West Harlem History

12/20/05 - West Harlem is easily the academic epicenter of New York City. Columbia University, Barnard College, City College of New York, Manhattan School of Music, Harlem School of the Arts, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary call this neighborhood home. 

Part of District 9, which also includes Central Harlem and a small portion of the Upper West Side along Riverside Park, Morningside Heights, Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill constitute West Harlem. Spanning 110-155th Streets, this area's residents contribute to District 9's population of 160,549. Harlem's demographic makeup is one of the most diverse in New York: 25% White non-Hispanic; 48% Black non-Hispanic; 5% Asian non-Hispanic; 22% Hispanic. 

Over looking the Hudson River from atop a 135-foot bluff, this section of Harlem boasts the second-lowest crime rate in Manhattan, and at one time or another, many historical and present-day notables have held addresses in Morningside Heights. 

Notable West Harlem

The impressive roster includes former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who lived in the President's House on Morningside Drive while governing over Columbia University; F. Scott Fitzgerald lived at 200 Claremont Avenue while writing This Side of Paradise; and Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, took up residence at International House on Riverside Drive at 123rd Street, as did Opera star Leontyne Price and billionaire George Soros. Dustin Hoffman lived on 109th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway and Martha Stewart went to Barnard College, where she studied Home Economics. 

Morningside Heights has appeared in numerous movies and literary works. J.D. Salinger's infamous Glass family stories, except Catcher in the Rye, were set here. The family "lived" on 110th Street between Broadway and Riverside in the ཤs, and frequented Mill Luncheonette, today known as Mill Korean Restaurant. 

A comic play, Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights, was produced on Broadway by Robert Alan Arthur in 1968. The movie, Keeping the Faith (2000), features Ben Stiller as a young Catholic priest whose parish and rectory are Ascension Church on 107th St and the film, New Jack City (1991), has a shootout at Ulysses S. Grant's tomb. 

Home Sweet Home

The Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill Historic District is one of New York's most architecturally distinguished and culturally significant neighborhoods. The area gained its name, Sugar Hill, during the 1920s when it was perceived as a place where life was "sweet" and life was comfortable. The esteemed Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., boxer Joe Louis and author Ralph Ellison lived here. Probably the most infamous address in Sugar is 409 Edgecombe Avenue, whose former residents include: Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, former N.A.A.C.P. leader Walter White (White's apartment, 13A, is often referred to as the "White House of Harlem,"); White's successor, Roy Wilkins; and Thurgood Marshall, who was then special counsel to the N.A.A.C.P. and later became the first African-American Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. 

West Harlem continues to draw crowds to its many impressive churches, including Corpus Christi Catholic Church, Convent Avenue Baptist Church, Eglise de Notre Dame, Broadway Presbyterian Church, Riverside Church, and Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. From its architectural marvels to thriving local culture, this borough of Manhattan has something to offer everyone, even history buffs. 

A Proud History

It's hard to imagine that a Revolutionary War battle took place in this thriving urban center but on September 16, 1776, American soldiers met British troops near 106th Street and Broadway. The Americans held their position under fire but retreated northward to join forces with additional American lines when British troops began to outnumber them. The fighting continued northward to around 125th Street until Washington sent three tactical units to surround the British. When the British found themselves surrounded on three sides by thousands of American soldiers, they retreated to 106th Street. This was the Battle of Harlem Heights and, according to some historians, was a turning point for the military. 

Hot Property

At the turn of the century, before the days of million-dollar apartments, Morningside Heights consisted of mostly scattered farms and shack-style housing, although the area has experienced many booms and busts throughout history. At that time non-profit institutions, such as Saint Luke's Hospital, flocked here to escape exorbitant rents. When the IRT subway opened in 1904 under Broadway, contractors began constructing apartment buildings. 

Today, some of these same apartments fetch prices upwards of $2.5 million. In Hamilton Heights along Broadway, you'll find one- and two-bedroom brownstones occupied by students, artists, musicians, actors and dancers. You'll also find two- and three-bedroom Art Decos and five- or six-room apartments in pre-war buildings, which are popular with new parents who need extra room. 

West Harlem Attractions

If you're planning on visiting our neighborhood, we highly recommend making room in your itinerary for the following attractions:

* Riverside Church. Sponsored by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1930, this amazing Gothic church has a 20-ton tower bell (the largest ever cast); an organ with 20,000 pipes. 

* Ulysses S. Grant's tomb at Riverside Park. Made of 8,000 tons of granite, with Massachusetts marble floors and fine Italian marble railings and trimmings, Grant's Tomb sits high above the Hudson River in the middle of this popular neighborhood park. 

* Cathedral of St. John the Divine. One of the most impressive structures in the United States, this looming cathedral features 600-foot ceilings and isn't even close to completion (construction is likely to continue until 2050). 

* City College of New York. Founded in 1847 as The Free Academy, The City College of New York (CCNY) was established to provide bright young students from working class and immigrant families who could not afford private college access to higher education. Take a stroll through the campus and you'll think you've stumbled onto a Yale courtyard. The oldest of The City University of New York's (CUNY) 11 senior colleges, CCNY is a small university with four renowned professional schools and an outstanding College of Liberal Arts and Science. 

* Dance Performance at the Dance Theater of Harlem. Founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, the Dance Theatre of Harlem was considered "one of ballet's most exciting undertakings" by The New York Times. After Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, Mitchell was inspired to start a school that would offer children, especially those in Harlem, the opportunity to learn about dance. Located in a newly-designated landmark district in Harlem, the school's building was designed by Hardy Holtzman Pfeiffer & Associates and received the New York City Department of General Services Award for Excellence. 

* The Hispanic Society of America. A free museum and reference library for the study of the arts and cultures of Spain, Portugal, and Latin, the Society offers a comprehensive collection of Spanish painting and drawings from the Middle Ages to the present, with particular strengths in that of the Spanish Golden Age (1550-1700), the 19th century, and early 20th century. 

Getting to West Harlem

Take the 1 or 9 to 116th Street. Walk north on Broadway to plaque on east side of Broadway between 117th and 118th Streets. (From Morris Mansion, catch 1 or 9 downtown at 157th Street and Broadway). 

Amy Covington