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Whose Harlem Is It?

“Bull crap! That’s bull crap. Nobody stops you from paying 50 cents for the Post, 50 cents for the Daily News, $1.25 for the New York Times. Guess what they have? They have articles on real estate! They have a real-estate pullout section! If you simply read it, you say, ‘Oh, there’s a program. If I take four classes, a total of eight hours in this class, sponsored by Harlem congregational churches, right? I can get up to $70,000 free.’ It’s called a grant. Now, if you had $70,000, do you know what Willie could sell you? We sold a five-and-a-half-room co-op for $90,000. All he needed was $20,000. I’ve been privileged to speak to those classes in the last year, and there are black folks in there, there’s white folks in there, there’s foreign-born people in there. And I’m thinking, Well, why isn’t the class all black? Because a whole bunch of black folks, for whatever reason, just don’t bother to go. So what’s your excuse now? I just told you where you can get $70,000. You don’t need any money!

The last time I meet with Suggs, she’s showing me another place in Hamilton Heights that she’s getting ready to sell. I ask her if the guilty verdict in the abuse-of-process matter might endanger her broker’s license. “No,” she says. “No, no, no.” She says no twenty times in all, shaking her head sharply, as if each no will make the verdict go away. “I’m abusing process by telling the authorities that you removed things without my permission? Anybody who knows what happened knows that’s illogical!”

Still, she can’t get the idea out of her head. She picks up her cell phone and calls her lawyer. “Mortykins! Is there any way the Department of State can say, ‘Oh, you aren’t worthy of being a broker, because you were found guilty of abuse of process,’ which is bullshit? … So abuse of process has nothing to do with it? Okay … No, no, no. He’s asking, like, if you’re a sex fiend and you’re convicted, you shouldn’t be working at a—a—a day-care center, so if you’re a real-estate broker and you’ve abused process—Grrr!—how can you be a broker? … Thank you!”

She hangs up, smiling again. “That’s what I thought.”

Even if Suggs doesn’t lose her license, she’s working in a different Harlem now, with new challenges. The boom is waning in Harlem, as it is everywhere. Competition from real-estate giants like the Corcoran Group and Douglas Elliman is getting more intense. And the Harlem customer base is changing. When the only people who can afford to buy in the neighborhood are wealthy, a homegrown broker who works without a real office may not be exactly what clients are looking for.

For a woman of her wealth, Suggs leads an oddly spartan existence. She’s only now getting around to renovating her two buildings, and she hasn’t had a working kitchen since 1991. (She loves takeout, she says.) She says she gives much of what she earns to her fourteen nieces and nephews. Her work is her life, she says, and she has no plans on giving up anything.

“Look,” she says, “anybody who doesn’t like me is not gonna like me no matter what I say, no matter what the court says. I spend my time working and selling the houses and doing what I’m supposed to be doing, which is all that I’ve ever done. Honey, I’m not going anywhere. I’m not about to start a new career, okay? I’ve invested too much time. I also like what I do, you know? I don’t worry about anything. I tell my agents if you’re going to be a Realtor, don’t expect to be liked.”

She laughs. “People like lawyers more than real-estate brokers. I mean, we might as well be Reverend Wright.”


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