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Alexander Hamilton’s Old Harlem Neighborhood Through the Ages’ by Davida Siwisa James

Alexander Hamilton’s Old Harlem Neighborhood Through the Ages’ by Davida Siwisa James
Alexander Hamilton’s Old Harlem Neighborhood Through the Ages’ by Davida Siwisa James

Harlem’s Sugar Hill and Hamilton Heights neighborhoods feature tree-lined blocks and townhouse-style brownstones. They’ve long been coveted neighborhoods that inspire locals to step back and appreciate the sophistication and complex culture around them.

In her new book, “Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill: Alexander Hamilton’s Old Harlem Neighborhood Through the Centuries,” Davida Siwisa James recalls her shock each time she witnessed “the pitying looks and comments that greeted me whenever I told them I had once lived in Harlem… Trying to convince people that Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill were beautiful neighborhoods, with stunning architecture and mansions, fell on deaf ears,” she writes in the book’s foreword.

James makes a concerted effort to document the historical trajectory of Sugar Hill and Hamilton Heights in her book. “Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill” is a detailed account of the growth of these Harlem neighborhoods—and how that growth was in line with the overall development and rising importance of Manhattan.

The book references documents dating back to the arrival of the Dutch in the 17th century and describes the construction of stone houses, farms and forts during their migration through the Lenape people’s Mannahata Island. It explains how Harlem began as a remote farmland, miles from the center of Manhattan. Incorporated as the village of New Haarlem in 1658, it was seen as a rural retreat for the wealthy by the 18th century.

The area’s first black residents were enslaved farm workers, though over time “freed blacks still working uptown began to form communities,” James writes. Harlem Heights (as the combined areas of Sugar Hill and Hamilton Heights were then called) is where George Washington and his Revolutionary War soldiers were imprisoned in the Morris Mansion after fighting the Battle of Harlem Heights. In 1800, Alexander Hamilton had his only home, the Grange, meticulously planned and built at 141st Street and Amsterdam and Convent Avenues.

In the 20th century, Harlem was home to Victor Hugo Green, author of The Green Book of the Negro Motoristwhen he lived at “938 St. Nicholas Avenue at 158th Street in Sugar Hill, across the street from Duke Ellington.” Madame Stephanie St. Clair—”Harlem’s Policy Queen,” who fought to keep mobsters like Dutch Schultz from controlling Harlem—lived at 409 Edgecombe Avenue; other residents of the building included New York Yankees baseball player Babe Ruth, future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and civil rights activists Walter White and W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1943, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the home of civil rights activist/politician Hubert T. and Willetta Delany at 467 West 144th Street as they tried to drum up support for the Harlem Activities Committee of the Colored Orphan Asylum. The book concludes with a detailed account of the buildings, businesses, and streets affected by modern gentrification, and examines how it has changed Sugar Hill and Hamilton Heights—and Harlem as a whole. James provides an encyclopedic overview of two historic Harlem neighborhoods, and reminds residents why they should never bow their heads when calling these neighborhoods home.