Living In Manhattanville
At Harlem’s Heart, an Enigmatic Neighborhood
Andrew Henderson/The New York Times
WITH PARKING Fairway, tucked under the viaduct at 131st Street, is one attraction of Manhattanville.
By DEBORAH BALDWIN
Published: August 15, 2008
These days, some residents are disquieted by Columbia University’s plans to absorb a chunk of the area into its campus. More Photos >
STEP off the elevated subway at the center of Manhattanville and you may wonder if there’s really a there there. The view from the station above 125th Street and Broadway can be disorienting: no little shops and bodegas to say, “This is it.” What you see instead are warehouses, bus depots and factories, as well as unmarked towers and a crosshatch of diagonal streets more reminiscent of the West Village. Yet there’s something slightly magical about the way hills rise up around the area. A recent group exhibition of photographs dedicated to Manhattanville characterized its haunting mix of low-lying back streets, vaulted overpasses, vintage churches and riverfront as “strange, unresolved or unsettling.”
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Living in Manhattanville, New York
On the Market
No wonder few people agree on its future — or even, for that matter, whether it exists in the first place. “I’ve considered the whole area Harlem,” said Sarah Martin, who has lived in the Grant Houses complex in Manhattanville since 1957, voicing the dismissive sentiment of some longtime residents.
Others say you hear the name these days mainly because it’s attached to the controversial plan by Columbia University to transform 17 acres of Manhattanville into an extended campus.
But there is a there there, insists Eric K. Washington, the author of “Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem.”
“It’s not a neighborhood that you walk through and all of a sudden you’ve stepped into a Jane Austen novel,” Mr. Washington said. “But it does have a quality of intrigue. It seems to whisper to you, ‘Boy, have I got stories.’ ”
He described how it was incorporated as a village in 1806, straddling two thoroughfares now known as Broadway and 125th, its streets laid out old-style, pregrid. Some east-west streets still hold onto names like Tiemann Place — “a real cabbie-stumper,” said Mr. Washington, who lived on it for 20 years.
The 2000 census counted roughly 39,000 residents, 51 percent Hispanic or Latino (of any race), 32 percent non-Hispanic black and 10 percent white.
Many more people simply pass through, to shop at the sprawling Fairway supermarket on West 131st, line up with the crowds at Dinosaur-Bar-B-Que on 12th Avenue, and rubberneck at the film crews that set up under the arches of the Riverside Drive overpass.
With more warehouses than town houses, it’s an area that real estate agents like to redraw as part of higher-profile neighborhoods, as if tugging on the corners of a Google map. Though upscale condominiums occasionally come onto the market, the pickings are slim, according to Sidney Whelan, a sales associate at Halstead Property.
You can hardly blame people for trying to live there, though. West Harlem Piers Park opened this summer near Fairway; there’s a bike path along the river and a strip of hot new watering holes just up 12th Avenue; and the Henry Hudson Parkway is right there, offering a quick route upstate. And where else would a doll factory face an auto-body shop, or a renovated commercial space called the Mink Building — rich people’s furs used to summer there — sit opposite a live poultry shop?
WHAT YOU’LL FIND
For an area so small — 122nd to 135th Streets, from the Hudson River to St. Nicholas and Manhattan Avenues — Manhattanville covers a lot of psychogeographical ground. West 125th, home to the Cotton Club, feels like Harlem, while the southwest corner is oriented toward Riverside Park, where “you can stand at the top of the hill and see the George Washington Bridge,” said Linda Mahoney, who lives on Tiemann Place.
Farther north, on Broadway, you pick up a Dominican flavor. “It’s always been polyglot, unlike Harlem,” Mr. Washington said. “It forces you to rethink where you’re visiting — it’s a bit more complex.”
Today’s multiethnic mosaic includes Latinos who don’t speak Spanish and Middle Easterners who do, said Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, a member of the local community board who has lived on West 136th since 1964. Holding it together, he says, is not only tolerance but also the residual glue that brought the community together in the 1990s to fight a common enemy: the drug lords who ruled northern Manhattanville’s streets.
By 2005, the dealers retreated indoors, he said. He credits not only a police crackdown but also newcomers determined to make the area their home. One of them was Judith Matloff, who lives a few blocks north of Manhattanville and has written a pungent memoir, “Home Girl,” about her family’s 2000 purchase of a dilapidated house on a block then ruled by Dominican dealers.
Ms. Matloff paused during a recent walk around the area to stare at movers unloading a mattress — a once-popular way to transfer cocaine, she noted. Then she rallied, heading toward Broadway and its signs of a gradual upswing. “Ray’s Wines and Liquors is having wine tastings,” she said wryly. “Gallo tastings — behind bulletproof glass.”
Critics of Columbia’s plans say these signs of revitalization seem natural and organic, in contrast to the university’s buy-and-hold approach. “Even before a shovel has been dropped in the ground, the expansion has caused disruption and a sense of impending loss,” said Tom DeMott of the Coalition to Preserve Community.
Robert Kasdin, Columbia’s senior executive vice president, argued that rather than disrupt the area, redevelopment would improve its infrastructure. He said the university had taken steps to help preserve and develop housing.
There isn’t a vast stock right now; apart from plentiful student and public housing, inventory is negligible. But for those who qualify, the public housing comes in the form of “H.D.F.C. co-ops,” referring to the Housing Development Fund Corporation — some in stately prewar buildings. Created after the landlord flight of the 1970s, when tenants bought their buildings from the city, these co-ops have buyer income restrictions and caps on sale prices.
Christa Myers, who lives in an H.D.F.C. building near Convent Avenue and 129th Street and is buying a two-bedroom apartment there, said she was drawn to the building because it was on a quiet block in “a neighborhood that is getting nicer and nicer.”
“I will say, having been raised in Harlem and seeing gentrification, I have mixed feelings,” Ms. Myers said. “I’m an alumna of Columbia, and I love my alma mater,” but the growth will take place “at the expense of some people.”
WHAT YOU’LL PAY
A condo in a former warehouse on St. Nicholas Avenue near West 123rd recently sold for more than $1 million. Such properties are relatively rare.
The going price for co-ops is about $700 a square foot, said Patty LaRocco, a Prudential Douglas Elliman senior vice president.
Bellmarc Realty is offering a 1,000-square-foot two-bedroom at 501 West 122nd at $750,000, and Willie Kathryn Suggs, the well-known Harlem broker, valued an apartment she will be listing on Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson, at $800 a square foot.
For those who qualify and do not mind purchase and sales curbs, H.D.F.C. co-ops often go for less than $100,000. (See nyc.gov/html/hpd/html/developers/til.shtml.)
Renters should expect to pay up to $2,500 a month for a two-bedroom two-bath apartment, and $1,900 to $2,100 for a one-bedroom, Mr. Whelan said.
At the Mott Hall School, serving Grades 4 through 8, 93.9 percent of eighth graders showed proficiency in English and 98 percent in math, versus 43 percent and 60 percent citywide. At Kipp Infinity Charter School, serving Grades 5 through 7, 98.5 percent of the seventh graders showed proficiency in English, and 100 percent in math. At the Kipp Star College Prep School, serving Grades 5 through 8, 54 percent of the eighth graders showed proficiency in English, 95.3 percent in math.
The High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College, which admits by test only, reported 2007 SAT averages of 576 in reading, 627 in math and 551 in writing, versus 441, 462 and 433 citywide.
WHAT TO DO
West Harlem Piers Park extends from West 125th to 132nd Street.
Fairway opened on West 131st Street in 1995. When asked why there, the owner, Howard Glickberg, said, “There aren’t many places in Manhattan where you can have 40,000 square feet of selling area and a parking lot also.” How true. Don’t miss the meat section, which fills an entire refrigerated room.
Just north on 12th Avenue are the Hudson River Cafe at West 133rd Street and a restaurant row at West 135th.
Midtown is a quick subway ride from the 1, 2 and 3 stop at 125th and Broadway. Switch to the express at 96th; you’ll get there in 15 minutes.
In the early 1800s, Manhattanville was a port village with a crooked main drag called Bloomingdale Road. In the early 1900s, Riverside Drive Viaduct went up, along with a subway line held aloft by Eiffel Tower-like arches, and the village became part of the city. The New York Times bemoaned the changes. “Quaint Landmarks in Manhattanville Passing Away for Modern Improvements,” read a headline in 1912.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 17, 2008, on page RE8 of the New York edition.