By Rafael Hernandez
This week I’m correcting a huge oversight on my part. Now I always talk about how I’m from uptown but I have yet to take you guys through the neighborhood I hail from. I’m from a place called Hamilton Heights or Hungry Ham as some call it, which is where Harlem and Washington heights meet, and if you were wondering yes it gets its name from that Hamilton, as this was where Alexander Hamilton spent his last to years on 143rd Street and Convent Avenue. It starts from 135th street all the way up to 155th and is sandwiched by St. Nicholas Avenue and the Hudson River. Now that you got the lay of the land, let’s take it from the top.
On a trip down from Washington heights, I had a few joints of a strain called Paul Bunyan I was tryna dispose of, so I took a turn to Riverside on 157th street and lit one up. As I walked downtown I passed by Trinity Church Cemetery, which was an extension to Trinity church that’s built down in the Financial District. It also served as my old smoke spot way back when I was an edgy teen rocking metal band shirts. I’d try to relive some old times but I had other things on my mind so I pushed on. To my right was an overlook of the Hudson River, where you usually get a crystal clear view of New Jersey from the Washington bridge to downtown. I stopped for a moment to try and see Jersey but it was a rainy day in the city so no luck for me.
Further down the path is a small park and at the center is a huge monument of a man's silhouette. This park is dedicated to Ralph Ellison, a former resident of the neighborhood and author of one of the most influential books I’ve ever read, “The Invisible Man”. No, not the one about the actual invisible man but the existentialist novel of Black invisibility in American society. I used to read his book in his park when it was given to me in highschool, and now I always stop and reflect on some of the gems hidden inside those pages. After a rain soaked moment, I made my way up the massive hill to Broadway.
As soon as I hit the ave, I was greeted with the sweet hip moving rhythms of Dominican Dembow music and the humming of clippers coming out of a local barbershop. COVID or not Dominican barbershops are always a party, where they put you on to the fire music coming out of the Dyckman clubs. Oh and you better not be in a rush because you ain’t leaving that chair without hearing at least one life story.
As I walked down the ave, my first joint was but a small ember, so what better way to light the next one. I strategically fused the cherry from one joint to the other, all under a tiny umbrella, now that’s what I call talent. At this point I find myself on 145th street, in front of that McDonald’s Jay-Z talks about in “Empire State of Mind”, and I look down the hill to see Riverbank State Park. Home to one of the best ice skating rinks and public pools in the city (I went to summer camp there so I might be biased). Opposite that is Amsterdam and the start of Sugar Hill which was the most affluent part of Harlem back during the Harlem Renaissance. Its name comes from its residents living the “sweet life,” with former residents as Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshal, W. E. B Du Bois, and many more. A few blocks down on 138th is City College, the first public college in the US and still one of the best engineering and computer science schools in the city.
Around here you can get some pretty good Dominican food and cheap pizza, But there aren’t as many spots as there used to be. One such place to disappear is Olga’s Pizza, which is the pizza I hold above all others, it’s a taste of my childhood lost to time. Although Hamilton Heights is a bustling neighborhood it isn’t exempt from the horrors of gentrification. It literally hits home for me because a lot of the places I use to hold near and dear in my childhood are being replaced with cookie cutter franchises and artisanal restaurants and bars. Now I do feel there is room for growth and change in a neighborhood, but when the new displaces the old without a cultural exchange, it’s hard to see the silver lining.
As I ash out my jay on the side of a mailbox on 135th, I find myself staring up at these imposing brown towers I know so well. This is 3333 broadway, though it’s facade may look like the Ps (the projects) . It's a community apartment complex, and unless you want to catch some static with the residents, you better come correct. At one point in time this used to be a very tense block to be on, with a lot of action from both the police and the local dealers, so suffice to say it was very hard to cop weed sometimes. And in the heart of this once furious Harlem jungle lives the sweetest old lady with the most delicious recipes, my Grandma Ana. To this day those Tostones & Salchichon (fried plantains & spanish salmi) from Tower C hit different, and are always a good end to a journey through Hungry Ham. See you guys in the next adventure and make sure to pack your Dutches.