It has taken several days to walk NoHA (North of Harlem), what ever that means. The relators in New York get a great joy out of naming areas of the city so that real estate prices can go up. NoHA is pretty much everything from 155th Street to 125th Street from river to river (that being broken into Hamilton Heights from 145th Street to 125th Street and then below 125th until 110th Street is Morningside Heights) and SoHA is everything from 125th Street to 110th Street. Then on the West Side it is know as the Upper Upper West Side until you hit 96th Street and on the East Side it is Spanish Harlem (that is slowly changing as well) until you hit 96th Street then you’re in Yorkville. The Upper East Side starts traditionally on 86th Street. Don’t forget Manhattanville right above Morningside Heights and below Hamilton Heights. I still think the arty crowd calls it NoHA
Most of my days were spent on the on the west side of CUNY campus, which stretches from 141st Street to 130th Street. St. Nicholas Park sits next to the campus and stretches from 141st Street to 127th Street and pretty much cuts the West Side from the East Side of Harlem. Again like the rest of my walk, this area is in heavy transition because of the college and the investment both the college and the city have made in this area. When I started the walk in this neighborhood, CUNY was out for the summer but as school started, the areas parks, restaurants and streets bustled with student activity. Many of the streets, especially Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, were beginning to be lined with new bars, restaurants and shops catering to the students and new locals. There is a big difference between the bodega customer and the bar customer as I found out everyone time I entered one.
My first day walking around was extremely humid and not exactly the best day to walk but I tried to stay in the shade as much as possible. The biggest issue with this area is that the side streets on the west side of St. Nicholas Park are very hilly, a reminder again that Manhattan was not flat to begin with when they were laying out the grid. Walking up and down those hills especially by Riverside Park can take a lot out of you. I was a pool of sweat as I finished walking up and down this part of the neighborhood. The nice part of being so close to campus are the numerous number of bodegas in the area. There is a cool drink and a quick snack always close by.
Over a period of four days I covered a lot of territory in the neighborhood. My walk took me from elegant brownstones to some pretty shady areas that I would avoid like the plague. There are just some parts of these neighborhoods that I am sure that the residents avoid.
Most of the streets west of the CUNY campus are very beautiful especially close to the campus, the streets that line Riverside Park and many of the homes that surround Convent Avenue just north of campus. You will find some of the gorgeous townhouses and apartment buildings line the streets of Convert and Nicholas Place with their sandblasted fronts with potted plants and decorations for the upcoming Halloween season. This once exclusive area is becoming exclusive once again.
The nice part about the CUNY campus in the summer is that there are not many students on campus during the summer break. I was able to relax on the campus lawn and the security guards left me alone. They probably thought I was a returning student or a Prof on an afternoon break. I was so sweaty and tired from walking all around the campus, I fell asleep for while in one of the chairs that was out on the patio in the middle of campus. During the quiet summer, it is a nice place to relax.
One of the nicest surprises in the area was the Hamilton Grange, the home of Alexander Hamilton and his family during the summer months. Back then, Harlem was the country side for people living and working in lower Manhattan and many wealthy patrons built country homes in this area. He lived here in the summer months with his wife, Elizabeth (nee Schyler) and their eight children. After his time in the military, he worked as a lawyer in New York City and working for the federal government.
After his death in 1804 when dueling with Aaron Burr, Elizabeth and her children stayed in the house. Elizabeth had helped start an orphanage among other interests and stayed in the house well into her 80’s. At age 91, she went to live with one of her daughters in Washington DC and died in 1854 at the age of 97. The house had sat neglected into recent times and it was bought by one of the local churches as part of their property. The house has since been moved three times and is still going through a restoration. The grounds were being worked on my volunteers during the time of my visit.
I went in on a weekend where the house was open for tours to the public and I got to tour the first floor at my own pace. The bottom level is a history time-line of Hamilton’s life and accomplishments plus information on the house. There is a short movie to see and if you do not know much about Alexander Hamilton’s life, you will learn it here.
The upstairs is the only place you can tour and there are only a few rooms to see. The parlor room, dining room and living room are all done in period furnishings and the hallway has been renovated in period look. The whole tour will take about a half hour. Since the musical ‘Hamilton’ came out, the tours have been four fold at the house so take that into consideration when visiting the Grange. It is located at 414 West 141st Street and their phone number is (646) 548-2310. The house is located at the very tip of St. Nichols Park right next to the CUNY campus. Don’t be surprised if you see a lot of the students sunning themselves in the park while you are there. Be sure to take your time touring the homes along Hamilton Terrace and Convent Avenue. There are some beautiful brownstones to look at around the Grange.
Touring in St. Nichols Park is interesting. The summer students used the hills on the side of campus to sun themselves, read, do homework and converse with their friends and classmates while the neighborhood kids played basketball and hung out. It was a real hodgepodge of people in the park the many afternoons that I was there. Between Jackie Robinson Park and St. Nichols Park, I don’t see the local college students too intimidated by the surrounding neighborhood. They seem to be spreading out into it. One thing not to miss is the old Croton Aqueduct which has been turned into the Harlem Stage at the Gate House at 150 Convent Avenue at 135th Street. This beautiful building was built between 1884-1890 and is now a theater. This used to regulate the amount of water flowing underground. The little park surrounding it is nice for a break as well.
The lower sections of the park and the college give way to a fast gentrifying neighborhood where many seniors hang out on benches outside the park and talk while the summer students entertain their family and friends in many of the new restaurants lining Amsterdam Avenue. On a warm summer night, there are a lot of people conversing in the outdoor cafes. This area is extremely hilly so take plenty of time to walk up and down the hills. Most of this section between Broadway and the river, you will be walking up and down the roads and will get a big work out.
As you west of the campus toward the river, most of the blocks west of Broadway are lined with elegant pre-war apartment buildings whose residents are a cross section of Hispanic families, young Yuppie couples and depending on the block, older couples who like to walk their dogs. These buildings lining Riverside Park like everything else in this part of the city are under scaffolding and some in the process of sandblasting. The closer you get to Riverside Park and to Columbia University, the nicer it gets. One great stop for a snack is Las Americas Bakery on the corner of 136th Street and Broadway (212) 234-7715) right by the subway station (See review on TripAdvisor). The guava flips, apple turnovers and doughnuts are really good and are only $2.00. Load up on carbs here for your walk and remember the bottled water.
When you reach 125th Street on this side of Manhattan, it really becomes the tale of two cities as Columbia University starts to dominate this side of the island. The new extension of the campus is being built between 125th Street and 133rd Street, west of Broadway to the river. This is all across from a major housing project. These glossy new buildings give an entirely new look to the area and the irony is that the famous Cotton Club which sits on a island between 125th and 129th on the break in the street grid, sits isolated now with the campus being built around it. There is a Dinosaur Barbeque restaurant next door and a Fairway supermarket up the road. 12th Avenue is lined with new restaurants and bars and the city has renovated this part of the park.
West Harlem Pier Park offers the most spectacular views of New Jersey and the extension of Riverside Park that lies ahead. On a sunny warm day, it is a great place to relax and enjoy the view. Many residents and students alike are biking, sunning themselves, fishing or just sitting enjoying the amazing view on a sunny day. The park has been replanted with paths and places to sit and look at the river. It will be even more utilized once the new college buildings open up.
The area across Broadway is one of the larger housing complexes and seems to be going though it s own renovations. The Manhattanville Houses dominate around from 133rd Street to the 126th and 127th grid that changes above 125th Street. The streets do get a little choppy in this area and skip around due to the projects that dominate in this area. Just do yourself a favor and avoid Old Broadway between 133rd and 131st Street at night. It is a little shady after twilight with too many places to hid.
This side of Amsterdam Avenue is going through its own type of renovation as warehouses are becoming loft and studios and many of the old time businesses along this stretch of 125th, 126th and 127th are starting to change hands and many chain stores are moving in. It so weird to see an IHOP right next to the projects but it is a reasonable restaurant and the neighborhood deserves to have the same comforts as the rest of the city.
The longest part of this part of the walk was the walk back and forth on 125th, 126th and 127th Streets. Going back and forth from one side of the island to another takes a lot of time and be prepared for not just a walk but a big transition in neighborhood in just a few blocks.
CUNY and Columbia Universities are having their presence known in the blocks between Amsterdam to Fredrick Douglas Boulevard between 131st to 125th Streets. Most of the apartment buildings that I saw at afternoon time had anxious students running out the doors. 126th and 127th Streets between 7th Avenue and Park Avenue are mostly lined with old brownstones which are quickly getting scooped up and renovated. This was one of the nicest surprises as the brownstones are very elegant. This neighborhood I noticed is a very mixed neighborhood of white and black residents that seem to look out for one another.
As I walked these many blocks, I would see residents conversing with one another and stop to watch me walk by as if to say ‘what are you doing here’? I see that a lot in this area of the city. Most of the homes have been sandblasted and were being decorated for the fall. In between many of the homes, new smaller apartment buildings are being tucked in between and look quite expensive. Here and there, there are brownstones that have not been fixed up yet but give them time as the middle class residents in this part of the neighborhood don’t look like they would stand for it. They won’t stay that way long.
The scariest part of the neighborhood is the area from Lexington Avenue between 131st Street to 125th Street surrounded on all side by the Harlem River. This area is mostly commercial with two bus depots, a health orientated building going up and a dealership. The walking on sidewalks in this area is awkward with not much places to cross. Projects dominate between Park and Lexington Avenues and as I walked the short blocks by the parks, I really stood out with many residents looking me over as I walked up Lexington Avenue, walking over the 3rd Avenue Bridge and looking over the kids playing soccer and football. Event thought there are loads of kids in these parks after school and parents are all over place, I would give you a safe bet to avoid this small corner of the city at any other time of the day. I walked down 128th Street to 7th Avenue and then crossed over to 129th Street to walk through the Saint Nichols Houses to get back to Fredrick Douglas Boulevard.
It was a very busy evening with people coming home from work and families yelling at one another. The saddest thing I saw was a small group of brownstones sitting across from a school on the project property, sitting empty and falling apart. The poor things looked sad as I don’t know how many people would want to buy a dilapidated brownstone across from a busy school. I rounded the small blocks of 129th, 128th and 127th Streets that lie between Fredrick Douglas Boulevard and the park.
The weird juxtapose of this area is that new hip restaurants are opening in this area right across from the projects and these homes again seem to be dominated by a mix of locals and college students. I cut though the park on a hilly path on 128th Street to finish walking 128th, 129th and 130th Streets below the campus. Be prepared to be long winded after this part of the walk as you are going up and down hills. This section was my best work out since the streets by Riverside Park. This area gives you the perspective that Manhattan is definitely not flat. Also, when walking down the stairs on 129th Street by the warehouses, plan to do this during the day. Again not a great area to walk alone at twilight. As I said before, most people left me alone but kept looking me over.
My last stop of the evening was dinner at Sylvia’s Soul Food Restaurant at 328 Malcolm X Boulevard (telephone 212-996-0660). This meant walking from the hills of 128th Street down to 126th Street and crossing over to 125th Street. That alone was a long walk.
I was not thrilled by the food as much as I was by Charles Southern Fried Chicken or Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread. Maybe it was the sheer exhaustion I felt from all the walking or when I was finally able to relax or the pitcher of the overly sweet iced tea but by the time I got my food, I was feeling nauseous. I had ordered the Fried Chicken Dinner which was two pieces of white meat with mac & cheese and candied yams on the side. It just didn’t strike me as being as good as the other restaurants in the area. I remember on of my professors who took us on a tour here years ago saying it had gotten very commercial. I could see why.
Most of the clientele that night was white and mostly touristy looking people who could not get into the very busy Red Rooster down the road. The Fried chicken was crisp on the outside and chewy and dry on the inside. The candied yams and mac & cheese tasted like it had been made in batches and were warmed up. It’s not that it wasn’t good but I expected more from it. The food was average. What it lacked in the quality of food, it made up in service as the waitress handled the whole room by herself and could not have been more professional and friendly (see review on TripAdvisor). Needless to say that the manager of Sylvia’s was not the happiest with my review. Oh well, it was an experience anyway. I had wanted to try the restaurant for years.
Overall, this area of the city will take you through a real difference in neighborhood sites, from projects to brownstones from historical through commercial. Sometimes right next to one another. Like any place else in the city, it is going though the ‘change’ and won’t stay the same for very long. You can see the transition going on around you. Just be prepared to walk.