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Whose Harlem Is It?

Suggs, right, in a family portrait taken in Milwaukee in 1979.  

After she closed, she realized that her broker hadn’t really helped at all. Just by walking the streets and making calls, Suggs felt she knew more about property values in Harlem than anyone else she’d talked to. She had an epiphany: “You know what? I could do a better job selling this.” Suggs got her real-estate sales license by the end of the year, turned part of the parlor floor of her new building into an office, and started selling houses on nights and weekends.

She took to her new work with an obsessive’s zeal, learning the streets of Harlem block by block, memorizing architectural styles. She remembers finding her first deal by answering a seller’s ad in the Amsterdam News for a house on 119th Street offered at $37,000. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s a ridiculous price! I can do better!’ And they said, ‘But you haven’t even seen it!’ and I said, ‘I already know the house. You’re the one that’s pink and has got a front that’s pushed out. Try $100,000.’ They said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Duh!’ ” The owners agreed to give her the listing. She says she sold the place for $79,000.

That first year, Suggs had a closing every month, an impressive success rate for a beginner. What made her different was, in part, plain aggressiveness. Traditionally, Harlem homeowners kept their properties in the family; they didn’t buy and sell them for profit. “Harlem is an overwhelmingly African-American community,” Suggs says. “And they tend to buy the house, live in the house, die in the house, and the kids get the house. But as the prices started to move up, not all of the kids wanted to stay.” Unlike the old guard of Harlem brokers, Suggs was willing to sort through tangled title histories to find every owner of an old house, then try to convince them it was in their interest to sell. She had no problem helping the process along, spending her own money to fix up places to improve their sale prices if necessary, and even negotiating with rental tenants to relocate to clear the way for a sale. At the height of the crack era, she had what now seems like a prescient vision that property values in Harlem, depressed for decades, were poised to go higher. “The island of Manhattan is thirteen miles. What’s in the middle? Harlem. The only thing that was underpriced was the middle. It had to change, because there was no place else to develop.”

“Black people can be racist,” Suggs says. “we have to tell them, ‘We were never—never—the first owner of all these houses!’ ”

When the economy began booming and crime plummeted in the nineties, white buyers became interested in Harlem for the first time in decades. Some began migrating north, Sunday Times real-estate section in hand. Suggs remembers the first “If You’re Thinking of Living In … ” piece about Hamilton Heights. “Everything changed. We’d scheduled an open house on Hamilton Terrace. And this couple showed up. And you know, rich people look rich. I mean, they just look rich. They pull up in their chauffeur-driven car. The husband gets out, opens the door for the wife, they walk up the steps. ‘Oh dear, we hope we’re not too late. We just read about Haaarlem and thought we’d take a driiiive.’ ” Where the old Harlem brokers might have paused before showing white buyers around the neighborhood, Suggs had no such reservations. To illustrate her point, she shows me a place on 120th Street that just sold for $1.65 million to a white empty-nester from Central Park West. “Do you know how many black people looked at the house and didn’t make offers anywhere near what this guy made?”

By the mid-nineties, there was a gold-rush feeling in the neighborhood. Suggs, who had quit her job at ABC in 1993 to sell homes full-time, began racking up sales records—$500,000 for 60 Hamilton Terrace in 1995, $650,000 for the same place in 1999. In 2000, she sold 416 Convent Avenue for $660,000, 420 West 144th Street for $750,000, and 54 Hamilton Terrace for $850,000. In August 2002 she broke the $2 million barrier, selling a house for $2,050,000. She won’t reveal the location, she says, because the price was so high at the time that the buyer didn’t want to go public. “Nobody believed I could sell it for that much,” Suggs says. “I said, ‘Watch me.’ ”

Suggs still operated out of her house with just one phone line; she stored many of her files in garbage bags. But now she had a staff of young sales agents. Together, they were handling some 60 closings a year. To hear at least one former colleague tell it, Suggs became obsessed with her own success. At one point near the peak of the boom, says Laura DeJesus, a former sales agent, Suggs interrupted a staff meeting to say, “I’m the greediest person you will ever meet in your life. And I just want you to know that.” “We all started laughing,” DeJesus says. “She leaned forward again. She said, ‘I am not kidding. This is not a joke.’ ”

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