Coming Up Harlem

A revival of the fabled New York community inspires pride and controversy

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Willie Kathryn Suggs, a former television producer turned real estate broker, says Harlem puts her at ease. “I wanted to live in Harlem when I came to Manhattan, but my father said no way,” she says. “So I got an   apartment on East 44th Street. Women there assumed that I must be a domestic. They’d ask if I had an extra day. It didn’t matter that I was a TV producer at ABC, dressed to the nines. All they saw was my brown skin. Then I moved to the West Side, and white guys would jingle the change in their pockets and ask me if I was working. They thought I was a hooker!” In 1985, Suggs bought a Harlem town house, which she also uses as an office. “Up here,” she says, “people ask me if I’m a teacher. There’s a comfort level here that a person of color doesn’t have anywhere else. That’s why black folks move here.”


“For me, it was all about the architecture,” says Warner Johnson, an Internet entrepreneur. Johnson led a new generation into the historic Graham Court apartment house, located in Washington Heights. The 1901 building, with its interior courtyard and vast residences, “reflects the grandeur of another age,” says Johnson.


“For those of us who are creative, there is a sense of connectivity to Harlem,” says interior decorator Sheila Bridges, who also lives at Graham Court. “In no other place have African-Americans made such a contribution to the arts.”


In the'20s, white people went to Harlem primarily for entertainment. Today, they also go there to buy homes. Six years ago, Beth Venn and Tom Draplin, who were then renting an apartment in Washington Heights, began a search for a place big enough to raise a family. For the price of a smallish apartment on the Upper West Side, says Venn, they bought a big 1897 house on Hamilton Terrace, around the corner from Hamilton Grange, which was built by Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.


Tom, an architectural illustrator, and Beth, curator of software mogul Peter Norton’s art collection, both grew up in “whiter than milk” Midwestern communities, says Beth. “We really wanted our kids to grow up with other cultures and histories,” says Tom. But friends and family expressed concerns about their safety. The couple hesitated even to mention the property’s location to her father. But when he visited from Illinois to attend their wedding, she recalls, “the people from across the street brought us a bottle of champagne and took Dad over to tour their house. The outpouring of neighborliness was powerful and put everyone at ease.”


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