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TRAVEL

3 MIN

Neighbourhood Watch: Explore Manhattan's Washington Heights (Before Everyone Else Does)

Believe it or not, there's still a neighbourhood in Manhattan that's quiet, beautiful and populated by regular folks (for now)

At a recent gallery opening in downtown Manhattan, I asked a few people what they thought I should look out for in Washington Heights. There were a few blank looks, but the most revealing response was one young woman who suggested Alexander Hamilton’s house and the Cloisters. The first of those attractions is south of Washington Heights, and the other north of it.

To this New Yorker, as to so many, Washington Heights is a blank. And if New Yorkers don't know anything about Washington Heights, what are the chances of it being on the tourist radar?

Two new hotels have arrived, which brings a new spotlight to a whole lot of attractions – some of them very old – in this northerly portion of Manhattan. Hotel Cliff and The Edge, on 168th and 181st streets respectively, are the first properties in recent times to take a chance on drawing tourists so far uptown. Both are small, and The Edge promotes itself as a boutique hotel. Whether you stay up there or not, they point to a potential opening up of that rarest of opportunities: to explore a largely undiscovered part of Manhattan.

Strolling around Washington Heights, which runs roughly from 155th to 190th streets for the entire width of the island, gives you the sense of what New York must have been like before it became the centre of the world – when it was a city that regular people could live in, even as extraordinary things may have been happening in little pockets here and there downtown.

Bert Archer / Billy

A typical street view

The best way to spend your time? Just walk around

The apartment buildings are uniformly gorgeous, mostly yellow brick, and what might be called Manhattan Midrise (i.e., about 20 storeys). The sidewalks in front of them are wide, the streets are unclogged by traffic. The grand entrances to these buildings, brick and stone, ivy and floral, Deco and Nouveau (and Moderne and Modern) alone could fill your daily Instagram quota. A meander among these buildings, and the parks and parkettes that are everywhere interspersed, can be a tonic after a couple of days downtown.

Despite its relative obscurity, there are all sorts of attractions up here, including the oldest house in Manhattan, the U.S. National Track & Field Hall of Fame, and the site of Malcom X's assassination, which is now the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center.

Julienne Schaer / NYC Go

Visit the Morris Jumel Mansion, Manhattan's oldest house (built in 1765, it played a part in the American Revolution)

And then there's Hudson View Gardens. Designed and built in the 1920s by Ottawa boy turned big-city architect George Pelham, it's a rational version of Midtown's charming but absurd Tudor City, built just three years later. The buildings are co-op, the streets reminiscent of a well-developed Dorset village, except with killer views of the George Washington Bridge.

Gentrification on the horizon

The apartments are in a part of Washington Heights that local real estate agents – the sort who came up with neighbourhood names like “Tribeca” and “DUMBO” – are trying to wrest free of Washington Heights and rename Hudson Heights. But it's really all the same neighbourhood, and it's a treat.

You’ll spot signs of gentrification as you stroll. Buunni Coffee, an Ethiopian-themed café, tends to be filled with white people, laptops, and lap dogs. Some spots, like The Pandering Pig, a French bistro with Northern California influences, seem quite aware of what they’re doing, and for whom they’re doing it. Yet for the most part, the shops, restaurants, parks and bars are for the regular people who have always lived here.

Bert Archer / Billy

Buunni Coffee, specializing in Ethiopian coffee

Some irregular people lived up here, too, like Count Basie, Joe Louis, Paul Robeson, Althea Gibson, and Harry Belafonte, as well as John James Audubon, Alan Greenspan, and Henry Kissinger, who grew up here. But unlike their peers in Soho and Chelsea, Tribeca and Brooklyn, they all had the good sense to throw their parties elsewhere, keeping this area to themselves, and leaving the old neighbourhood more or less intact.

For now, anyway. Both the New Yorker and the New York Times have written glowingly about Washington Heights in the past couple of years, and a neighbourhood can’t endure much of that before it starts to turn into another destination neighbourhood, like Queens, and Harlem, and the Lower East Side … 

So if you're going to take that stroll through a mostly bygone New York you've only ever read about in Edith Wharton and Nathanael West, you may want to go now.

Joe Buglewicz / NYC Go

Take the A train all the way up to 190th Street for Fort Tryon Park, 67 acres of urban greenery

Published Tuesday, July 18th 2017

Header image credit: Rowhouses in the Jumel Terrace Historic District. Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

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