What a difference a week makes! I started the first part of my walking project last Friday night when it was 73 degrees outside and just spectacular. People had been out in the parks with their strollers and dogs and kids were playing sports all over the park even into twilight. Now it was about 43 degrees and back to being winter. The kids who were on their winter break really lucked out. They had a week of unseasonable weather to enjoy.
I started this part of the walk on Morningside Drive walking up the hill facing the park. It is some walk but I am sure in warmer weather it would be a lot more pleasant. You really do get your exercise walking this part of the neighborhood. Going up and down hills can take a lot out of you. What I liked best of this part of SoHA was the architecture. It had a combination of college campus appeal with the classroom buildings, the quad and the dorms mixed in with the pre-war buildings which have been renovated back to their original beauty.
I think the appeal of Morningside Heights is the college atmosphere mixed into the urban setting and the fact that the area is so much safer than it was even ten years ago. This is not the urban campus of my father and my cousin, who are both Alumnus of the school.
Even in the middle of winter, the warm weather has done strange things to Mother Nature and the park was starting to bud and bloom a month and a half early. As I walked up and down Morningside Drive, I took a walking tour of the park for a second time. This ice-aged formed park really has a beauty to it when you look up close. The rock formations mixed in with the steps and the flowers peaking up and starting to bloom early adds to the grace of the park. The park just needed some TLC.
The park is full of long paths through the rock formations and offer nice views of the neighborhood below. There are several paths that go up and down the hills so be prepared to walk. By the pond toward the middle of the park, there is an interesting statue by artist Alfred Seligman ‘The Bear and the Fawn’ with a little bear overlooking a fawn playing his flute. The detail work is beautiful and the statue is one of those things you would miss if you did not walk the length of the park. When it was a working fountain, it must have really graced the park. I walked up and down the paths and stairs before I exited the park at 110th Street.
I walked around 110th Street to Amsterdam Avenue and walked up past the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and walked around the church and its gardens and statuary. Down the long paths of plantings and around the bends of the property, I came across another interesting statue. At the center of the park, there is a breathtaking statue called the “Children’s Fountain”, which shows a unusual look at the battle between good and evil. Really take some time to look over this statue and its detail work with all the animals, demons and angels. You have to see the figures from all sides to see all the characters in their stances and how it works into the battle of the forces. It is a very powerful statement of good conquering evil. On a warm summer day, it must be a beautiful park. It is a tough call now at the end of the winter.
Walking up Amsterdam Avenue, you hit the heart of Columbia University that runs from 114th Street to about 120th Streets. For pretty much the rest of the neighborhood until you hit 125th Street, this area is all geared to the university. The area is graced with graceful old buildings, some the turn of the last century and many pre-war apartment buildings on the side streets.
The best is when you walk to 116th Street and that leads you in the Quad in the main part of the Columbia campus. This bustling area by the library was full of students who were socializing and sunning themselves on the warmer days. During the breaks from class, the students flooded the streets looking for something to eat or running back to their residence halls.
Outside the entrance to the Quad, just above 116th Street, there are several food trucks at night that cater to the Asian students offering Chinese, Japanese and Thai food. Take a serious stop and try the food. I had a delicious ‘pork sandwich’ that was chopped roast port on a steamed bun for $4.00, a nice treat after a long walk and I was able to eat it in the Quad. It could have used a little sauce to it but it was still loaded with pork and was a nice size. This steaming chopped pork sandwich was just one of the items that were offered at a very reasonable price to the students. There are noodle dishes and dumplings all around the $3.00-$7.00 range and at lunch and dinner the lines can get quite long. Bring cash.
Amsterdam Avenue like its counterpart neighborhood by the CUNY campus is dotted with great restaurants and coffee shops that cater to both the locals and the students alike. I had concluded my first day walking the Morningside Heights neighborhood that evening with dinner at V & T Pizzeria, a local eating establishment located at 1024 Amsterdam Avenue. It is the typical red sauce Italian-American restaurant that you would expect from Little Italy not from uptown.
The food was really good (see review on TripAdvisor). I had a house salad with a creamy Italian dressing that was typical for an old-fashioned restaurant with the iceberg lettuce and chopped tomatoes but still good. I was in the mood after a long walk for a meatball hoagie. The sandwich was huge! The only problem was that the meatballs were not that good. I mean they were big and had a nice sauce but the meatballs were average with not that flavor. It was disappointing but the other food coming out looked good, so it will give a reason to come back another time.
I continued up Amsterdam Avenue touring up the sides of both the campus and the edge of the neighborhood that lined the park and you get to see the transition of the area by 123rd Street when you see the General Grant Housing Project, a huge complex that lines the edge of the neighborhood between 123rd Street to 125th Street from Broadway to Morningside Drive. This complex as nice as it looks from the outside has its share of problems on the inside. I had to walk through the complex a couple of times when walking through 124th Street extension and when I was walking the length of LaSalle Street to Amsterdam Avenue and no problems. It looks like a complex in Miami Beach.
It is in this area the new extension of Columbia University is taking place between 125th Street and 135th Street along Broadway across from the projects. Once those buildings open this summer that will completely change this part of the neighborhood bringing more students up to this part of the area and all the restaurants along the Broadway stop of the 1 Train and along this part of 125th Street will start to change as you are seeing it now. Old bodegas and cut rate restaurants that catered to the people in the projects are now changing to more upscale restaurants, bars, coffee shops and shops. Broadway alone has three Starbucks and they were all full the entire time I walked the neighborhood. There are some serious changes it will make to this part of Morningside Park.
Walking down Broadway really puts you into the heart of the neighborhood and through the campus. Everything here pretty much caters to the college and the faculty and students. All the restaurants have their own uniqueness to them with the Columbia symbol prominently displayed on the windows. I found it is nice to get take out and sit in the Quad and eat while watching the students. Two days into touring the area the weather was around 60 degrees so it was nice to eat outside and relax and see the world go by. Reality set in as the winter weather set back in and it was 34 degrees again and back inside I went.
It was a quick walk up Claremont Avenue, the heart of Barnard College, the girl’s school of the college. This is area is being rebuilt and sandblasted as the college is expanding into the neighborhood. Most of the buildings between here and Riverside Avenue are filled with prewar apartments and student housing. Just be aware to prepare to walk on the street as some of the sidewalks are closed off. When it is all done it is going to look even more beautiful with the new buildings and renovations so close to Riverside Park, which in itself was a nice walk during the summer months.
As I walked the upper streets of the neighborhood, you can see more money is being put into the parks and historical parks in this part of the city. Sakura Park, which is lined with flowering trees still in winter hibernation, are beginning to see the first sign of spring as the buds are bursting early. On the warm days, there were a lot of students studying or playing games. The park is dedicated to the Japanese in parts with a giant Japanese Lantern Statue by the International Building that is quite detailed.
This park leads into Riverside Park and the newly renovated Grant’s Tomb. This area for years was over-grown and vandalized with the decline of the neighborhood, which is no longer the case. The tomb has been sandblasted back to its original beauty and when I passed it over the summer was lined with American flags. It is only open at certain times of the week, so plan accordingly. Next to Grant’s Tomb is a small monument called the Tomb of the Amiable Child, which should not be missed. On the path close to the park, you will see this small marble urn surrounded by fencing. It is a somber site for a small child who died in the are in the 1700’s (See my site ‘VisitingaMuseum’ for more details on the site).
Riverside Park I was able to walk over the summer and got a feel for how beautiful the park really is as it hugs the Hudson River. It is a great place to jog, ride a bike or picnic. It has gotten more popular over the years as the park has improved itself with more TLC from the community. The Friends of Riverside Park have done a nice job raising funds and awareness for the care of the park and it shows in the plantings and paths that have improved over the years. In the warm months, the place is in full bloom and with the view of the Hudson River the look is quite spectacular.
When walking the lower streets of the neighborhood on the west side of the park is full of prewar apartments and resident halls for the students as well as buildings that cater to the university. I don’t think there was one bad street on this side of the park. The area is very self-contained for the university and the buildings have an ‘old New York’ feel about them being built at the turn of the last century.
For the blocks between 111th Street to about 120th Street west of Morningside Park it is all about the university with class space and offices and a small Greek Row in the middle of the neighborhood. On the Claremont Avenue section of the neighborhood just west of Riverside Park is where Barnard College, the Woman’s College of Columbia is located and is expanding. More buildings are going up or being added to as the University expands.
This expansion continues in the area above Tiemann Place near the edge of the park and the river. The University is building a new ‘glass box’ section of campus between 125th and 133rd Streets along the river and the buildings should open up within the year. That is changing the whole complexity of the neighborhood around 125th Street in this part of the neighborhood. The upper reaches of Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue’s as well as this section of 125th Street between Marginal Street to Amsterdam Avenue is either getting new restaurants and shops that are catering to the college students or are being knocked down or renovated to cater to the changing population once those four buildings open up across the street from the housing projects.
For lunch that afternoon, I ate at Koronet Pizza at 2848 Broadway for a jumbo slice of pizza (see review on TripAdvisor). This slice is pizza is HUGE and could feed two hungry people very easily. The jumbo slice is part of an 32″ pizza and the pizza was delicious. It has a very flavorful and spicy tomato sauce and uses a good amount and quality of cheese. It took a awhile to devour that delicious slice of pizza. The restaurant attracts a nice mix of neighborhood people, college students and professors and has a good ‘family feel’ about it.
On the tip of the neighborhood between LaSalle Street and 125th Street are the Morningside Apartments and the General Grant Houses, which both look more like mixed income apartment buildings than public housing. I really toured the area on this trip. The area landscaping and playgrounds are much better than most housing projects that I have seen in the city and they look better taken care of than most of the housing projects in this area of the city.
This corner of the neighborhood is also home to various small parks such as The West Harlem Piers Park at 125th Street and Riverside Park with benches and paths for walking and enjoying the views of the Hudson River and the cliffs of New Jersey. This is a great area in the summer to listen to music or watch the sun set. The St. Clair Rose Garden is right off St. Clair Place by the underpass and steps leading to Grant’s Tomb. It will be nice to see how this garden looks in the summer months.
As I travelled east along 124th Street, I walked the island from west to east and it does change from one side of the island to the other. I crossed the boundaries of Morningside Heights to SoHA to Spanish Harlem and you can see the difference from block to block.
Pretty much the blocks west of Fifth Avenue are a mix of pre-war apartment buildings, turn of the last century brownstones and new pocket apartment buildings with a mix of small neighborhood gardens in between the buildings.
On my third day of the walk around the neighborhood, I was able to walk the streets between 124th Street to 120th Street west of Mount Morris (Marcus Garvey) Park. This area between Mount Morris Park West to Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (7th Avenue) is the Mount Morris Historical District, which is full of beautiful and graceful brownstones which are carefully bring renovated. A good portion of the neighborhood is under scaffolding (as most of Harlem and Washington Heights has been) as the buildings are being restored by their owners.
The stonework of most of these buildings is so detailed and unique with carvings of leaves, vines and faces gracing the outside of the buildings. Some have stained glass features around the doors and windows and the outside steps have been sandblasted and fixed to new with potted plants and an occasional Christmas feature still decorating the outside of the home.
This area is also home to many small Community Gardens which at this time of the year are still under snow. There is the Our Little Green Avenue Park at 123rd Street, the Joyce David Wilson Garden at 123rd Street, the Five Star Garden at St. Nicholas Avenue at 121st Avenue and Harlem Art Park at 120th Street at 3rd Avenue. These parks are small pocket parks taken care of by the neighborhood or street associations. I did not get much of a feel for them when they were under six inches of snow.
To tell you how the neighborhood is diverse in its housing is when you get to 124th Street and 1st Avenue where you have a luxury apartment building across the street from the Wagner Housing Project and the entrance to the Triboro Bridge and Louis Cuvillier Park which is under a renovation. You can see where new restaurants are popping up to cater to these new residents on 1st Avenue, 124th and 125th Streets.
The Wagner Houses I hate to say is a scary area even during the day. I always felt like I was being watched by everyone from the residents, to the Con Ed guys working in the area to the police looking out for the kids leaving school on 120th Street and Paladino Avenue by the river. People just kept saying hello to me like they were trying to tell me that they saw me there or in the case of the police just watched but tried to ignore me. I see this a lot in Harlem.
One saving grace to the whole experience by the school was the bodega, Pleasant Finest Deli, on the corner of Pleasant Avenue and 120th Street, which I could tell catered to the kids coming out of school with sandwiches under $3.00 and piles of chips and snack cakes for fifty cents to a dollar. The deals at this store were amazing and the owners looked like they were happy to see me. Just listening to the foul mouthed parents was interesting. The way they berated their children just floored me. Some of these women should never have had kids.
That evening I went to midtown to eat at the Land of Plenty Chinese restaurant by Bloomingdales at 204 East 58th Street (see review on TripAdvisor), a restaurant I have wanted to try for several years when it was ranked the number on Chinese restaurant in New York City by the Village Voice. The food and the service were just excellent. I had the most delicious soup dumplings that were made for me and I did not even have to hike down to Chinatown for them. They just burst in my mouth when I bit into them. I had a Shredded Pork with a Sweet Miso sauce with scallions and their Ten Ingredient Fried Rice for my main meal which both were delicious and flavorful. The Sweet Miso sauce really had a tangy spiciness to it. The service was friendly and welcoming. A definite must when shopping at Bloomies.
I continued on to the east side of Morningside Park, where the Morningside Heights extends as I walked the area from 125th Street to 110th Street that now extends to Fredrick Douglas Boulevard, the new ‘Restaurant Row’ of the neighborhood. This area is dominated by beautiful brownstones of many unique designs, pre-war apartment buildings and many local businesses that are in the midst of change. The neighborhood bodegas are giving way to new restaurants, art galleries and boutique bakeries that are catering to the new residents who are buying all those buildings under scaffolding and the current residents who look like they are enjoying the change.
Along the way I have seen so many gorgeous buildings being restored. The most beautiful is the Washington Irving Building on West 112th Street. This graceful building has the most beautiful stonework and detailed accents to the outside it, you literally stop and just want to stare at it. I have only seen buildings like this midtown buildings on Park Avenue and in the Village.
Small pocket parks and community gardens continue to dominate the areas that once housed brownstones. These future flower and vegetable gardens are all over parts of the neighborhood such as the Electric Ladybug Garden at 111th Street. There is a distinct elegance to the area around Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (7th Avenue) with its tree lined island with trees and flower plantings waiting for the Spring to come.
The area that is rapidly changing the most is Fredrick Douglas Boulevard which among the new businesses is being known as ‘Central Park North’, with several businesses adopted the SoHA (South of Harlem) signature. I have never seen so many expensive restaurants with entrees over the price of $15.00 in one area. I don’t even find the menus that exciting or innovative. They just look like bars with food being served.
On my last day in Morningside Heights, I tested the boundaries and walked the entire length of 116th Street from one side of the island to the other. You see more local businesses along the 116th shopping corridor with many soul food, seafood, pizza and local chicken places dominating to a very diverse population. Closer to the Columbia campus, you have more upscale places to eat but once you cross Fredrick Douglas Boulevard and head toward Spanish Harlem, it can be anything from the latest African cooking to island cooking from Jamaica to fast food and the chain restaurants to local bakeries serving empanadas and doughnuts. You can eat your way through the entire street and it would take months to do.
On the streets from 119th-115th Streets from Morningside Park to 5th Avenue are lined with a series of brownstones and pre-war apartments which hug the ‘Mount Morris Historical District’ or just outside of it. These blocks are going through a tremendous change right now as students and recent graduates are spreading out from the traditional borders of the neighborhood, which means the west side of the park and moving into this section especially to the 5th Avenue border. Crossing Fredrick Douglas Boulevard means even pushing the traditional boundaries of the neighborhood and going into SoHA. By the time you cross Lenox Avenue below 115th Street, you hit the long line of housing projects from 112th-115 Streets and even the streets surrounding the projects are being fixed up.
I have never seen so many new restaurants and stores opening up especially opening up this economy. All of these pocket businesses are opening right next to the traditional neighborhood stores and you can see that changing for the next few years. There are so many small luxury housing projects going up in every corner of the neighborhood that will need to be catered to and the local population seems to like the additions to the many blocks as I see a diverse crowd in all the businesses. Even most of the newer businesses in the area are adopting the SOHA name.
Pretty much everything west of Fredrick Douglas Boulevard and west to Morningside Park is considered part of the Morningside Heights area now as the last of the empty buildings are being renovated and a lot of the Mount Morris Historical area is under scaffolding. There is a lot of pride in this neighborhood as it keeps changing and improving itself.
On my last night in Morningside Heights after walking almost 28 city blocks, I indulged a little and had dinner at La Salle Dumpling Room on 3141 Broadway (See review on TripAdvisor). Make this a stop if you are visiting Columbia campus because the food and the service are excellent. All the dumplings are made fresh on the spot per order and come out cooked as light as a feather. The Pork & Crab Soup Dumplings are excellent, full of juiciness and flavor and the pan-fried pork dumplings are light and delicious and were perfectly cooked. I also tried the Dong Jing Rice Bowl which was a combination of white rice, sautéed beef, egg, onions and cheddar cheese in a brown sauce and the combination worked nicely (even though the onions were not necessary). The service was excellent.
This section of SoHA is catering to the large and growing population of college students and those post-graduates who want to live in the area. It is more of an extension of the Upper West Side than traditional Harlem. Take a walk around soon because it just keeps changing.