet. In these palatial brownstones and apartment buildings lived the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, including Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn (who immortalized the neighborhood in his song Take the ‘A’ Train), Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Zora Neale Hurston and Paul Robeson.

The neighborhood was also home to prominent professionals and civil rights activists like W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Adam Clayton Powell and Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice.

When the city’s fortunes declined in the late 1960s and 1970s, this area was severely affected; as most of the well-heeled moved away, drugs and violence became widespread. Elegant brownstones were divided into cheap, poorly-maintained apartments, then vandalized. A significant number of neglected buildings were demolished or burned.

But today, Sugar Hill is on the upswing. Professionals, artists and community activists again walk these streets. Newly-created private schools and arts institutions (including the Dance Theatre of Harlem) have made this area their home.

Everywhere are signs of renewal and revitalization. Houses that were filled with squatters only a few years ago are now being restored and selling for millions of dollars. Buildings that had become rooming houses are being converted back to spacious homes and Sugar Hill is again becoming one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city.

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Audubon Terrace at 155th Street and Broadway

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Sculpture on the Plaza at Audubon Terrace

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Bas-relief of Don Quixote on horseback

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Above the entrance to the former home of the Museum of the American Indian

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Entrance to American Society of Arts & Letters

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The Church of the Intercession

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Detail of wall at the Church of the Intercession

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Gatehouse at Trinity Church Cemetery

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The Gould mausoleum in the Cemetery

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Garret Storm’s mausoleum in Trinity Church Cemetery

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Gravestones

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Building with Mansard roof in Sugar Hill

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On W. 152nd St., three houses designed to look like one

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Restored buildings on St. Nicholas Avenue

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Classic Sugar Hill brownstones on St. Nicholas

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Row of houses on St. Nicholas Avenue

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Doorway with stained glass panel

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Wrought iron railings in Sugar Hill

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Painted stonework highlights the construction date

openhousenewyork weekend
Hamilton Heights Homeowners Association
The Hispanic Society of America
Church of the Intercession
NY Times: Living in Sugar Hill
Harlem One Stop Tour: Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill
Historic Districts Council: Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill
Hamilton Heights-West Harlem Community Preservation Organization
Harlem One Stop Tour: A Walk Through Sugar Hill
Harlem One Stop Tour: Trinity Cemetery
Dance Theatre of Harlem


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