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Harlem, Then and Now: a Neighborhood with Emotional Connections

Harlem has had many incarnations, mainly a recent renaissance due to a variety of factors

A view of East Harlem (Ph. VNY / DM)

Equitable Life made the area even more undesirable by restricting the potential sale of homes. Homes sat vacant for years, and when they were finally made available to an open market, they were priced at $8000 each. They attracted groups of hard working professionals or ‘strivers’ who gave the houses their current name.

As New York continues to be known as the foremost melting pot; being a native New Yorker holds a more rarified status.  I’ve lived in a variety of neighborhoods over the years, planting early roots in Boro Park, Brooklyn. In midstream I segued to Soho and for the past 25 years I’ve settled in Carnegie Hill, on Manhattans Upper East Side.  I’ve represented a variety of homes in many areas in the city, some that have held a strong nostalgic sense of belonging. One neighborhood, ranking in the top sector of places with this sense of emotional connection, is Harlem. Perhaps my family history could be a clue.

To backtrack.

My paternal grandparents were an odd match. My grandmother was born into an aristocratic New England family just before the turn of the last century (20th).  My grandfather was an immigrant from the Ukraine, who met his future wife at Levy’s Dry Goods in New Haven, Conn. in the early 1900s. She was a buyer for her family store, and he a salesman soliciting his goods. Hardly the type of suitor my ‘great’ grandmother envisioned for her daughter, the heiress to Levy’s fortunes. From fragments of family history, I’d learned they married shortly after they met, and laid down roots in Upper Manhattan, at a time when Harlem was known for its imposing and stately homes. An upscale community, that did not achieve acclaim and notoriety for its lively if slightly outrageous nightlife, until the (roaring) ‘20’s.

Strivers Row (Ph. VNY / L.W.)

In the years since, Harlem has had many incarnations, mainly a recent renaissance due to a variety of factors. As one might guess, real estate has had much to do with it. When I joined Sotheby’s in 2004, I was invited to attend a broker’s tour of Harlem, specifically the rows of townhouses in western Harlem, called Strivers Row.  In spite of my distant roots in Harlem, until then I had never viewed this special enclave. On first impression, this stretch of landmarked homes appears a perfectly staged film set.  A throwback to a former place in memory, where time has stood still. For weeks following the tour, I referred to this area as magical, and later learned that Harry Houdini was a former resident.

From West 138th and West 139th between Adam Clayton Powell Blvd and Frederick Douglass Blvd, lies some of upper Manhattans most treasured jewels. In the early 1890’s a group of diverse architects worked on each of the 3 rows creating these exquisite architectural townhouses.  They were designed for upper middle class white families who were seeking grand & elegant space in a more remote environment. McKim Mead & White completed the northern part of the 139th Street group in neo-Italian style. James Lord Brown, Bruce Price & Clarence Luce contributed to the complex on 138th. However, over the years, the developerDavid King,

responsible for the original ‘model houses’, was forced to relinquish the property back to Equitable Life Assurance, after the development failed.

By this time, Harlem was being abandoned by white New Yorkers. Equitable Life made the area even more undesirable by restricting the potential sale of homes. Homes sat vacant for years, and when they were finally made available to an open market, they were priced at $8000 each.  They attracted groups of hard working professionals or ‘strivers’ who gave the houses their current name. Harlemites refer to Strivers Row as the most aristocratic section in Harlem. Living on ‘strivers row’ is a symbol of having ‘arrived’. One of my former film locations was a Neo-Palladian mansion on West 139th Street.  Its grand proportions and elegant façade, made it a highly requested location. This quietly adorned mansion was the setting for several BBC documentaries.

The mansions on Strivers Row have the presence of a grand matron.

Continuing uptown, lies Hamilton Heights spanning from West 135th to West 155th Street.  Another one of NYC’s highly diverse neighborhoods. Cobblestone streets and chapters of history give this section of Harlem its soul.  Aside from its eclectic street scene, one of the main draws is the value in residential properties by those wise enough to explore this multi-faceted neighborhood.  What many are unaware of is the ease in getting there. Express subways at 145th St. make commuting to midtown an easy 13 minute ride. Another extraordinary film location was the 110 year old ‘grey’ stone in Hamilton Heights, which functions as a studio, gallery, home & office for my clients.

Harlem (Ph. VNY / L.W.)

Upon entering you are not only met with the beauty of a spirited past, but the aesthetic of an accomplished contemporary artist. Old world in perfect harmony w. computer Macs.   An original curved and carved wooden keyhole staircase leads to a second floor landing of cathedral height beamed ceilings, and a state of art fully equipped kitchen. Stainless steel industrial restaurant shelving is used for storage & comfortably surrounds a 19th century fireplace; all set against a wall of distressed exposed brick. The best of all worlds. A medley of industrial & organic elements. Found objects alongside Swarovski crystal hanging ‘drapes’ – a whimsical blend of textures working together in delightful concert.  An 18th century church candelabra provides mood inspired lighting for this creative & unique space. In order to maintain a green sensibility, my client was able to salvage elements from the demolition.   The details in this wonderful home are a constant and ever changing work in process.  A moveable feast for the eyes.

Moving to Hamilton Heights over 10years ago, from a live/work loft in the W. 30’s required a focused lens. The area then consisted of a mix of crack houses & drug pushers, with only a sprinkling of restorations on some of the magnificent brownstones lining the side streets. These special sections of Harlem have turned into desirable and upscale communities, attracting young families priced out of the Upper West Side market. In addition, some of the most iconic landmarks are found here. Ex/ St John the Divine Church, Columbia University (on the cusp of Harlem), Sylvia’s (founded in 1962 by Sylvia Woods ‘queen of soulfood) City College, an institution knows for its Neo-Gothic architecture &  undergoing a renaissance of its own. And  more recently, The Clinton Foundation on W. 125th Street. Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre remains one of the most vibrant music venues in the country, if not the world.  Luminaries such as Count Basie, Bessie Smith & Duke Ellington have all performed there.. The Apollo Theatre received state & city landmark status in 1983, and in ’91 the Apollo Theatre Foundation was established as a not for profit organization.  Harlem is definitely, a neighborhood worth exploring. 

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