When you think of Sugar Hill, the first thing that pops into mind is the Sugar Hill Gang. You probably know most of the words to their most famous song, Rappers Delight, but do you know the area of Manhattan to which this group owes its name? The area is called Sugar Hill, and it generally sits within the border of 145th Street to 155th Street going north to south, and Edgecombe Avenue to Amsterdam Avenue going east to west. Tucked away on a hill above Central Harlem, the views are unmatched—looking out toward downtown Manhattan from the south, onto the Hudson River from the west, and over the Bronx and Yankee Stadium to the east. Sugar Hill has retained much of its elegance and beauty as its terrain has always separated it from the rest of Harlem, and it retains a more residential neighborhood vibe.
Historically, Sugar Hill gets its name from the sweet life that many of the protagonists of the Harlem Renaissance were living at that time. Many of the jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway found their home in Sugar Hill, as well as notables such as Thurgood Marshall and W.E.B. Du Bois. The neighborhood still echoes the grandiose era with its beautifully constructed brownstones that were the envy of the day, and still remain some of Manhattan’s most prized real estate. Many families have kept these homes for generations, so the character of the area is still early twentieth century. Much of the commercial activity in Harlem is concentrated between 125th Street and 116th Street, yet Sugar Hill has always remained primarily residential. This, however, is changing with new community initiatives and a café scene that is working to build upon the grandeur and unique neighborhood qualities that Sugar Hill residents know and love.
To get a feel for Sugar Hill and the surrounding Hamilton Heights neighborhood, it’s worth taking a walk down Convent Avenue from 145th Street down to 135th Street to see the craftsmanship of the twentieth-century architecture and design. This tree-lined street is one of the most beautiful streets you will find in Manhattan and showcases brilliant works of art that create a most serene setting. Taking a detour to Hamilton Place, which runs parallel to Convent Avenue, is well worth the extra steps. Many of these artistically crafted homes are still single-family homes, and are must-sees for any architectural enthusiast. At the end of Hamilton Terrace, you run into a peculiar federal style home with a wrap around porch, perched on a hill. This house was the home of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury and founder of the Bank of New York. In fact, Hamilton Heights and historic West Harlem owe their names to Secretary Hamilton and the thirty-three acres of land he owned.
It’s worth mentioning that not only did Alexander Hamilton live in Hamilton Heights, but just a few blocks to the north of Sugar Hill near 160th Street, you will find the oldest home in Manhattan (built in 1765), where George Washington set up headquarters during the Revolutionary War. The home is certainly worth a visit and the public is free to tour the grounds and garden. If you’re lucky, you will be able to enjoy an open-air jazz concert in the gardens hosted by Marjorie Eliot and her group. Ms. Eliot is a notable figure in Sugar Hill and Hamilton Heights, as she hosts jazz musicians every Sunday in her apartment at 555 Edgecombe Avenue. The public is free to enjoy the jazz sounds of today and yesteryear, all in the comfort of her home. The show usually starts around 4 p.m., so be sure to get there early to grab a seat. Space is limited!
If you are wondering where the best places are to eat, I’d recommend the Grange Bar and Eatery with its microbrews and delicious cocktails. The menu is contemporary American and Italian cuisine that is all sourced from local New York farms. You are sure to find the diverse community of Sugar Hill dining at the Grange well into the night, especially since the restaurant is open daily until 4 a.m. If you are thirsting for a cold brew, you must head across the way to Hogshead, which features over twenty craft beers and an excellent selection of small plates to share with friends. The atmosphere is friendly, and the staff is knowledgeable about what New York City’s latest microbreweries have to offer.
For coffee addicts, Taszo Espresso Bar is the place to grab a morning coffee or hang out to study or chat with friends. There is usually a musical act at least once a week featuring local talent, so be sure to talk with Haitem Weslati, Taszo’s owner, about the latest events. The exposed brick and floor to ceiling windows provide an inviting atmosphere that draws in the local community and curious visitors. Haitem doesn’t allow laptops in the front of the café, but this adds to the conversation-friendly vibe. The newest kid on the block is The Monkey Cup on Amsterdam Avenue, which serves a beautifully tailored selection of coffee. There are only a few seats inside, but it’s worth the time to satisfy your caffeine fix while you look up at the plant-laced ceiling.
One of the best local markets in Harlem is the Sugar Hill Market, which is housed in a brownstone known as La Maison d’Art on 132nd Street. Here you will find Harlem’s talent exposing their latest collection of jewelry and clothing design. Art collectors won’t be disappointed either, as this market has created a lot of buzz within the Harlem art community. The Sugar Hill Development’s farmers’ market is also popular, with its first season underway and continuing into November. It used to be the case that Sugar Hill was overlooked on the farmers’ market scene. The closest market was in Morningside Park, but now Sugar Hill residents have the opportunity to go every Saturday on the corner of 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue to enjoy a live jazz band to help punctuate the vibe at the farmers’ market. Sugar Hill Development was not only the brains behind this market, but they built the 124 affordable apartments overlooking the plaza where the farmers’ market is held. The mixed-use building also houses the Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling, and usually has an exhibit running of local Harlem artists.
In many communities that are experiencing gentrification, there is the unfortunate byproduct of a changing facade in that community. Although Sugar Hill is experiencing a boost in the café and restaurant scene, many of these owners are all supporting local talent and hosting events built around the community art scene. Tsion Café is a perfect example of how private owners are using their space to not only prepare delectable food for the Sugar Hill community but to also provide a platform for up and coming artists. In this way, the redevelopment of Sugar Hill is only benefiting the community of families, students, and young artists alike. Everyone is working together to maintain the integrity and character of this historic Harlem neighborhood.