In early March, the techno and house-music collective Sublimate posted a listing for its latest all-night event, featuring D.J.s from Detroit and London at an unnamed “historic Bed-Stuy locale.” To some Brooklyn night-life devotees, however, the cryptic venue was obvious: Sugar Hill Restaurant & Supper Club.
In the past year alone, Sugar Hill, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, has hosted two tapings of Boiler Room — a streaming platform that broadcasts D.J. sets around the world — as well as underground parties about every other week, many of which go until sunrise. And although the club’s owner, Eddie Freeman, who opened it in 1979, couldn’t recall the word “techno” and wished event producers wouldn’t keep the lights so low, he has always shared their love of night life.
Freeman, born outside of Kinston, N.C., said that he left for New York in 1957 on a Trailways bus with $40 and a box of chicken. The son of sharecroppers, he left behind a segregated rural community. White-owned businesses occupied one side of Kinston’s Main Street. Across the road, black-owned restaurants, grocery stores and nightclubs thrived in a section called Sugar Hill.
“Down at Sugar Hill was where everybody hung out,” Freeman said.
Settling in Bedford-Stuyvesant, he found work, first at factories and driving gypsy cabs, then at the post office with a burglar-alarm business on the side. Using his retirement savings, he purchased a building on DeKalb Avenue and opened a discothèque. Nostalgic for the clubs back home, he named it Sugar Hill.
Now 78, Freeman shares the day-to-day responsibilities of the nightclub with his two children, Aaron and Akesha, who inherited his enthusiasm for the space. For Aaron, only 14 on opening night, the club felt like a second home.
Sugar Hill “was his dream,” Aaron said of his father, “and just to see it finally coming to fruition, me being the son, I felt like it was my dream as well.”
Aaron recalled bringing guests’ coats up to their family apartment in an adjacent building in the club’s early days. “We didn’t even have a coat rack back then,” he said. “I ran upstairs to my dad’s second-floor bedroom.”
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At first, the D.J.s played “nothing but disco,” according to Eddie Freeman. But over the years, Sugar Hill diversified its offerings, featuring R&B stars like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and the house-music pioneer Colonel Abrams. On the weekends, Aaron, then studying at Farmingdale State College, came home to run Sugar Hill while his father worked night shifts at the post office. But by the mid-80s, the club grew lucrative enough for Freeman to leave that job to manage Sugar Hill full time.
As it grew, including the addition of a restaurant in 1994, Sugar Hill garnered a reputation as a community gathering place and served as a meeting point for national political figures, including Jesse Jackson and Hillary Clinton. Civic involvement was important to Freeman from the outset. “He wanted to be in the meetings,” Akesha said. “He wanted to be a part of the fabric of the community.”
And Freeman and his children are intent on keeping Sugar Hill a family affair. At one point, Freeman said, he was offered $15 million to sell the property, which he turned down: “What would I do with $15 million?” A vacation, perhaps? “I don’t need to travel,” Freeman said. “I’m living in the greatest city in the world.”
Now in its 40th year, Sugar Hill has remained an institution in Bedford-Stuyvesant, even as the neighborhood undergoes rapid gentrification. “When we first opened, it was the ’hood,” Aaron put it bluntly. “If you saw a white person in the neighborhood, you would be shocked.”
The influx of new residents has brought an unmistakable change to the club’s clientele. “Now, you see a line around the corner, and it’s like 700 white people standing outside waiting to get into Sugar Hill,” Aaron said. Eddie has a sense of humor about these new crowds — throngs of young transplants that pack the club on weekends to dance until the early morning hours. “On certain nights we rent it out to the hipsters,” he said. (Glancing at my wire-rimmed glasses, he added, “I guess you know what hipsters are.”)
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s inaccurate,” Zack Kerns said. Kerns, a co-founder of the annual electronic music “mini-festival” Fourth World, hosted an 18-hour party at Sugar Hill last summer after another space fell through at the last minute.
For Richard Gamble, Kerns’s business partner, the club was emblematic of their New York-centric gathering. “It’s a testament to have been in New York for that long doing what they do,” he said. “I felt like it was the best face we could possibly put forward for our community to have it there.”
Akesha agreed that for some younger partygoers, the attraction to Sugar Hill is in its history: “They like a story. They call it ‘original Brooklyn.’”
Tajh Morris, who regularly hosts Sublimate events at Sugar Hill, views the club’s history through a more personal lens. “I kind of grew up in a similar environment,” he said. “My family owns a jazz club in Harlem from about the same time.”
His family’s venue, the Cotton Club (no relation to the famed Prohibition-era nightclub), also has undergone programming shifts since its opening in 1977, at one point adding hip-hop to its jazz-heavy lineup to meet the changes in pop culture.
But for the Sublimate co-founder Matthew Sagotsky, hosting the party at Sugar Hill is as much a legal necessity as a cultural choice.
“Brooklyn has seen an incredible shrinking of alternative spaces to club,” he said. Five years ago, “everyone was doing underground warehouse parties. And those warehouse parties were not legal. Sugar Hill is a legal event space, and it is above board, but you still get to, as an event producer, come in and provide all the elements of a D.I.Y. party, which is what I find really special.”
Morris agreed: “A lot of our parties that are at actual warehouses or lofts or things like that, maybe there’s not adequate plumbing or the whole thing isn’t up to code.” At Sugar Hill, he said, “everything’s good.”
At Sublimate’s party on a recent Friday night, just hours after a funeral reception had been held in the same space, Sugar Hill’s backyard was filled with young people wearing fitted beanies and puffing on Juul e-cigarettes — hipsters, by Freeman’s definition. Though Freeman was absent from the affair (“too much fog,” he said), the spirit of Sugar Hill was palpable on the crowded dance floor. In between sparse techno tracks, the D.J. played a remix of Kleeer’s “Keeep Your Body Workin’,” a disco hit that peaked on the charts in 1979, when Sugar Hill first opened its doors. For Freeman, one thing has remained consistent throughout all of the renovations and changes in clientele: “The music makes you want to dance.”