The Heights of Manhattan

30 Nov

The name Manhattan is a Native American word that translates to ‘island of many hills’. To most visitors though, and to those few residents who’ve never had opportunity to use the GW bridge, the island of Manhattan is perceived as flat! No fault of theirs really – the city’s urban development in the early 19th-century ensured that much of the island’s topographical variations were evened out.

Washington Heights and Inwood, the northernmost neighbourhoods on the island, are remnants of that undulation, and little known ones at that. A stroll or bike ride through them reveals not only what the island would have looked like pre-development, but also many a hidden treasure. Towards the end of summer this year, I set out to find out just that!

11 miles after leaving my house on a warm Sunday morning, I made my first stop at 156th & Broadway. There, occupying a full city block sits Audobon Terrace, a complex of eight early 20th-century Beaux Arts buildings, named after John James Audobon, a French-American ornithologist, on who’s land the structures stand.

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These heritage buildings were former homes to the American Numismatic Society and the American Geographical Society but today house a church, a college, and sundry other cultural institutions. As a courtesy to my readers, and having found out the hard way myself, I should warn you that the entire complex is closed on Sundays!

A short ride from Audobon Terrace brings up the Jumel Terrace Historic District – a collection of late 19th-century row houses and apartment buildings, in the Queen Anne and Romanesque style.

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Located along St.Nicholas Ave., between 160th and 162nd streets, these charming, and most unique wood and brick buildings occupy an area of about 4 acres, one that is made up of quiet little cobble stone streets and century old trees.

The prize of this small historic district, however, is undoubtedly Morris-Jumel Mansion. Built in 1765, this Georgian edifice served as a headquarters for both sides in the American Revolution, and is today the oldest surviving house in the borough of Manhattan!

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About a half-mile north of the historic district lies the 130-acre Highbridge Park, the neighbourhoods largest. Akin to its geologic makeup, the park has seen its fortunes rise and fall, and rise again! Today, it is in the midst of a resurgence – aided in no small measure by actress Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project – and the effects of this can be seen in the upkeep of its greenway, one of the city’s most picturesque!

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The park gets it’s name from the neighbouring High Bridge, which connects Manhattan to the Bronx. Built in 1848 as a part of the Croton Aqueduct system, it is the oldest surviving bridge in the city, predating the Brooklyn Bridge by 4 decades!

The bridge has been closed to foot traffic since the 70s – although plans are in place to reopen it as an extension to the park – but the greenway I rode along still affords great views of this most elegant piece of history.

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About a quarter-mile west of Highbridge Park lies New York-Presbyterian, a prestigious University hospital affiliated to Columbia and Cornell.  Occupying several city blocks along Broadway, it is the hood’s largest tenant! Its 20-acre campus comprises buildings old and new, with the most striking ones bearing Art Deco embellishments.

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Right across from the campus is the Fort Washington Avenue Armory, one of five in the city. Once home to the 22nd Regiment, this century old Classical Revival structure today hosts the National Track & Field Hall of Fame. It is considered to be the largest indoor venue in the world for school and college invitationals, and given that it occupies an area of almost 2 acres, that isn’t very hard to imagine!

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Not to be outdone by the behemoths that are the Armory and the Hospital, a row of four beautifully maintained pre-war apartment buildings stand gracefully along Fort Washington Avenue. The scene repeats itself time and again as you ride further north – this neighbourhood, as with many others on the island, is blessed with some truly wonderful architecture!

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The earliest settlers in Washington Heights were the Irish, European Jews and a smattering of Greeks. About three decades ago, the demographic changed considerably, and today, Central Americans – notably Dominicans – make up a majority of the residents!

A natural outcome of this is that the neighbourhood serves up some excellent Caribbean fare! I stopped for lunch at a local institution by the name of Malecon, where the interiors were garish, knowing Spanish a plus, the service warm, and the Rotisserie Chicken spot on 😉

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Sitting right across Broadway from Malecon is another area landmark – the very majestic, albeit a little run down, United Palace Theatre – formerly the Loews 175th St Theatre. Built in 1930, in what some have described as a ‘Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco’ style, the building is currently used as a church, and a concert venue! Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Smashing Pumpkins and Björk, among others, have performed here!

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The neighbourhood gets it’s name from Fort Washington, the Revolutionary War camp of George Washington and his men! A plaque along Ft.Washington Ave. commemorates the spot, and the site today is occupied by Bennett Park. Within it is a large outcrop of Manhattan Schist – not any old rock this – at a respectable 265 ft above m.s.l., it is the highest naturally occurring point in the borough!

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The General may have lost the war but he sure knew how to pick the best site 😉

As did the developers of Hudson View Gardens, a 1920’s Tudor-style apartment complex that lies along the western edge of Bennett Park, offering generous views of the same, and of course, the Hudson!

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A peculiarity of this neighbourhood, brought on by its hilly topography no doubt – and yet unknown to many – is the presence of step streets! There are a handful in the area, and the longest of these is 187th St between Ft.Washington Ave. and Overlook Terrace. There are 130 steps in all and should you choose to descend – or ascend – the same, you will begin to appreciate why ‘Heights’ features in the hoods name 😉

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Washington Heights meets the neighbourhood of Inwood at Dyckman St. Having covered Inwood on previous occasion, I skirted it via the Hudson greenway. My final destination for the day was the very tip of Inwood Hill Park, – the northernmost point of the island – where I waited eagerly to witness the crossing of the Spuyten Duyvil swing bridge by an Amtrak train!

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Looking around, I couldn’t help but wonder how much Manhattan had changed since George Washington’s time – an island he fought very hard to protect! I was confident, however, that he would have been proud of what was left behind!

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A full set of pics can be seen here.

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One Response to “The Heights of Manhattan”

  1. Mohan December 27, 2011 at 8:27 am #

    New York City continues to surprise and delight. So now I know why they call it the Audubon Society!

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