Character And Color Mesh Perfectly In This Charming Harlem Abode
Inside Shanika Hillocks' sweet Sugar Hill brownstone.
Decades ago, Shanika Hillocks’ neighbors would have been greats like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and rock-and-roll legend Frankie Lymon.
Her 600-square-foot brownstone, shared with two plants lovingly named Dani and Mona, is tucked away in Harlem’s vibrant Sugar Hill district. Named after the sweet life its residents enjoyed, the neighborhood was a popular area for Black creatives to live in during the Harlem Renaissance.
“Endearingly, I refer to my home as #SugarHillocks as a nod to the sweet life I’m personally experiencing within the space,” the marketing consultant and tastemaker dotes, the meaning not lost on her. “And while there are certainly new additions to the home, there’s a beautiful reverence that rests in its bones and adheres to a local vibe.”
That reverence harkens back to the 1920s, a decade which saw Black art flourish as writers, musicians, and artists coalesced in Sugar Hill. Jazz filled the streets and luminaries convened to build up their communities.
Hillocks’ space is a portal into that magical time — Black paintings enchanting the walls, Black writings gracing the shelves. Still, it wasn’t just up to fate. In fact, the pieces are entirely intentional.
“At this stage of my journey, I consider myself the architect of my life. It was important for me to be [thoughtful] in what I set on display in my home and have various pieces be a reflection of my personal values," Hillocks explains. "I didn’t grow up having Black literature on a shelf or art on the walls.”
Hillocks was actually signing paperwork for another apartment in Long Island City before she discovered her Sugar Hill abode in 2020. But, with the reality of quarantine quickly approaching, she questioned whether it was the right time to leave the area she knew and loved.
“I started to wonder if moving to a new neighborhood would be possible without being able to connect with new people and explore given the necessary restrictions we would all soon face,” she says. “With the news cycle at the time, my gut told me to pivot.”
As it often goes, listening to her gut was the right move, and — by what can only be described as spiritual alignment — she stumbled upon a place with exactly what she was looking for.
“I was shocked to find that my current apartment was just two avenues west, between the same cross streets, and even more surprised at the photos and video of the listing. It checked all my boxes: brownstone building, modern kitchen, washer and dryer in unit, original wood, crown molding, and lots of natural light,” she recalls.
In order to ensure the creation of her dream apartment — especially with the uncertainty of the pandemic — Hillocks quickly tapped a few experts to bring her vision to life.
“Enter Julianna Fraser and her partner Robinson Bouas, a cosmopolitan creative couple who have a love for interior design. During our initial conversations, I expressed a desire to have my space be a reflection of my growing personal style, while also being a haven for friends and family gatherings,” she says.
The duo helped Hillocks source bold items from her must-have list — like the emerald velvet couch à la Urban Outfitters and glossy Saarinen marble dining table — as well as fresh ideas for tabletop items and houseplants in the living area.
A travel aficionado — trotting from Mexico’s white-sand beaches to quaint wineries in the south of France — Hillocks developed a tasteful style inspired by the international destinations she’s resided in.
"I’ve had the pleasure of staying in beautiful concepts both domestically and abroad. What I enjoy most from a design perspective are eclectic common spaces and lounges, with neutral monochrome looks in the living or sleeping quarters,” she elaborates. “I’ve injected this in my home keeping a natural and earthy aesthetic and materials in my bedroom.”
In the bedroom, Scandinavian-esque minimalism offers an oasis of relief against the colorful living area, as “it’s dedicated to sleep and intimacy,” Hillocks says. Airy Parachute bedding pours over an oaky Thuma frame for a plush cloud of respite. And atop, Hidden Gem pillows and a Pier 1 knitted throw offer dark, cozy contrast.
Still, her favorite aspect of the space isn’t the decor or aesthetic — it lies in the bones of the house, particularly “the preservation of the original wood around the living room windows, the bedroom door and floors,” Hillocks says. “I’m big on intergenerational beauty and think these elements are a subtle nod to blending past and present together.”
Despite its time-tested architecture, though, the building was gut renovated not long before Hillocks moved in.
“That said, I didn’t have to make any changes given the modern updates married with the charm of a classic brownstone,” she notes.
To showcase the wood detailing in all its glory, Hillocks opted to mimic what she saw in nature — the greens of trees, yellows of sunlight, and blues of water dotted around an ornate brick fireplace.
“For me, it was important to complement the elements of the apartment versus drawing them out with color. As such, primary colors in earth tones were a focus in the living space,” she explains.
The color theme extends from the couch to even the windowsill, where a Yowie hand sculpture spills with lime-hued grapes, symbolizing abundance and growth. Alongside, two-toned leafy candles wither away, the wicks tinged black — evidently in consistent use.
Given her background as a seasoned writer of food and wine — with bylines spanning Bon Appétit to Michelin Guide — it’s no surprise that Hillocks’ home prioritizes entertaining and dining as much as it does style.
As such, the kitchen was a major selling point. Her favorite part? The monochrome cabinets.
“I love how the gray colorway blends with the countertop, making a beautiful canvas for pops of color, dinnerware, and ceramics when I host,” Hillocks remarks.
“I’m also a big fan of my gas stovetop,” she adds. “Call me biased, but I swear that water boils more quickly. I also love that I can blacken tortillas or peppers directly on the range.”
On any given day, you might catch her idling by the flame, slow-cooking beans from scratch or a West Indian dal — dishes that round out the apartment’s eye-candy with warm scents and love.
“I’ve finally mastered my version of the latter,” Hillocks conveys. “The aroma from the infusion of spices brings with it a feeling of nostalgia, and I’m happy to experience that in my own abode.”
Recently, Hillocks acquired an auspicious find via Cierra Britton Gallery, an NYC-based art gallery dedicated to representing womxn of color artists. In the piece — called Above all else I want to see by Amy Amalia — a Black feminine portrait poses starkly against a bright marigold backdrop.
“Last month, I was scrolling through Instagram and the vibrant colors stopped me in my tracks. Themes within this narrative include transformation through soul alchemy, expressions through the chakras, and deconstruction of the body and mind — all of which are resonating with me at present,” Hillocks reflects. “Amalia is also Guyanese-American, and my grandma is from Guyana. The synergies couldn’t be ignored, so I leaned in and made the jump to invest in this work.”
The artwork sits proudly in the living room across another one of Hillocks’ cherished treasures: the rocking chair.
“It’s where I find myself most mornings drinking tea and enjoying the sunrise. It’s also a modern nod to a rocking chair we used to have in the house growing up,” she says. “As a child, that sensation brings a sense of comfort, and I’m happy to have one of my own.”
When reminiscing on her childhood, it’s hard for Hillocks’ not to think of her grandfather. Raised by her grandparents, elders always held significance. So, when he passed, it was important to honor him in her home — visually and spiritually.
“Much of his teachings are often at the forefront of my mind, and as I get older, there’s this silent reverence I hold for him. In a small way, having him at my altar is a gesture in honor and gratitude for the sacrifices he made for his family,” Hillocks says.
“I have such fond childhood memories of my paternal great grandfather,” she adds. “It was important to me to acknowledge him and keep the path to communication open.”
At the altar, a two-dollar bill, candle, and flowers ensure their presence is honored and felt in Hillocks’ home — a home they helped pave the way for.
The colorful books behind — stacked to the brim of her non-working fireplace — offer insight into this tenderness: the healing words of bell hooks’ ‘All About Love’ sitting opposite heart-wrenchers like ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns.’
Ultimately, the pandemic granted Hillocks the opportunity to slow down and create the home she’d always wanted.
“I’m a Cancer sun, so home is a big priority for me,” she notes. “I knew if I would be spending more time there, that each vignette would need to give me a sense of joy and pleasure to my senses.”
As for what Hillocks thinks her home says about her? “Take a listen to the song ‘It’s My House’ by Diana Ross,” she says. “The lyrics are an expression of what I hope my home exemplifies.”
Hearing Ross serenade, “There's a welcome mat at the door/ And if you come on in/ You're gonna get much more,” it’s clear Hillocks has achieved just what she hoped for.