Growing-up in upper Manhattan, on 151st Street between Broadway and Riverside, I always thought of my neighborhood as Harlem or Sugar Hill. Mom, who’d lived in the area since the mid-1950s, referred to it as Hamilton Grange, named after the post office located on 146th between Broadway and Amsterdam. Decades later others, especially real estate agents, referred to that section of New York City as Hamilton Heights. Though we may not always agree on the section’s name, for certain when you get off of the subway at 145th and Broadway you’re uptown.
While the community has a rich history that includes former resident Alexander Hamilton, for whom the territory was named, the many literary figures raised within those blocks including J.D. Salinger, who lived in the grand Halidon Court on 153rd Street until he was 9, and the towering apartment buildings (“pre-war,” their modern day listings read) designed by renowned architects including Emory Roth, Neville & Biggie and Mulliken & Moeller.
As a writer I’ve often used the neighborhood as a locale in both essays and short fiction, weaving places, faces and literal old schools into various narratives. Having moved to 628 West 151 Street (River Cliff apartments) in 1967 when I was 4, I resided there for twenty-five years. Somewhere along my literary journey I began looking online for old pictures of the community to jog my memory.
It was while researching the area for the 2013 story “Jaguar and the Jungleland Boogie,” an adventure tale published in Black Pulp, edited by Gary Phillips, that I discovered the wondrous photography of Thaddeus Wilkerson. A turn of the century documentarian of the city, Wilkerson’s stark street photography were used for postcards that he published himself. His pictures of New York City, more than four hundred of Manhattan alone, were produced from 1909 through 1916, with the majority produced in 1910 and 1911.
Born in 1872, Wilkerson, an Ohio native, was 37 when he started shooting his adopted city. His pictures have a strange quality that is reminiscent of noir. Though the genre wouldn’t launch until decades after Wilkerson’s most prolific period, his work shares the same expressionistic sensibilities. Since Wilkerson had a full-time job, I imagine taking photos began as a hobby before becoming an obsession. His views included street life, as well as various hotels, churches, municipal buildings, monuments and parks.
There are few people in his pictures, making me wonder if he was shy or simply preferred shooting buildings. Each picture had the subject’s address written on the right of the image and his signature “TW” on the left. Wilkerson’s photos, much like the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, were a celebration of the rising city, a tribute to urbanism and a town on the come up. It was Wilkerson’s photo of PS. 186, one of my old schools, which made me notice him.
Located on both 145th and 146th with courtyards on each side, the massive school was built in 1902 and was the handy work of American architect Charles B.J. Snyder. The school’s mailing address listed as 521 West 145th Street, it was directly across the street from Wilkerson’s apartment building at 522 West 145th; his address was printed on the back left side of each postcard.
There was a spooky quality to Wilkerson’s pristine photo. He watermarked the picture, Public School 186. As though taken early on a Sunday morning, there are no people in the shot. The street too is bare, devoid of either horses or cars. The picture is so quiet you can see the silence.
PS 186 was an only a few years old when the picture was taken, and the clean building had an aura of promise and ambition. I imagine Wilkerson staring out of the window at dawn as the sun rose over PS 186, being struck by the brutal beauty of the structure and wanting to capture that exquisiteness with his bulky camera.
Almost sixty years later, when I started first grade at PS 186, the building was dirty. A building that I remember as dark and drafty with wrought iron staircases; in 1969 the building, with its layers of lead paint, was six years away from being condemned. I was a six-year-nerd who’d previously gone to a private Black prep academy known as the Modern School. However, because of a domestic rift between my parents, my father refused to pay the tuition and I wound-up in public school.
As a pudgy, unathletic boy, I wasn’t prepared to enter the rowdy lion’s den and felt a sense of dread from the moment I entered the courtyard. Stepping inside the building that first day, the school had a gothic appearance that reminded me of something out of a Dickens’ story. I don’t have many memories of that year, but I did make friends with a wild Spanish kid named Richie. We were buddies in class, where the young white woman teacher often had a frightened expression on her face.
Thankfully, Richie also nominated himself as my bodyguard and came to my rescue when some bad asses tried to mug me in the staircase. “Leave him alone,” he screamed from the top of the stairs. My protector had juice and the other kids scattered. Those boys never bothered me again. PS 186 shut down in 1975, and abandoned for decades. In the passing years I could clearly see the crumbling brick exterior and wildlife growing out of the windows.
In 1986, the beginning of the crack cocaine era in our hood, I ran into Richie on the Broadway and 145th Street coming out of the subway station. He had been released from prison a few days before. Like a lot of young men in our neighborhood in the mid-1980s, he had gotten into the drug business. “You know there’s a crew of crack fiends living in our old school,” Richie said, nodding towards PS 186. “I’ve seen them jumping over the gates. It’s crazy.”
As a fan of decaying buildings in urban settings, I began visiting PS 186 often, standing on the crumbling staircase that I first climbed years before. Though I believed Richie, I never saw anybody through those broken windows. “Be careful on them steps, there’s a lot of rats under there,” a woman warned me one gloomy afternoon. After thanking her, I turned back around and continued to gaze at the trash filled courtyard.
In “Jaguar and the Jungleland Boogie” I described the desolate school this way: “Once the premier shining jewel of the community, time and decay had faded it from its former splendor. Sold to a local church in 1979 with promises of making it into a Boys and Girls Club, the conversion was never completed and the school was left to rot.” Today the building, by some miracle, is still standing and has been converted into apartments.
In 1970, I was sent back the Modern School for second and third grade. After I began to dread my bougie teacher Miss Wilson, who played the same classical album for the class every day at lunch and scratched my Shaft album when snatching the needle off when Isaac Hayes muttered, “Damn right.”
Months later I entered fourth grade at St. Catherine of Genoa. Located at 506 West 153rd Street next door to the church and rectory, the school wasn’t yet built when Wilkerson took pictures of the same block I walked every school day for the five years. I recall our sixth grade history teacher Mr. Waters telling the class how our neighborhood was once farmland and how Alexander Hamilton settled there, hence the name.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century, with the expansion of the subway system, that the area became more developed. Originally populated with German, Irish and Jewish immigrants, it wasn’t until the 1920s that Black people began to filter into the neighborhood. Still, while the nationalities changed, the landscape remained the same.
In the era that I had lived there, the neighborhood was majority Black and Hispanic. It was on 153rd between Broadway and Amsterdam where I rushed to the rectory in my altar boy gear on Sunday mornings for 9 o’clock mass and where I once played football so badly that I ran the wrong way, scoring a touchdown for the other team. It was on that quiet block where I sat with my friend Raymond Torres in his father’s car listening to the radio at lunchtime and, while in seventh grade, I stood against the wall of Trinity Church Cemetery with a hammer waiting for a rumble to jump off.
Though we’d gotten out of school for a half day, word had gone around earlier that Stitt, a nearby junior high known for its knuckleheads and troublemakers, wanted to jump us. While we weren’t an official gang, we were ready for whatever; in my mind there was a West Side Story/Sharks vs. Jets fantasy brewing. Everything was everything until cops from the 30th precinct, men who we knew by face from church, came to the block and made us go home.
In Wilkerson’s picture we can see a horse and buggy in the background while in the foreground there is a couple standing in front of the cemetery. It was inside that boneyard where mom used to take me to feed the squirrels until the morning we ran out of nuts and was chased out by the aggressive rodents. It was also in Trinity Cemetery where a St. Catherine’s schoolmate Armando Morales was found hanging from a tree one morning. Though I didn’t know him personally, Morales’ death was a shock to our school community.
Whether he was killed or committed suicide, I never knew, but the incident haunted me for years. In 2023 I fictionalized the hanging and creepy cemetery in the story “The King of Broadway” published in Rock and a Hard Place. “Constructed over a century ago, its gray stones sparkled under the sun’s glimmer,” the narrator thought. “Wild ivy scaled the walls that surrounded the vast cemetery from Broadway to Amsterdam. A rusty wrought-iron design on top was supposed to keep the riff-raff from climbing over.”
Diagonally across the street from the cemetery was Halidon Court, another building that St. Catherine kids passed every day and where Raymond’s grandmother lived. We often visited his grandmother’s first floor apartment at lunchtime. She was a sweet, stout woman who had no problem feeding us as telenovelas played on in the living room. Though granny couldn’t speak English she and I somehow communicated.
Halidon Court was built in 1910, and Wilkerson captured the building’s regal beauty. Though there are two figures standing in front of the building, like most of Wilkerson’s photos of apartment houses there’s a gothic sensibility in seeing these castle sized abodes perched atop of steep hills with the Hudson River in the background.
There is very little biographical information on Wilkerson, and the most that I found was published in Real Photo Postcard Guide: The People’s Photography by Robert Bogdan and Todd Weseloh (2006): “Born and raised in Spring Hill (near Clarksville), Ohio, Wilkerson is one of the most collectible New York City photo postcard photographer. He was an employee of Burroughs Adding Machine Company for more than forty years.”
Author Michael Henry Adams, writer of the wonderful coffee table book Harlem Lost and Found, wrote in his blog, “Wilkerson, like no-one else, focused on making compelling images of uptown Manhattan. His depictions, which once might have been regarded as quite ordinary, are an invaluable and rare record, rendered extraordinary by the dramatic way in which, even where buildings have remained the same, everyday life here has changed completely.” In a few of Wilkerson’s images the streets are deserted, as though upper Manhattan was a ghost town. The metropolis was on the rise, but some of Wilkerson’s images made it look like a small town with big buildings.
Still, in other pictures we see suited men in hats alongside women clad in long dresses walking in groups up Broadway or strolling along Riverside Drive. “Wilkerson’s work and the way he captured the city reminds me of both Eugène Atget and Charles Marville,” says photographer Alice Arnold. “They’re all making city images, capturing the urban landscape as it is transformed by the forces of modernity. Wilkerson’s images are haunting, but there is also an aspirational feel to them. He made these photos to sell as picture postcards, which was a booming business in those days. But remember, in 1910 cameras were heavy, required tripods, and you only had one shot to get it right.”
One of my earliest memories of childhood uptown was May 22, 1967. It was a sunny Monday morning and I, at four years old, was seated at the kitchen table having breakfast. Mom, who had just finished making eggs and sausages, was still standing by the stove when we heard a loud explosion that sounded like a bomb. “What was that? Mom screamed, turning off the stove. She quickly got me in a coat and we hurried outside.
At the bottom of the hill people gathered on Riverside Drive, leaning over the granite parapet wall. Making our way onto the drive, we too looked over the wall, shocked to see two freight trains had crashed into one another. The tracks were near the Hudson, and that day we could see New Jersey clearly.
There were flames coming from the diesel engines and, looking like the toys of a giant, boxcars billowing smoke were scattered across the tracks. Years later I depicted the tracks and freight trains in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine short story “The Life and Times of Big Poppa,” who came into town riding in a boxcar that he leapt from in 1944 and soon discovered the streets of Harlem.
The morning of the train crash firemen and police were on the scene carrying away the dead and wounded. “This is about as bad as you will find,” Mayor John Lindsey told reporters. An N.Y.P.D. friend of mom, a uniformed cop named Alvin Ingram, approached us. “You guys don’t want to be down here,” he warned. “You don’t really want to see this.”
Walking back to the corner of 151st Street I recall looking across the street at the towering buildings 740 and 745 Riverside Drive. In the shadow of those structures everything else was small. Years later I’d write an essay (“The Boogeyman Buildings” for CrimeReads) about how frigthening they were when I was a kid.
Seeing Wikerson’s pictures on Michael Henry Adams website “Style & Taste” gave me some perspective of the buildings elegance in the time before crime, drugs and fire made it them an eyesore for thirty-five years. Additionally, the same could be said for Wilkerson’s picture of 601 Broadway (151st Street), another massive building that lost its luster mid 20th-century.
Thaddeus Wilkerson was 71 years old when he died in New York City from a streptococcus throat infection in 1943. Though he lived a long life, his photography career seemingly only lasted for few years. Miraculously, the structures he shot are still standing. While his obituary in a Clarksville, Ohio newspaper cited that he was avid writer of letters to friends and family, there was no mention of his photographs.
Thankfully Thaddeus Wilkerson’s images managed to survive the near century since they were taken. Although he hasn’t achieved the name recognition as New York City chroniclers Walker Evans, Helen Levitt or Saul Leiter, for me his photographs of the town are just as significant.
Thaddeus Wilkerson images can be seen on the Museum of the City of New York website. Thanks to Alice Arnold and Michael Henry Adams for their guidance.