The stately homes of West 147th Street in Sugar Hill were built in the 1890’s, designed by several noted architects of the day, including Frederick P. Dinkelberg, Henri Fouchaux, and John P. Leo. Many families on our block have occupied their homes for several generations, all the way back to the Great Depression of the 1930’s. In the latter half of the 20th century the block developed into a mix of boarding houses, private homes, and rental units. As decade after decade of of rampant development swept through other parts of the City, the original architecture of Sugar Hill remained remarkably untouched, one small benefit of years of “benign neglect.”
The Block Association began in the late 70’s and weathered the dangerous 80’s and 90’s—a period of robust cocaine trade and police corruption in Hamilton Heights. Our unity (renters and homeowners) and courage was sorely tested for many years. Despite the danger we all kept calling on the city to pay attention to this area.
The block was an island of peace and safety for our children (there were about 10 of the same age) who played on the block, rode bikes up and down the sidewalk and played ‘house’ with Barbie dolls on the steps. Despite the ‘Crack Epidemic’ the children created lasting friendships that they sustain through Facebook visits and returning to the block as older adults.
We also had the support of many of the block celebrities: Miss ‘Butterfly’ McQueen (#405) of Gone With the Wind, S. Epatha Merkerson of Law and Order, Samuel Jackson (#406), Clarice Taylor (#403) of The Wiz, and Linda Yearwood (#408) a writer for The Cosby Show, among others. According to his Autobiography, Malcolm X was a frequent visitor to the block as well.
New families moved in during the 80’s and 90’s, the first wave of gentrification. These new neighbors weren’t just renovating houses—they were also revitalizing the community. Our block residents come from different backgrounds, but all are invested in preserving a safe, neighborly place for all to enjoy.
In 2000 the block received landmark designation by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission as part of Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill Historic District Extension.
Today, the City is bringing more resources into Harlem as gentrification attracts investments in housing, business, education and services. The Block Association continues to demand a fair share of services from the city and attention from our elected officials. The drug problem has abated but our vigilance continues—we’re working to insure that the narcotics trade does not return. We guard against rampant development and architectural “improvements” that would blight our landmark community. We help to protect our neighbors against deed fraud and other real estate scams. We work to attract and support community organizations that serve the diverse needs of our neighbors. We guard against the unfortunate historical tendency to treat Harlem as a “dumping ground” for social service facilities that don’t fit the needs of our community.
The West 147th Street Block Association continues, as an organization of old and new inhabitants, to build on the traditions that have made us a strong and stable West Harlem/Hamilton Heights community.