The Millionaire Next Door

Brownstone street on Sugar Hill.

Growing up in Harlem, I was exposed to so many different kinds of people. I was fortunate to meet a man named Mr. Jerry who lived in a white glove cooperative building across the street from my apartment building.

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Mr. Jerry owned a beautiful grey Weimaraner dog whose name might have been Happy. It was because of Mr. Jerry’s beautiful dog that we came to know him.

A Weimaraner puppy in a field...Happy looked a lot like this little fella...

A Weimaraner puppy in a field...Happy looked a lot like this little fella...

Every morning, my mother would walk me to my elementary school, PS 200, in the morning. We usually walked through Jackie Robinson Park and down Bradhurst Avenue as part of our journey. For us it was a daily quiet walk during a difficult time in Harlem where crime and drugs were prevalent. The park was a haven for neighborhood residents and their pets and it was there that we met.

At the time it was quite unusual in Harlem to see a Weimaraner as pit bulls, poodles, and Chihuahuas were more popular at the time. Weimaraners were originally bred exclusively for the German nobility as a “noble looking, reliable gun dog.” Usually grey in color, they are family friendly dogs and enjoy hunting and being around people.

My stepfather, who was with us that morning, recognized Happy as a Weimaraner and began talking to Mr. Jerry about her. My stepfather was more into dogs than he was into people and connected with other dog-lovers in our neighborhood. It wasn’t unusual for him to stop the owner of a dog he saw out walking and begin conversations with them about their dog and its breed. I recall Mr. Jerry being impressed that my stepfather knew about Weimaraners and a sort of friendship was built.

Over the years we learned that Mr. Jerry was a retired police officer who was born in North Carolina and moved to Harlem as a teenager. He had always lived on the Sugar Hill, the area we now call Hamilton Heights. He had worked with the WEP during the Depression era as a laborer and helped build Jackie Robinson Park (it was called Colonial Park in those days). After spending time in the service, he then took the Strong Man test which was the civil service exam for fireman, policeman and sanitation workers. Part physical and part written, candidates who passed could be called for any one of the agencies. Mr. Jerry passed the examination and was called by the NYPD.

During his time as a police officer he was stationed at the precinct in the Wall Street area. Many officers of the day preferred a more “rigorous” location and some would even pay under the table to go to precincts in high-crime areas because they could work the streets and receive “payoffs” from the drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes and criminals of those areas. Mr. Jerry wasn’t interested in anything like that. He was an upright citizen and an honest police officer. Instead, he became friends with bankers, lawyers, and investors who worked Wall Street. From them he learned how to save and invest his money. When he retired in addition to his pension and Social Security, he had a nice nest egg to carry him through the years. Mr. Jerry was what you would call the millionaire next door.

Not only did he own his apartment in Harlem but he had a second home in North Carolina where he often went to escape the city life and hunt with his dog, Happy. In fact, he was one of the first people to build a 3000 square-foot home in the 1980s, which was a huge deal at a time when most homes were less than 2000 square feet.

He enjoyed talking about old New York and Harlem history. He enjoyed talking with people who were proud of Harlem and really knew its history. And he encouraged us to learn more and do better for ourselves and our future. And we did!

When I think back on my childhood I recall the old Harlemites like Mr. Jerry who taught me history and made me proud to be from Harlem. And this was during a time when the news made Harlem seem like a drug infested war zone and many people (black and white) refused to go past 96th street!

These days my neighborhood is trendy and many newcomers are unfamiliar with Harlem history and the old way of life in Harlem. Many think that all Harlemites were poor and uneducated during the “rough years.” They didn’t have the benefit of knowing an old Harlemite like Mr. Jerry. (And there were more like him!) But I did. And I’m so proud to have known him.

A proud Harlemite,

Naj

Naj