Convent Avenue, a Place that Matters
August 9th, 2010, 10:45 am
Take a stroll down Convent Avenue in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Harlem and you’ll pass the buildings that Duke Ellington, Jimmy Rushing and Cab Calloway once called home. Nominated to the Census of Places that Matter for its many layers of New York City history, this broad residential street has been home to some very notable New Yorkers. Extending from 127th Street, through City College and up to 152nd Street, Convent Avenue is one of the city’s most cherished exclusively-residential streets. Shaded with trees and lined with rows of small-scale residential buildings it remains a kind of time capsule, largely unchanged since the early days of jazz.
Once a rural countryside, Alexander Hamilton – the first United States Secretary of the Treasury – acquired a 32-acre tract of land in the summer of 1800 for the site of his country estate, which he named Hamilton Grange. Convent Avenue itself was officially laid down in the mid-19th century after the erection of the Convent of the Sacred Heart, which stood just south of 136th Street. The area remained largely unpopulated until the late 1880s when the elevated train was extended above 125th Street along Eighth Avenue, and a cable car railway began running along what is today Amsterdam Avenue. Linked to the flourishing commercial districts of downtown, the area attracted speculative real estate developers who bought up the plots of land that lined Convent Avenue. Before long, single-family houses sprung up and middle-class white professionals moved in.
A second wave of development at the start of the 20th century, led to a number of low-rise apartment buildings with luxurious lobbies and spacious interiors that attracted even more tenants, many of whom where employed at the newly relocated College of the City of New York, just a short walk away.
Throughout the post-depression years, successful black professionals began to replace white residents as the population of Central Harlem soared. Historian John Henrik Clarke Housel, civil rights leader Walter White, composer Billy Strayhorn, writer and critic George S. Schuyler, Althea Gibson, the first black tennis player to win Wimbledon, and Harold Stevens, the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of New York State, all took up residence on this street.
Convent Avenue continues to attract visitors today. The varied silhouettes of the rooftops and the small scale of the street drew director Wes Anderson to film The Royal Tenenbaums here in 2001.
Explore this historic avenue with MAS this Saturday, August 14th, at 10:30am, as urban historian Marty Shore conducts a tour of the Harlem Renaissance that will end along Convent Avenue in Hamilton Heights.
Top photo by Craig S. O’Connell.