Grandma’s House: The Vanishing Family Brownstone

The man who owns 11 West 122nd street was friendly enough. “I’m sorry, I’ve got a meeting,” he said with an ingratiating smile, hovering on the landing of his brownstone’s stairs. “But I’m relatively new here; I’ve only been here for around twenty years.” I thanked him and moved on. I was hunting for samples of a vanishing specimen: the single family, Harlem brownstone. Real estate developers purchasing brownstones generally seek to turn them into apartments for the upper-middle class. Any brownstone marked in Department of Building records as “single family,” I reasoned, had likely been that way at least since the sixties.

As number 11 shows, the reality is more complicated. During the last twenty years, many upper-middle class people seized the opportunity to own brownstones in Harlem, tempted by house prices that were still well under a million dollars. But the generalization of decreasing home ownership has some truth. Hours of sifting through government certificates of occupancy consistently yields older dates for single-occupancy brownstones, some dating back to the twenties and thirties. The further forward in time you go, the less single-family brownstones appear. Development’s arrow points steadily from single-family homes to condominiums.

The vanishing, single-family brownstone is one piece of the puzzle of Harlem’s gentrification. But there are those who remember a time when a family brownstone was fairly common among the poor. A 54-year-old man, who identifies simply as Mark, told me of growing up in a brownstone that housed multiple generations of extended family. The oldest generation — grandparents and great aunts — lived on the ground floor. Younger people lived further up, because they had more stairs to climb. “The older people would throw their party, and the young people would be having their own party, you know, on the third floor, with their own records and their music,” he recalled.

Today, single family brownstones in Harlem are few and far between, especially for low income families. But Madlyn Stokely, a lifelong Harlem resident and a community activist, confirmed much of Mark’s narrative. Madlyn is a remnant of an age when Harlem was a black-majority neighborhood — something that hasn’t been true since 2000. She has seen worlds pass through Harlem: She grew up in Harlem in the forties, and remained a resident during the crime-ridden sixties and seventies and throughout the neighborhood’s present day gentrification.

An elegant woman in her late sixties, she has the patiently firm voice of a teacher. Over the bangs of afternoon construction (Madlyn is renovating), she invited me into her home to discuss her memories of Harlem’s past.

Pre-1960 Harlem was mostly populated by poor to lower-middle-class blacks. “Middle to poor, and middle was black-folks’ middle, not white folks’ middle,” Madlyn related with a dry chuckle. She remembers that early Harlem as a tight-knit community, in which people of various income levels lived side by side. “That was one of the good things — that you didn’t have the same segregation of income as you have now. You had your role models, the doctor, by name, the neighborhood lawyer, by name. Everyone lived in the neighborhood. The school teachers lived in the neighborhood, even the police lived in the neighborhood. So you saw a variety of options, as a child, in terms of what you could aspire to be.”

In the memory of a child, that sort of close-knit atmosphere sticks out. “You got in trouble from anybody in the neighborhood if you did something wrong,” Madlyn recalled. “And if you got in trouble with one adult, then your parents would come…” She trailed off in a laugh. “It was vibrant. Every building was filled with people. You had your little grocery stores, your neighborhood stores — this was really before a lot of supermarkets were anywhere, except out in the suburbs. Everybody knew everybody.”

According to Madlyn, while nearly all of the buildings in Harlem were populated in the forties and fifties, most of the neighborhood’s homeowners were wealthy to middle-class families, the sort of people who lived on the stretch known as Doctors’ Row. They included people like Harold Dolly, the founder of the Mount Morris Park Association.

“I remember driving past here,” Madlyn said, referring to the area where she now lives by Marcus Garvey Park. “Most of these houses had turned into rooming houses — which was very good for a lot of people, because that was what they could afford. You had one room, you shared a bathroom. It was stable for you.”

But beginning in the seventies, as property values sank amid Harlem’s crack epidemic, lower income blacks saw a flowering of home-ownership, even as much of the neighborhood crumbled around them. According to Madlyn, poor residents could acquire a brownstone in a number of ways. Some white families, who were by now eager to get out of Harlem, passed on their houses to their domestic servants. “Sometimes they just gave them the house, because it was in such a disarray. Sometimes they sold it for next to nothing,” Madlyn said. But other poor families had to scrape together the money necessary to buy a house at reduced price. “These houses were going for — even though compared to the income, it was still a lot of money — five thousand dollars, ten thousand dollars. But you’re talking about people who weren’t making much money, so it was still, relatively speaking, expensive.”

For poor families, buying homes that could house the entire family was a major investment, and a bulwark against the dangers of economic insecurity. However, for people like Madlyn’s mother, Hilda Stokely, who bought her house at 12 West 123rd street in 1977, home ownership was about more than finances. A community activist until her death in 2011, Hilda saw property ownership as crucial for the continued vitality of black Harlem, even as many other middle-class blacks abandoned the area for safer neighborhoods. “When my mother bought the house, there were a few other people — I would say they were my peers, in their late twenties early thirties who recognized the importance of owning in Harlem,” Madlyn related. “I had several of my peers who worked with my mother — just in terms of conversation and guidance and leadership — to purchase [property].”

For Hilda, fighting for a stable, black Harlem was worth braving drug dealers, dirt, and an unresponsive city hall. “There were many people who were making choices at that time to go to other places. Hilda certainly had that opportunity, but she decided that she wasn’t going to do that. She had a sense of what the plans were for Harlem.” Referring to Harlem’s gentrification, Madlyn said, “All this didn’t happen by chance. It’s something that’s been in the works for at least the fifty years since [my mother] bought the house.”

For a low-income family, buying a brownstone was no guarantee that they would keep it. “When the stabilizing force in the family passed on, the children weren’t often able to [keep it], for a variety of reasons,” Madlyn told me. That stabilizing force could be a grandmother, a father, or a great-aunt — anyone who had amassed equity and was committed to maintaining home ownership. Sometimes the next generation succumbed to drug addictions, or else wanted to leave Harlem for better neighborhoods. “People would walk away from houses, or sell them for money that seemed like a lot of money to them at the time, which it probably was,” Madlyn explained. “I mean, you had to be a sort of visionary. It was hard to look at this and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to hold off because this is going to flip around soon.’ You had to be a person who paid attention to a lot of things to be able to see that.”

With diminished ownership, the core group of property owners envisioned by Hilda Stokely has substantially eroded. I didn’t need Mark to tell me that the neighborhood is changing. “There’s not as much robbing, but you used to know your neighbors,” he said, summing up the essential paradox of gentrification. As we chatted on the corner of 123rd and Malcolm X one afternoon, he pointed to a young, white couple crossing the street. “I don’t know these people. But they don’t bother us, and we don’t bother them.”

Originally published in WAX Digital Magazine, an affiliate of The Harlem Bee.