Harlem in 35mm

Words by Natalie Hoffman
Images by Hugo Beniada

April 24 2016

Stretching from 135th to 155th between Riverside Drive and Edgecombe Avenue, the streets of Hamilton Heights are lined with churches, bodegas, brownstones and barbershops. It’s a quiet Sunday morning; for someone accustomed to the deafening sounds of Lower Manhattan, the lack of noise is nearly startling. Every so often, sounds from the neighborhoods morning services saturate the outside air, as the tardy trickle in through half-open doors. Roaming without purpose or direction, we take an interest in an abandoned Cadillac, idling in disrepair in a run-down lot next to a modest Baptist church. A woman in a sunglasses and a colorful hat steps outside, cigarette in hand. She’s friendly, and stops to comment on the car. “It’s been there for years,” she says leisurely between drags. “It’s a shame, it must have been a beautiful car!”

Our interaction with the woman was brief but telling, and would be repeated during the following few hours we spent in Hamilton Heights. There’s a distinct sense of community here. Passersby come and go almost exclusively in pairs, dressed in various states of Sundays best. Things seem slow, unhurried. At Saint Nicholas Park, kids play what seems to be a never ending game of two on two. We stop to ask for the score; they say they aren’t keeping it.

At times this slowness gave way to a certain sentiment of temporality, a possible acknowledgement of the area’s ongoing transition. Look up and you’ll spot an abundance of “For Sale by Owner” signs peaking out of large brownstone windows. An enclave once synonymous with black urban America, in recent years Harlem in general, and Hamilton Heights specifically, has attracted a more diverse range of residents looking for space and affordability. The area’s historic attributes don’t hurt, either. City College of New York, founded in 1847, borders Saint Nicholas Park to the west, its neo-Gothic architecture towering over the modest three and four-story row houses below. At Convent Avenue and 141st Street sits the Hamilton Grange National Monument, a pastel colored federal-style home once belonging to U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton, dating back to 1902.

For now, at least, the area’s spirit of community and composure remains, carried by the churches, bodegas, brownstones, barbershops, and the people you’ll find inside.

Hugo Beniada is a little bit of everything: photographer, t-shirt maker, creative, food enthusiast, and globetrotter. Hailing from Chantilly, France, he splits time between Paris and New York. Follow him on instagram

A California native and recent transplant to New York City, Natalie Hoffman is comedian, writer, production designer and big time Americana nostalgic working in feature film. Follow her on instagram.