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Friday, March 23, 2012

Urban Gadabout: Spring tours of Manhattan's northernmost neighborhoods, Washington Heights, Inwood, and even Marble Hill

The Audubon Terrace complex at Broadway and 155th Street, on part of the property once owned by naturalist-painter John James Audubon, must have been quite a sight when it was built, roughly between 1906 and 1930. The developers' assumption that Manhattan's seemingly relentless northward push would sustain such a grand assemblage of academic and cultural institutions has so far proved over-optimistic. (See the Audubon Park tour, May 6, in the list of Spring 2012 WAHI Tours below.)

by Ken

If you live in a place (if you don't live in a place, this may not apply to you), there are reasons -- whether or not it has occurred to you -- why that place is where it is and has developed the way it has. In the case of a city of any size and age, it's overwhelmingly likely that there are layers upon layers of history and geography and what-all, most of which can still be seen in one form or another. And of course in this country even our oldest cities aren't that old. I remember when I spent the fall of my junior year in college in Caen, the capital of Lower Normandy, and every day on my walk to and from the university I passed one of the two abbeys (one for men, one for women) built by the still-future William the Conqueror -- that is, before he moseyed off to England, when Caen was his capital as duke of Normandy. Guillaume made that crossing of the English Channel in 1066, you'll recall. Now that's old.

In Manhattan our history doesn't trace back anywhere near that far, but there's still tons of it, and it starts, straightforwardly, at least as far as settlement by European colonials is concerned, at the bottom. There's not much of Dutch New Amsterdam left, but we know a lot of where things happened there. Even with the English takeover, the new city was packed tightly down there, but when expansion began, even allowing for geographical obstacles in the form of marshes and heights, it moved amazingly rapidly, and for this transformation there's abundant surviving evidence.

The Native American populations that had long inhabited the area had their own travel and trade patterns, many of which the spreading settlers followed. Naturally there were soon colonial settlements scattered around the island even as the new city itself pushed northward, with the prosperous burgers pulling up stakes amazingly frequently and resettling in the new "in" precincts. For a time, the process of northward expansion must have seemed inexorable. In general, those venturesome souls and institutions that gambled on continued northward expansion won those bets. Eventually, as I was noting in a recent Urban Gadabout post ("Urban Gadabout: When east is west and north is south -- travels in the Bronx and Brooklyn"), the northward push jumped the Harlem River into the Bronx.

But there was a limit to how far north the "core" of the city would move. Oh, the whole of the island -- minus the parkland set-asides -- was eventually paved over and settled, but not settled in that core-of-the-city way. I got a graphic glimpse of what development "overreach" on a recent Municipal Art Society walking tour of "Audubon Park," which I put in quotes because there isn't any actual park. The name refers to a designated historic district occupying land that once constituted the rural estate of the great naturalist and painter John James Audubon, north of 155th Street and west of Broadway, which is to say across 155th Street from Manhattan's most important cemetery, the "uptown" cemetery of Trinity Church, the Episcopal heart of the growing city.

At the southeast corner of Broadway and 155th is the beautiful Church of the Intercession, which was built to house a merged pair of Episcopal places of worship as a far-northern outpost of, what else?, Trinity Church, which had a number of such satellite chapels around town, a partial measure of its considerable sway over the borough of Manhattan. There's a picture and a bit more comment on the church in the click-through.

The crown jewel of the area is the cultural complex built in the early 20th century by railroad heir Archer Huntington, who brought in some of the city's leading architects and in its various buildings housed such institutions as the Hispanic Society, American Geographical Society, Museum of the American Indian, American Numismatic Society, and Academy of Arts and Letters. Unfortunately, the neighborhood was never transformed into the kind of elegant social hub Huntington envisaged, and while the complex is still there, and even still has a couple of its original resident institutions, along with replacements for most of the other originals.

Which is the long-way-round way of explaining that James Renner, noted as a historian of Manhattan's far-northern neighborhoods, Washington Heights and Inwood, has scheduled a series of spring tours of the area Sundays at noon, which includes his own tour of Audubon Park on May 6. I bring it up now because the series begins this Sunday, March 25, with a tour of "Fort Washington-Hudson Heights." See the complete listing below.

The beautiful Church of the Intercession, at Broadway and 155th Street (diagonally across from Audubon Terrace), long a northern outpost of the Episcopal heart of New York City, Trinity Church in the Financial District, now struggles against the financial realities of surviving on its own. It's well worth a visit, not just for the gorgeous church itself and for the large and historic uptown cemetery of Trinity Church (which still belongs to Trinity), but for the current spiritual leader of Intercession, Father Berto (more formally, the Rev. José R. Gándara Perea, S.T.L., priest-in-charge, one of the most charming and inspring people you'll meet. When I visited, I bought a mug!

Here as promised is the schedule for the Spring 2012 WAHI Tours schduled by Northern Manhattan historian James Renner.


James Renner

Washington Heights and Inwood (WAHI) are communities that have, over the years, gained recognition in massive demographic changes. People from other parts of the city are visiting and moving here because of its affordable housing and beautiful parks. These tours will demonstrate to the resident and visitor alike how upper Manhattan has changed and adapted to suit the needs of its new inhabitants and tourists.

The tours are $15 for adults and $10 for seniors or students. No reservations are necessary.

Sunday, March 25, 2012, 12:00 noon

FORT WASHINGTON-HUDSON HEIGHTS combines local history and real estate. The Battle of Fort Washington will be discussed at Bennett Park on Fort Washington Avenue and 184th Street where the last major battle of New York City was fought during the American Revolution. Hudson Heights is a real estate term used today by local realty companies to promote the neighborhood. Afterwards, other sites will include the estates of James Gordon Bennett, Dr. Charles Paterno, Lucius Chittenden, August C. Richards and C.K.G. Billings will be visited and discussed. The Shrine of Mother Francesca Xavier Cabrini will also be visited as well.

MEET: 181st Street and Fort Washington Avenue, N.W. corner

Sunday, April 15, 2012, 12:00 noon

SHERMAN CREEK was named for a working class family that occupied a fisherman's shack in what is now Inwood in 1807. The family lived in the community for almost a century. During the American Revolution a ferry operated from Sherman Creek to the Bronx. The area was also home to the Dyckman Oval where the Negro Baseball League team the New York Cubans had played until the 1940s when the ballfield was razed for the Dyckman Houses, an urban renewal project. The Dyckman Houses was home to basketball great Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

MEET: Entrance of IRT #1 Dyckman Street Station

(190th to 193rd Street, Amsterdam to Audubon Avenue)
Sunday, April 22, 2012, 12:00 noon

FORT GEORGE was named for the Revolutionary fort and the amusement park which overlooked the Harlem River. It is also home to two educational facilities (George Washington High School and Yeshiva University) and the Isabella Geriatric Center.

MEET: N.W. corner of 190th Street and Audubon Avenue

Sunday, April 29, 2012, 12:00 noon

JUMEL TERRACE HISTORIC DISTRICT & SUGAR HILL is noted for the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Sylvan Terrace and the homes of famous African American entertainers Paul Robeson, Count Basie and Duke Ellington at 555 Edgecombe Avenue. The area is home to a local bookstore, art gallery and the Washington Heights branch of the New York Public Library. Nearby Coogan's Bluff is where baseball fans watched the New York Giants play at the Polo Grounds at 155th Street.

There is an admission fee to the Morris-Jumel Mansion: $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and students.

MEET: 160th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in front of the Library

(155th to 158th Streets, Broadway to the Hudson River)
Sunday, May 6, 2012, 12:00 noon

AUDUBON PARK was the home of naturalist and artist John James Audubon and conservationist George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society. It has been designated a Historic District on May 12, 2009 by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Audubon's grave at Trinity Cemetery and Mausoleums and the Audubon Terrace museum complex are some of the many steps included on the tour.

MEET: At the triangle at 157th Street and Broadway

Sunday, May 13, 2012, 12:00 noon

MARBLE HILL is the landlocked part of Manhattan to the Bronx that had been separated from Manhattan (Inwood) when the Harlem River ws rerouted and dredged for improved ship navigation around Manhattan. The community has homes dating back to the 1870s for those who are interested in architecture known as "Painted Ladies." There are Dutch and English colonial sites and military sites from the American Revolution (Fort Prince Charles) within the community that will fascinate those interested in history.

MEET: 225th Street and Broadway in front of Chase Bank

(Dyckman Street, Riverside Drive and Broadway)
Sunday, May 20, 2012, 12:00 noon

TUBBY HOOK is a community that is coming of age. It started as a fishing village in the valley situated between Fort Tryon Park and Inwood Hill Park in 1819. During the American Revolution it was used as a transfer point for information between both parks in which the American army had fortifications. It was also known for its railroad and ferry service along and across the Hudson River. The Riverside-Inwood Neighborhood Garden is a beautiful oasis that is the centerpiece of the area.

MEET: N.W. corner of Dyckman Street and Broadway


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