when i first moved all the way up to washington heights from my beloved upper west side i defended the area. a lot. to myself. to others. and there was a point last year that i couldn't wait to move--couldn't get away from the long, rumbling A train fast enough. but something shifted. and i fell in love with this corner of manhattan all over again:
the first thing i see in the morning is the hudson river abutting the stone facade of the palisades. i get my coffee from a place that isn't starbucks. the corner grocer knows my name, knows what i like, and knows when my eating is off. bikers hike here from all over the city on weekends. i walk on hills and know my neighbors's names and phone numbers.
well, yesterday, the new york times published a beautiful ode to my little neighborhood. and i thought i'd share. because there's only so much truth to what i say and well, the new york times carries a hell of a lot more weight...
“HEY, look out!” cried a man on the street as he grabbed an elderly woman from the path of a bicyclist whizzing down the steep slope of West 181st Street, toward Riverside Drive. The cyclist was gone in a flash, trailed by a few choice expletives from the pedestrians in his wake. No one was hurt, yet there was plenty of harrumphing on the sidewalk. People gathered to commiserate, to make sure the woman was O.K., and to see if anyone needed help carrying packages up the hill.
This neighborhood is not for everyone, said Laura Hembree, a longtime resident of Washington Heights who is also a broker at Simone Song Properties, which has served these parts for 25 years. “You have to like the parks and the quiet and not be concerned with being in the fashionable place.”
West 181st, from Fort Washington Avenue to Riverside Drive, cuts through a part of the city that seems caught in time. If not a leafy European suburb unruffled by economic crisis, then perhaps the Upper West Side, circa 1987, before the slick condos and big-box stores began to take over. In fact, there are a lot of expats from 10025 here. (Earlier immigrants include the Dutch, the Irish, German Jews, Russians, Dominicans and Mexicans.)
Only three blocks in length, the stretch seems a lot longer, in part because of its hilly topography, curving pattern, big sky and leisurely rhythm — whizzing bikes notwithstanding.
Here, neighbors stop to say hello to one another. Dogs on leashes do, too. Fathers mind the kids, some of them trooping up to Bennett Park where a high natural point in Manhattan (267.75 feet above sea level) is marked with a plaque on a stone. Ladies in Lycra chat post-workout in front of a Pilates studio. Old people mix with trendy young ones. A woman who lives at Pinehurst Avenue and 181st has a place in the Catskills where she grows things to sell at her little farm stand, which appears sporadically on the sidewalk.
There’s even an echo of Montmartre on the tree-shaded steps between Cabrini and Pinehurst Avenues that lead from West 181 to West 183 Street and Bennett Park, complete with cigarette butts by the benches and buckets of empty booze bottles.
“It’s surprisingly friendly and open,” said Barbara Taylor, 65, a fund-raiser who moved to 870 West 181st Street in 1986. When she first arrived, “there was fear,” she said. “Crack cocaine and a couple of murders. Now there are a significant number of musicians, actors and other artsy types, and still those vestiges of wonderful old folks.”
Along with one bustling block on West 187th Street, West 181st is the commercial center of Hudson Heights, a microneighborhood within Washington Heights. It is roughly demarcated by Broadway to the east, 173rd Street to the south, Fort Tryon Park to the north, and, indisputably, the Hudson River to the west.
The good people of Washington Heights may bristle when they hear the sloping patch referred to as Hudson Heights. Maybe it has the whiff of elitism, this carving out of a few blocks that are markedly tidier and more white-collar than the rest of the district. But names change: Washington Heights takes its name from Fort Washington, which, for a while after the British captured New York, became Fort Knyphausen. Cabrini Boulevard, named in 1939 in honor of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American citizen to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, used to be plain old Northern Boulevard.
Take the A train, as the songwriter Billy Strayhorn did in the 1940s, en route to visit Duke Ellington in Sugar Hill (“Hurry, get on, now it’s coming/Listen to those rails a-thrumming”). Don’t get off until 181st Street — about 26 minutes from 14th Street. Then, pop out of the station to enter another world.
“The air is good,” said a resident who moved here 10 years ago from the East Village and was out walking his little terrier the other day. No one asked him; he just volunteered his critique in a nice, neighborly way.
Apartments go for a lot less here than in many other parts of Manhattan. A 1,050-square-foot garden apartment in Hudson View Gardens, a 1924 co-op that seems plucked from the imagination of Beatrix Potter, recently sold for under $500,000. A 1,500-square-foot loft space at 875 West 181st Street, a co-op constructed in 1917, is listed at $699,000. In SoHo, that kind of loft space would cost at least $2 million — and it would not come with unobstructed views of the George Washington Bridge and the open sky over the Hudson River across to the Palisades.
Those are what the trade calls trophy views.
According to the Corcoran Group, whose broker Kelly Cole and her team do a lot of business in Upper Manhattan, the average sale price in the second quarter of 2011 for co-ops uptown, including Hudson Heights, was $584 per square foot. Downtown, the average was $891; the East Side, $943; and the West Side, $978.
It feels like a hamlet, especially when a black squirrel skitters across your path, or you hear German spoken, or you notice that the locals refer to anything south of the George Washington Bridge as “downtown.” There is lots of greenery, and residential complexes with well-kept private gardens.
But there’s concrete, ethnicity and bustle, too. New restaurants are opening up, following Saggio (No. 829), the sunny Northern Italian that’s become a neighborhood favorite. The expansive Cabrini Wines and Liquors (No. 831), owned by Ernest Campos, whose family came from Cuba and who has been doing business here for 35 years, serves as a kind of community hangout.
Moscow on the Hudson (No. 801) is a funny little market with shelves piled high with jars with Russian labels identifying marinated mushrooms, special mustards and “chilly” sauce, and a glass display featuring smoked mackerel, salamis and cakes. A Starbucks has taken over a corner of Fort Washington Avenue. There’s always a scene on the benches out front: serious cyclists, old dears, novel readers, weary travelers. And the other day, a preppy young couple walked by, he carrying a trumpet in a leather case. On the sidewalk outside Lissemore Music Studios at 495 Fort Washington, you sometimes can hear opera singers practicing.
It’s no wonder that people come to West 181st Street to discover this part of Manhattan. “More space for the dollar, that’s the obvious draw,” said Paul Cole, a sales agent with the Corcoran team led by Ms. Cole (his wife). “But there’s also a little bit of a different quality of life.”
Ms. Taylor, who lives in 2,000 square feet overlooking the Hudson, agrees. “It’s infinitely friendlier,” she said. “It really is small townish. There’s something so relaxing in having that big damn river. And the bridge, when it’s illuminated, it’s like honeycombs.”