Sugar Hill, Manhattan: The Sweet Life of Old New York


Langston Hughes, the acclaimed writer and prominent Harlem Renaissance figure, described Sugar Hill in a 1944 New Republic article as “that attractive rise of bluff,” where people are likely to live in homes “where the plumbing really works and the ceilings are high and airy. For just a few thousands a year one can live very well on Sugar Hill in a house with a white-tiled hall.”

These days, it takes more than a few thousand dollars to live well in the section of Harlem called Sugar Hill, but it generally costs less than in many other Manhattan neighborhoods. And the area remains attractive.

“It’s a very special neighborhood — there’s a special energy here,” said John Carden, 52, a musical-theater composer and a voice teacher at the N.Y.U. Tisch School of the Arts, who has lived for four years on Edgecombe Avenue, a street Hughes mentioned in the New Republic. Mr. Carden lives at number 409, one of the most distinguished buildings in a community filled with beautiful, old structures, most of them individual landmarks or part of historic districts or both (as is the case with his building). W.E.B. Dubois, Thurgood Marshall and many other luminaries lived there; a portrait of Justice Marshall hangs in the front hallway.

“We all have a real passion for the building,” said Mr. Carden, who has been on the co-op board for two years and has been involved in luring movie productions, like the upcoming “In the Heights,” to film there as a way to bring in money for upkeep.

Apartment seekers are often surprised by “how accessible it is, just two stops from Columbus Circle on the express train,” she continued. The area is “very residential, and the majority of properties are low-rise apartment buildings and beautiful townhomes. It feels like old New York.”

Bryan Reeder, 34, a pianist, composer and teacher of jazz, classical and contemporary music, and his wife, Olga Reeder, 35, an architect, moved from a rental apartment in Inwood, at the top of Manhattan, to a two-bedroom apartment at 409 Edgecombe Avenue. They paid about $500,000 and closed seven months ago, Mr. Reeder said, “on the day our son was born.”

The neighborhood’s history as an incubator for jazz compositions (including Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train”) appealed to him, he said, and the architectural details appealed to his wife: “It’s exactly what we were looking for.”

Mr. Reeder takes his son on walks three times a day in a stroller or a backpack, along the avenue or in the park across the street, using one of the steep staircases (remember that “rise of bluff”) that the city has been refurbishing. “We’re super happy that we’re right on the park,” he said.

Edgecombe Avenue is nice, too, with little traffic, new pavement, benches along the park and sidewalks that are wide on both sides of the street, he said: “They’re enormous. It’s such a luxury.”

The rectangle defined by West 145th and West 155th Streets and Edgecombe and Amsterdam Avenues encloses the main historic areas, although people also use Sugar Hill to describe a larger area. Most of the streets are residential, lined with trees, townhouses and the occasional mansion, many of which are being rehabilitated by individuals and small developers as the neighborhood becomes more popular with those priced out of downtown and other parts of Harlem.

As Geoff Bartakovics, a developer, said, “125th Street is already too fancy.”

Mr. Bartakovics, 42, and his business partner, Javier Martinez, 36, the chief executive of their real estate development start-up, Artifact, are responsible for some of the changes in the area. Among their projects are the conversions of two landmark brownstones and a former stable into rental apartments. They own a co-working space at 1867 Amsterdam Avenue called the Harlem Collective, which Mr. Bartakovics said serves many nonprofit groups and creative individuals; soon it will move across the street into a larger building with a public cafe, he said, while on the present site there will be a new apartment building with a grocery store and medical offices.

In early January, there were 22 homes listed for sale in the area, said Constantine Valhouli, the director of research for NeighborhoodX, a real estate data and analytics company.

The most expensive was a two-family house for $5.1 million (if it had been farther south, Mr. Valhouli said, it could have been listed for more than $20 million); the least expensive were two one-bedroom, one-bathroom co-op units with income restrictions, for $225,000 each. The least expensive nonrestricted apartment for sale was a one-bedroom, one-bathroom condo with private rooftop space listed for $419,000.

More upscale examples were a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment at a newly converted condo, the Leo, listed for $790,000, and a former multifamily Queen Anne house in need of renovation that was asking $1.4 million.

But overall, Mr. Valhouli said, Sugar Hill is “a surprising pocket of affordability,” partly because of its restricted-income apartments.

Zachary Sutton, an agent with Warburg Realty who lives a block from Sugar Hill, said that rental prices are still very reasonable, although they have increased: “In general, landlords are trying to make improvements to entice people, so you get more bang for your buck.”

A gut-renovated studio or one-bedroom could rent for around $2,000 a month, and occasionally for less, he said, and “a great two-bedroom” — usually with one bathroom, if it’s in a prewar building — can be had for $2,000 to $2,500.

The arts are important here. Two major dance companies are based in the neighborhood, in the same building, at 466 West 152nd Street. The space is owned by Dance Theater of Harlem, which is about to open a small storefront studio about a block away. It will probably open in February, said Anna Glass, the company’s executive director, and will provide fitness classes like Pilates and yoga.

“It is our opportunity to contribute to the community that has given to us over the years,” she said.

When Arthur Mitchell founded Dance Theater of Harlem with Karel Shook in 1969, Ms. Glass said, “he wanted children in the neighborhood to learn about perseverance, to stick to it, to keep practicing,” skills that would help them get into college and succeed in life. “He had a long vision.”

There are a little more than 300 students now, she said: “We want them to go off into the world and be great. Some do want to be dancers.”


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