Once a stretch of rural countryside home to the native Munsee, modern Washington Heights, a hilly neighborhood covering much of Manhattan’s northern tip, was named for the fortification where General George Washington’s army camped to keep an eye on the advancing Redcoats. The neighborhood has over the years been home to a rotating cast of newcomers: revolutionary British colonists, Greeks, Irish, German Jews after World War II, and, in the late Sixties, a surge of Latino immigrants, especially from the Dominican Republic.
Known for its large, affordable apartments, Dominican food, and a number of preserved pre-war buildings untouched by new development, Washington Heights has played host to several New York City firsts. In the 1890s, the first moving pictures were broadcast at Morris-Jumel Mansion. Professional baseball has roots in the Heights, too: The New York Giants played at the Polo Grounds near the Harlem River at 155th Street from 1890 to 1957 and the Mets in 1962 and 1963; and before the Yankees were the Bronx Bombers, they played at Hilltop Park (now the site of Columbia University Medical Center) as the Highlanders from 1903 to 1912.
The neighborhood, like others, has suffered the turbulence of northern racism. Highbridge Park, which hugs the Hudson River from West 155th Street to Dyckman Avenue, opened an officially integrated pool under Mayor Fiorello La Guardia that was long kept unofficially segregated by local Irish gangs; in 1957, one month before West Side Story opened on Broadway, a white teenager was killed near the pool by gang members from Harlem during a confrontation. And in 1965, Malcolm X was murdered at the Audubon Ballroom, on West 165th Street and Broadway.
Having weathered the ills of the crack and crime epidemics of the 1980s, the area continues to display a formidable resilience; residents of neighboring Inwood to the north recently fought down Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposals for a new housing development feared to be a Trojan horse for displacement. A walk through the Heights today reveals a dizzying array of cultural and ethnic diversity: Dominican markets, the greenery of Fort Tryon Park and its Cloisters museum, Central American fruit stands, kosher bakeries nestled around Yeshiva University, and Chinese restaurant delivery workers zipping up and down hills on mopeds. Practice your Spanish, hop the express A train north, and have a look around.
The tender rotisserie chickens from Malecon Restaurant are among Dominican New Yorkers’ greatest contributions to uptown, and probably to humankind. In a neighborhood with no shortage of kitchen-savvy abuelas, the restaurant draws regular crowds of locals, newcomers, and visitors alike, a testament to the allure of New York’s most beloved bird, roasted to garlicky perfection. The rest of the menu covers an array of Dominican staples — cuatro golpes and mango juice for breakfast; your choice of yuca, maduros, or classic rice and beans to go with an array of chicken and pork dishes; tres leches to top it all off. But the main attraction is the heaping piles of rotisserie, chopped and bagged to order from behind a window by the takeout counter. On a sweltering Sunday just hours after last summer’s Dominican Day parade, a massive Dominican flag was raised from the restaurant’s awning, matching mini versions that fluttered from back pockets of passersby. The menu is bilingual, but that day, little English was spoken. The line was out the door. 4141 Broadway at West 175th Street, 212-927-3812
Word Up Community Bookshop
Independent bookstores have struggled to stay afloat downtown, but a group of volunteers has managed to keep one open on an unlikely corner up in Washington Heights. Called Word Up, the shop operates more as a community library, with a deep bilingual inventory, sidewalk shelves, and a traveling cart full of free books. The place is a hub for local talks and author readings, writer meetups and kids’ story hours, many reflecting the neighborhood’s Afro- Latino focus. Word Up started as a pop-up in 2011, operating out of a donated storefront on Broadway and 167th; when the landlord advertised the space at market-rate rent, store volunteers did what any respectable startup would: crowdfund. Folks from around the neighborhood cobbled together over $60,000 to move the shop into a permanent location on Amsterdam Avenue and 165th Street in 2013 — which by then was badly needed, as the local public library was shuttered for almost four years for renovations. Word Up’s calendar proves that for black and brown folks in communities like Washington Heights, the resistance began long before last November. Join up. 2113 Amsterdam Avenue, 347-688-4456
After running Apt.78, a hybrid restaurant and weekly party spot, neighborhood favorite Jose Morales closed up shop and reopened in 2015 as Bodega Pizza, a gourmet brick-oven joint. The redesign comes complete with shelves full of the usual corner-store suspects: Café Bustelo, Tide detergent destined to a life of dust, the familiar “No EBT” sign. The ten-inch pizzas borrow names from ‘hood staples: a “Paid in Full” gets you jumbo thin-sliced pepperoni over golden mozzarella and a thin, just-chewy-enough crust; the “A Tribe Called Fresh” is topped with red peppers, onions, and sweet sausage. Fresh-made sandwiches, salads, and dessert calzones top off the dinner menu; return on the weekend for a bodega brunch: breakfast pizza, omelets, or jazzed-up bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches with an unlimited-mimosa special. Communal tables give the place a cafeteria feel; on a Friday night, expect to catch as many Morales loyalists — young creative types looking for a hangout — as you do families and teenagers in for a pizza, a beer, and the game. Morales did parties and brunch well, but he does clubhouse better. And like every worthy bodega, this place takes cash only. 4455 Broadway at West 190th Street, 917-675-7707
191st Street Tunnel
Once a musty rat haven, the 900-foot-long pedestrian walkway leading to the 191st Street stop for the 1 train now boasts a series of colorful murals. The redo was commissioned in 2015 by the Department of Transportation. (Though the corridor leads to a train, it is considered a city street.) Five artists, including veteran graffiti artist Cope 2, covered the tunnel, which connects Broadway to the subway station buried 180 feet below an intervening ridge, in bright colors and geometric shapes that nod to graffiti-covered trains of decades past. The beautification represents a win in a city that has allowed the loss of such street-art meccas as 5Pointz in Long Island City. The tunnel might still feel a bit dank, but city employees are now more regularly seen picking up trash along the stretch. And so far, amateur tags over the murals haven’t obscured too much of the artwork. Take the 1 to 191st Street and stroll the Crayola-colored bowel on your way to Bodega Pizza, just across the street from the Broadway entrance. West 191st Street and Broadway
The United Palace
Originally built in 1930 as a Loews movie theater and vaudeville house, the United Palace, in all its red velvet and borderline-garish gold-carved glory, bragged of bringing Times Square 133 blocks north. It was later converted to a church run by the first black televangelist, the Reverend Frederick Eikerenkoetter — known as Reverend Ike — a multimillionaire with a knack for flashy suits, sermons about the almighty dollar (Saint Paul was wrong), and an aggressive pitch for tithes. Reverend Ike’s son still runs a nondenominational church, the United Palace House of Inspiration, out of the building, which is also home to a cultural arts nonprofit. The theater now hosts films, music, plays, and dance performances — and still sports the movie house’s original seven-story-high organ. Beyond the events calendar, it’s worth visiting to marvel at the architectural decadence, a window into the overindulgence of New York City’s past. 4140 Broadway between West 175th and West 176th streets, 212-568-6700
Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA)
Formed in 2006, the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance has funded or sponsored arts organizations and events on the island’s northern tip (including Word Up Bookstore and the 191st Street tunnel restoration), all in the name of keeping uptown art, well, uptown. A formal gallery hosts rotating exhibitions, and the Alliance’s annual month-long Uptown Arts Stroll, held each June, floods parks and public squares all over West Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood with shows and performances, offering locals a walking tour of their neighborhoods, adorned with the art of their neighbors. 5030 Broadway Suite 723, 212-567-4394
Buddha Beer Bar
If you’re looking for a neighborhood do-it-all sports bar, Buddha Beer Bar is your spot. A low-key joint on a quiet street, it boasts a decent selection of craft beer at good prices, without the crowds common to trendier uptown hangouts like Tryon Public House and Dyckman Bar. There’s a night for everyone: ladies’ night, Mexican brunch, wing night, trivia night. You can catch most major sporting events and awards shows here on a row of massive televisions; when Ohio duo Twenty-One Pilots accepted their first Grammy Award pantsless, a bartender at Buddha removed hers, too, to cheers from the few dozen hugging the bar. Oh, and the bathrooms: They’re clean! 4476 Broadway, 646-861-2595
Jumel Terrace Books
Unmarked save for a wooden sign in the window reading “Word,” Jumel Terrace Books is housed in the basement of Kurt Thometz, a book collector who for years has managed rare-book collections for celebrities and socialites. Scan the floor-to-ceiling bookcases and you’ll find a wide variety of tomes, including lots on local New York City history, one of Thometz’s specialties. (He’s not a fan of the recent re-canonizing of Alexander Hamilton, whom he considers to have been a terrible misogynist; Eliza Jumel, who lived in the famous Morris-Jumel mansion just steps from his front door, was a far more interesting subject, he says.) A significant portion of the collection covers African and African-American history: the slave trade, black folks in the military, the civil rights movement, music and literature and psychology. This is fitting, given that around the corner from the quiet shop is not just Sugar Hill but 555 Edgecombe, an unassuming mammoth of an apartment building that has housed some of the most influential black musicians of our time, including Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Johnny Hodges, Count Basie, and a woman named Marjorie Eliot, whose parlor jazz concerts attract dozens of locals and tourists each Sunday afternoon. Jumel Terrace Books is open by appointment only these days — Thometz said he has more success renting the apartment to tourists and couples than selling books. But give him a call anyway and ask nicely. 426 West 160th Street between St. Nicholas and Edgecombe avenues, 212-928-9525
Tucked inconspicuously behind a C-Town grocery store is Manhattan’s oldest house, the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Modest by modern standards, it was built as a summer estate by a British colonel in 1765, served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War, was the site of America’s first-ever presidential cabinet meeting, and was later home to the now infamous Aaron Burr (sir), the damn fool who killed Alexander Hamilton. (Washington Heights native Lin-Manuel Miranda even wrote two Hamilton songs at the mansion, in Burr’s old bedroom.) Local lore has it that the national landmark is haunted by Eliza Jumel, the last inhabitant of the house, a savvy socialite who was once married to — and divorced — Burr. While you’re in the area, check out the fifty row houses that make up the Jumel Terrace Historic District, including a set of nineteenth-century wooden homes on Sylvan Terrace, a former carriage driveway. 65 Jumel Terrace between Sylvan Terrace and West 162nd Street, 212-923-8008