Deborah Smith-Heyward (left) and Carrie Suter (right) with a picture of Harold Smith.
By Michael McDowell
It was standing-room only at a memorial on Friday evening for Harold Smith, a community leader and pillar of New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Amsterdam Houses, who passed away unexpectedly on January 7. He was 70. Local elected officials, community leaders, family and friends came to the E.M. Moore senior housing on 116th Street for a memorial dinner to pay their respects to Smith.
Smith was a man you were glad to count as a neighbor and as a friend, one of the many oft unsung Upper West Siders who make the neighborhood—and the city—a better place for all, friends and neighbors said.
“He was a lover of life, he was a musician, and he was also very involved in the community. He picked up the mantle from our parents,” said Deborah Smith-Heyward, Harold’s sister. “My mother Marion was very involved in the community. We all grew up in the neighborhood, and he picked it up right behind her. He had a really big heart, and cared very much about so many things.”
It’s New Yorkers who care that keep the city going.
“He’s always been a presence,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. “I probably first met Harold in the 1980s, when I worked for Ruth [Messinger],” she continued. “He was very unique. He was able to get along with everybody, he could be the leader without having to say much, he could work with both the African-American and Latino community, he was universally admired and adored.”
“Everybody at NYCHA, they don’t always get what they deserve,” Brewer continued. “Harold deserves to be remembered.”
Smith held leadership roles at Amsterdam Houses—between 61st and 64th Streets, Amsterdam and West End Avenues—and was Sergeant at Arms on the Community Council for the NYPD’s 20th Precinct, which covers the Upper West Side between 59th and 86th Streets.
“I have very good memories of him, I miss him a lot,” said Margarita Osorio Curet, President of the Tenant Association at Amsterdam Houses. “I used to fight with him all the time. When I found out he was dead, I was calling him on the cell, to curse him out. I said, ‘What! How could he do this to me? How could he!’ The whole day I was looking for him. But that was our relationship.”
“I really, really miss him. There’s no one who could replace him,” Curet said.
Carrie Suter, Harold’s daughter, has her father’s big smile. What does she hope people remember?
“So many things. How much he cared, his kindness of heart—he really cared about people, about the community, and about music,” Suter said.
A gifted multi-instrumentalist who learned to play as many as 27 instruments, Smith worked with artists including Electrified Action, The Manhattans, The Chi-Lites, The Delfonics, and Millie Jackson. He wrote and produced elements of Yvonne Daniels’ “Super Soul Music,” which cracked the New York and Chicago charts in 1970.
“Harold and I, we’re both musicians, we’re both giggers. We dealt with stuff from the music point of view,” said Sean Grissom, President of the Community Council at the 20th Precinct. “Musicians have to get along with each other. You jam with somebody, you know who they are right away. You know whether they are a giving person or not—and he was a giving person. It’s the same thing with volunteer work. You can’t do a volunteer gig if you’re in it for selfish reasons, it has to be selfless, and Harold was a very selfless person,” he said.
City Council Member Helen Rosenthal remembered Harold as a man with a rare quality of heart.
“Harold Smith was a great community leader. Completely trustworthy and kind,” Rosenthal said. “His friendship with Angela Miller was unparalleled and gave her the strength she needed to raise her children. I admired him greatly.”
Miller is a resident leader at Amsterdam Houses.
Smith worked at John F. Kennedy International Airport for nearly two decades, but was a musician at heart.
“We produced an event recently, a Thanksgiving celebration this past year. He was the DJ, and just set it off with classics, house, afrohouse, Fela Kuti,” said Sita Frederick, Director of Community Engagement Programs at Lincoln Center. “We were planning all sorts of events for the future where he would be the DJ, and we’re very sorry to lose his special personality and his talents,” Frederick added.
Smith was living history. He attended Claflin University, a historically black college in Orangeburg, South Carolina, but returned home at the insistence of his mother after the Orangeburg massacre in 1968, a killing of protestors by police that predated the Kent State shooting.
Smith, according to Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, had planned to formally tell his story.
“At the National Night Out Against Crime, we stayed for quite awhile. It got dark, Erica was playing with Angela [Miller’s] son, and Harold was talking, and it was very in the past, in his mind—things were weighing on him. He was talking about how he wanted to write a book, and was very contemplative about his life,” Rosenthal recalled. “It felt foreshadowing.”
Music began. Danté Harrell, Smith’s cousin, sang a powerful “Precious Lord,” unaccompanied. Mourners took their seats, and the room fell silent. The evening began with prayer, and would be filled with stories.
Harold Smith was born on August 3rd, 1949, at St Vincent’s. He lived and died in Amsterdam Houses.
Some 30 years ago I attended my first 20PCT Community Council meeting and met Harold. I became the President of the council & Harold was a member of my board. He continued on the council board for all these years serving as Sargeant of Arms.
Whenever we met either for council business or socially we always discussed the music business since I had several relatives & close friends in that fielsd.
I was out of town when he passed & since the Community Council does not send out e-mails I was unaware of his memorial. God bless you Harold & may you make sweet music in heaven.