Just as we walked past them…
There is a wonderful and all-too short video of Faith Ringgold talking about Harlem’s Sugar Hill, and the many people who lived there on the New York Times website from 2010. This comes just above a map that shows building by building where some of the people I admire most once lived.
I wish I had found this earlier. I love hunting down the homes of people who have inspired me, because it always takes you into residential streets, among the everyday places of the city that as a tourist you never see. It also allows you a slightly different glimpse of the person themselves — after all, I believe places shape us just as we shape places. Of course, a lot has changed in Harlem since these incredible days. There is so much nostalgia not for segregation, but for these spaces that concentrated community in such a way. Look at all of the people who lived only a few blocks from each other.
We did, however, know to find 409 and 555 Edgecombe. But the best site I found (also post-visit), was from the NY architecture site from a report prepared by Elisa Urbanelli, Landmarks Consultant (excerpted here, there is another good history of sugar Hill found in the docs establishing Sugar Hill as a historic district, much of it reintegrated into the arguing documents to extend the Sugar Hill historic district to include Hamilton Heights).
The Ebony article characterized Sugar Hill society and the residents of 409 and 555 with the observation that “Harlem’s most talked-about men and women in law, sports, civil liberties, music, medicine, painting, business, and literature live on Sugar Hill.” Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. presented a portrait of the Hill’s residential grandeur in 1935:
On Sugar Hill…Harlem’s would-be ‘sassiety’ goes to town. ‘Midst panelled walls, parquet floors, electric refrigeration, colored tile baths, luxurious lobbies, elevators and doormen resplendent in uniforms, they cavort and disport themselves in what is called the best ofay manner.”
There were racketeers and gamblers who called the Hill home, living side by side with judges, scholars, and writers. In the 1940s Ebony reported that Sugar Hill incomes ranged from $3,000 to $7,000 per annum, most being within the upper half of wages in the United States, yet also estimated that one-quarter of Hill dwellers had to take in boarders and make other sacrifices in order to meet expenses. Rents in Harlem were generally high, but in Sugar Hill they were even higher. At 409, tenants paid from fifty to ninety-eight dollars per month, while at 555 Edgecombe, two-and-one-half rooms rented for sixty-six dollars and five rooms for eighty-seven dollars. As one observer commented, “…Harlem prices leave little for luxurious living. The main difference between those on Sugar Hill and those in the slums is the knowledge of where their next meal is coming form and, at night, a spaciousness which helps erase the memory of a Jim Crow day.”
There’s a link to http://www.hometoharlem.com/ at the end of this, but it connects to nothing. I honestly do not know why I didn’t become a landmarks consultant. Best. Job. Ever.
But to return to who actually lived here — I’ve pieced this together from multiple sources, which I find astonishing. There is also an absence of plaques or markers, though it was nice to see a number of streets named after the famous people who had lived on them.
363 Edgecombe is where Faith Ringgold herself lived — I was hoping to see her quilt at The Studio in Harlem, but much of it was closed in preparation for new exhibits. Still.
365 Edgecombe – Cecilia Hodges
375 Edgecombe – Roy Eaton
377 Edgecombe – Sonny Rollins
381 Edgecombe – Joe Lewis
409 Edgecombe: Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. Du Bois (Du Bois!), Aaron Douglas, William Stanley Braithwaite, Clarence Cameron White, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Jimmy Lunceford (conductor at the Cotton Club), Dr May Chinn.
I remember from Walter White’s autobiography that he shared a building with Du Bois, it’s actually hard to imagine the two of them and Roy Wilkins occasionally meeting in the lobby. Back to Elisa Urbanelli:
No. 409 Edgecombe was certainly the most prestigious of addresses on Sugar Hill in the 1930s and ’40s. Counted among the residents of this very special enclave were people of national and international significance. As one who grew up at 409, Arnold Braithwaite eloquently explains, “…nowhere in New York City, and perhaps the country, will you find any other apartment building, whose halls and suites echo with the ghosts, as it were, of distinguished men and women, many of international repute, who were forced to over come the obstacles of poverty, for most; of pernicious racism, for all.”
As Ebony stated in the mid-1940s, “legend, only slightly exaggerated, says bombing 409 would wipe out Negro leadership for the next 20 years.” Indeed, residents have included such notable African-American luminaries as scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois; former N.A.A.C.P. leader Walter White; White’s successor, Roy Wilkins; and Thurgood Marshall, who was then special counsel to the same esteemed organization and later became the first African-American Justice on the U.S.Supreme Court. They were joined by New York State Assemblyman William Andrews, Assistant Attorney General of New York State Harry G. Bragg, and Charles Toney, a municipal judge, as well as others who had crossed the racial barrier into the fields of politics and law. Residents involved in the arts included renowned poet, critic, and literary anthologist William Stanley Braithwaite; Aaron Douglas, the famed painter and illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance and head of the art department of Fisk University; Luckey Roberts and Jimmie Lunceford,, popular jazz musicians; actor and singer Jules Bledsoe; and classical composer Clarence Cameron White. Another long-time resident, prominent physician Dr. May Edward Chinn, had an office at the ground story and lived upstairs. (For more information about these and other tenants of 409, see the Appends.)
What it looks like now? Sadly with scaffolding — it felt like almost every building we hoped to see had scaffolding:
A view beyond to see how it sits on this street, looking down Edgecombe towards the more modest buildings (but still Sugar Hill):
An atmospheric view down the backside of this stretch of Edgecombe:
And from here you can see all the way (looking up, it must be said) to 555 Edgecombe.
It left off that list Zora Neale Hurston. Wikipedia notes Kenneth Clarke (who wrote an amazing study of Harlem) but forgets his wife Mamie who was equally brilliant, Andy Kirk and Canada Lee. Joe Louis lived here a while too, he, Basie and Robeson are noted in the AIA Guide to New York City. The Lonely Planet adds Billy Strayhorn.
One of the few old pictures I was able to find:
Here is Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train’ up to Sugar Hill (though we took the C)
The loveliest thing of all is that musician Marjorie Eliot opens her room up in the building, inviting people into her living room on Sundays for live jazz.
The saddest thing — that the National Park Service listing for this historic building only lists Robeson. Which is fucking crazy.
I did find one lovely site — While We Are Still Here — that is displaying information about 409 and 555 Edgcombe Ave.
While We Are Still Here (WWSH) ensures that the “post-gentrification” community of Harlem and beyond will honor and find a meaningful connection to the legacy of African American achievement, and its paramount importance to world culture.
What we didn’t see?
749 St Nicholas Ave — Ralph Ellison
773 St Nicholas Ave — C. Luckeyth (lucky) Roberts
But here’s the view down St Nicholas Ave:
Harlem though…Harlem is so much more than this of course. We Went to the Schomberg Library, I remember Ella Baker describing coming out of the subway here, staying in the Y.
Saw The Studio, saw the Apollo, walked past this:
Walked down some of these streets of the famous brownstones I have read so much about (how can I see these the same after reading Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones?)
Found 267 W 136th St, a rooming house where almost everyone from the Harlem Renaissance stayed: Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Bennett and others, and closely connected with Fire! magazine.
Nothing here either to note the brilliance these walls have contained.
We saw memories of Marcus Garvey:
A bit of East Harlem (SO not enough), memorialised in a Tito Puento street sign:
There is so much more we didn’t see here of course. So much left to see, I should say.
I worried that moving north would make the tradition of bluebell hunting on my birthday much harder, and I was right, but on the 22nd of April we still found lots of them, though it seemed perhaps they weren’t quite at their height.
The walk from Altrincham to Durham Massey also wasn’t quite a country walk, but it had its moments.
From the town:
With its suspicious great-coated highwaymen and thieves:
I confess, though, I love these few weeks when we get to walk softly through a world of flower petals:
We had a bit of country lane before arriving at the deer park crawling with human beings (and a few highly indifferent deer):
I confess I didn’t love the house (once belonging to the Earls of Warrington and then Stamford) so much as the old brick outbuildings — some of them from the original Elizabethan period I imagine, like the mill:
The stables (and everything being surrounded by such beautiful stretches of water really helps):
These are places of work, unlike the ostentation of the house which is a thing of Empire. And if you weren’t sure, they immortalised a black figure right dead centre in front of it to remind you:
Not a slave, the plaque is quick to proclaim, but a moor. Cemented into eternal service.
We were there for the bluebells though, I admit I should have chosen a wilder wood, with no memories of slavery and long stretches of bluebells to be stumbled across at will, but ah well. They were beautiful here none the less.
The other spring flowers were also stunning, they have truly done a wonderful job making this a winter/early spring garden with color lasting beyond all of the crocuses and most of the daffodils, but before many of the other flowers are yet out.
The new foliage of the trees:
We walked back to Navigation Road station along the Bridgewater Canal.
Returning to both Victorian industrial splendour in the shape of these 1897 Linotype works (clearly being prepared for what I imagine will be more ugly luxury flats, but I am glad they are keeping the facades at least):
And some more modern splendours of ugliness:
We ended the day with Fast and Furious 8, which was a ridiculous and enjoyable as expected, though this AMC cinema always make me feel as though the apocalypse has already happened when we come in this entrance.
A grand day.
The amount of people I now realise are fascinated by graveyards makes my own fascinations rather less interesting than I once thought they were… still. I join the ranks of those who puzzle about their place (along with all of their practicalities and their meanings) in the city, who love how they often sit palimpsestic in familiar spaces suddenly rendered strange when you uncover what lies beneath, love how they also provide pockets of green, whether made open parks or retaining their gravestones. I love cities where they are integrated into the fabric like this, a reminder to live life well.
So I could hardly resist the Granary Burying Ground while walking past it in Boston. The grave of Crispus Attucks and four others killed in the Boston Massacre. Paul Revere, Sam Adams and others (where the tourists clustered and I did not).
I found this the most interesting.
‘This tomb is the property of Elizabeth Hickling and Mary Hooten heirs of Deac. John Lee’. A classical obelisk, and a startling conception of property ownership beyond life itself. A proclamation even. You can’t take it with you, but I suppose you can try to claim it with the presence of your bones. I also note they were not daughters, sisters, wives, mothers but only heirs.
No one else seemed to find this startling.
It made me wonder whether their lives were really self-defined by property and its relations. How cramped and sterile, how tragic, yet how little there would be to mourn. If it were true.
I confess I was also rather amazed at the memento mori on most of the gravestones (apart from the classical obelisks like the one above, and a handful of fat angels). Rarely found by me in English (or Irish) graveyards, I have only ever seen this abundance in Valleta’s St John’s Co-Cathedral, belonging to the Templars. The knights had dedicated themselves to ‘protecting’ Christendom and fighting the Moors (for pillage and plunder), I am wondering if it is this battle against the fierce ‘other’ they held in common with the protestants of Boston on their lands conquered and taken by force. Pure speculation.
Preoccupations with property, preoccupations with death. There is always such a very different glimpse into social relations that the ceremonies and geographies of death clarify. Like the importance of property ownership. Like the value of life.
Children become persons at the age of 6, men and women after 12. Blacks are buried more cheaply than whites. I have not yet read Chloe Spear’s narrative, but I have read Phillis Wheatley (the surname of the man who believed he owned her).
I suppose the reduced rates reflect the fact that they were only to be buried with those who claimed ownership.
I continued my walk to the north end to meet someone, a welcome break from the thousands of geographers and the mad networking of the AAG. Very shortly I saw this, by way of contrast yet also continuity as it was almost Easter.
Off to Katie’s neighbourhood, and a walk under the bridge past this haunting graffiti after some pizza, some coffee, some wine…
For a dinner of pupusas, glorious pupusas that I have not had for years, provided by the vibrant Salvadoran community there that I never knew existed, and flavoured more richly through memories of our time together at CARECEN. And old pictures.
We started at the Lowry on Saturday — arriving in Media City. My partner argues it should be pronounced Mediacity, which does better reflect how shiny it is, how empty and windswept yet expensive, how soulless though it has gone a half-hearted length trying for soul. A few families gave it some life, some heart. But it feels alien from the vantage point of the estates that lie near it:
And honestly, how dared they name the outlet mall after one of my favourite painters known for his incredible street scenes full of workers, children, dogs and cats, sympathetic views of all of us with all of our deformities and sadnesses and tired loneliness showing. Against a great backdrop of factories. One of the great painters of the working classes, the misfits, the outcasts. What I found most poignant was that he painted what would soon be lost. Preserved memories of a city being demolished around him. Like St Simon’s church here:
And now here he is in the ruins of the lively docks. I wish I had seen his pictures in the old Salford Art Gallery. First public library in the whole of the UK. I could see why some were upset when they moved them, though inside the new gallery the space is lovely. But honestly, the mall.
But this post isn’t about Lowry, not this one. (For more on Lowry you should read Mark Bould’s amazing post here.) It’s about some of the landscapes and the factories as they appear now. Nothing at Mediacity called for a photograph somehow, not even by its ugliness. It’s just bland despite its bling, built for consumption and status. Uncomfortable. Cold.
I love water, and yet the water along these old Salford Quays was nowhere inviting or picturesque until we left the regenerated area behind us. I loved the canal, however, the vibrance of the graffiti down alongside it. The exuberance of colour and character. Educational too, as I learned all about David Icke and his belief that we were being invaded by lizard people from outer space. Then there was the kid who walked past us with a backpack disguised as Captain America’s shield.
But regeneration was everywhere — in the great banks of painfully plain boxy buildings that could be either offices or ‘luxury’ apartments, in the old factories still beautiful and tastefully renovated, but swallowed up by the cheap new build. In the still empty lots strewn with rubbish and the poverty looking even dingier. This regeneration sat strange and isolated alongside the asphalted motorway, the wreckage of earlier decades that tore down neighbourhoods to build roads of great size funneling speeding cars past with a roaring and a coughing of fumes. Much of this walk was experienced as the city planners’ great fuck you to the pedestrian. I wondered who had thought a sign welcoming the driver to Manchester in a desolate traffic circle might be a good idea, especially alongside the changing neon sign that carried advertisements for Sky News followed by a notice in small font that the city was working to end homelessness.
Seems like there are more people sleeping rough every evening I walk through the streets.
Still we found pockets of awesomeness, a sense of the past. A reminder that more existed in life, in our humanity.
Everywhere these contrasts. Click any photo below and it will take you to a slide show…
It is so hard to photograph trees, but the burn of Kelburn Castle was of surpassing loveliness and contrasts on this mid-February day. Wind through branches filled the world, an icy roaring mostly above our heads — a few branches came down around us as we were walking. One huge crack and a falling of one just in front of us provided some photographic comedy gold (Much as did my wearing three shirts, jumper, hoodie and coat), but also a slight thrill of danger.
But the woods, oh the woods. Empty of people, full of forest soundings. They sang impossibly beautiful around us in traceries of twigs framed by moss covered trunks. The red of fallen leaves still glowing.
My little brother, who at over six feet isn’t actually all that little but seemed hidden and small in this place…
Trees surrounding the falling of water…
This incredible mossy bark…
The wooly character of branches
The microcosms that live here
And then to slowly emerge from the trees to see the view of the Firth of Clyde and its islands and snow-capped mountains in the distance:
And its unexpected additions
From there we returned back to the castle, to a most wonderful walled garden and trees tamed — yet not entirely.
Single trees, enormous and ancient yews, some of them planted over a thousand years ago and framing more formal gardens alongside Kelburn castle. Three of Scotland’s most historic trees are here.
The first spring flowers I have seen this year, and a few other budding branches:
This whole place is primarily geared towards kids, families, campers — there were wonderful things for kids all around, though I was glad that the weather meant we had the place to ourselves and I imagine it is heaving in the spring and summer. I quite love what these Brazilian artists did to the castle when let loose on it:
But the last bit of the walk brought an unexpected reminder of some of the underlying social relations that have clouded this place. Not least that it is privately owned, but also in how it connected to power and Empire. All of this beauty was once owned by the Earl of Glasgow, who also served as governor of New Zealand — in an old not-very-waterproof shed sits a small museum with some of his collection. The faces of those who had their own wilds stolen from them stared back at us.
Tristram and I drove down to Kelburn Castle, and it was baltic, with rain almost sleet as we left but we headed from Hamilton towards Largs and occasionally the clouds would break to reveal patches of blue sky. Some sunshine, though lighting the world up far from us. The wind was freezing, even among the trees. Ice lined the puddles of water, though water flowed and rivuleted everywhere down the burn as we climbed it.
It was astounding to see these amazing snowdrops:
Thousands of them. Like these, adorning the banks, among these enormous, ancient trees.
As we walked back to the car park, we passed this last, lone utterly mad daffodil.
In the walled garden there were some beautiful rhododendrons blooming as well — I love walled gardens, what wonderful places they are in this climate! Yet I don’t feel I can count them really.