Upper Manhattan is a large, relatively under-visited area of Manhattan that ranges from 125th Street to Inwood Hill Park on the west and from about 96th Street northward (the island of Manhattan tapers off unevenly on the east) on the east. The area includes the well-known neighborhood of Harlem, recognized globally as a center of African-American culture and business. Other areas of interest include the neighborhoods of Washington Heights, a center of Dominican culture in New York and the home of The Cloisters museum and the huge Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center; and Inwood, the home of the last remains of the marshes and forests that once covered the island.
Upper Manhattan is a large and fascinating place where the identity and characteristics of the neighborhoods change almost every few blocks. Harlem itself consists of several neighborhoods each with its own distinct culture and history. Spanish Harlem, also known as El Barrio, is the famous heart of Puerto Rican culture in the United States. Once known as Italian Harlem, today this area on the East River, bounded by 96th Street and 125th Street, is a polyglot mixture of renovated and gentrified streets sharing space with West African immigrants in single room occupancy hotels and the many Latinos who still live in the area.
Further north and west, centered around 125th Street, is the Harlem of the Harlem Renaissance, the center of African American culture in the early twentieth century. While old standbys like Sylvia's soul food restaurant and the Apollo Theater are still going strong, Harlem and particularly 125th Street are amidst a renaissance as new homeowners renovate historic brownstones and new development surges. A new Marriott hotel is planned for 125th and Park, and former President Bill Clinton's offices are in the neighborhood as well. There are famous churches in the area, such as the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and some of these have famous gospel choirs.
The Western side of Harlem, is now roughly divided into Manhattanville, an area being developed as a new campus by Columbia University; Hamilton Heights, north of about 133rd street and south of 155th street which contains City College, the alma mater of quite a few Nobel Prize winners and other notables; and Sugar Hill, east of Amsterdam Avenue and north of 145th street, an area that was always associated with African American culture but is best known because of the Ella Fitzgerald rendition of Take the `A' Train. The entire west side of Harlem is a surprising mix of run down streets with car repair garages, stately single family town houses, and boarded-up buildings. Even further west, along Riverside Drive running all the way to 165th street, are delightfully preserved apartment buildings from the turn of the twentieth century.
North of Harlem are Washington Heights and Inwood, unlikely to be on most tourists' radar screen except for The Cloisters but also fast improving from their days as by-words for urban blight. Washington Heights is the acknowledged center of Dominican culture in New York. Today, it is an ethnic mix with recent immigrants from Bangladesh and young artists and professionals in search of low rents rubbing shoulders with long term Dominican residents in the South and the Jewish residents of the northern Cabrini Boulevard area. Columbia University's Medical School and Hospital, New York Presbyterian Medical Center, dominates the neighborhood. At the northern end of Washington Heights, The Cloisters, a medieval museum and gift of the Rockefeller family, lives inside the beautiful Fort Tryon Park. Further north, the island narrows considerably and, on the east side (if it can be called East!), on Broadway, lies the neighborhood of Inwood, a very dense, mostly residential area, and Inwood Hill Park, a marshy and forested park that is the best approximation of what Manhattan island was five hundred years ago.
The original village of Harlem was established in 1658 by Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant and named Nieuw Haarlem after the Dutch city of Haarlem. Throughout the Dutch, British, and colonial periods, rich farms were located in the region's flat eastern portion, while some of New York's most illustrious early families, such as the Delanceys, Bleeckers, Rikers, Beekmans, and Hamiltons maintained large estates in the high, western portion of the area.
In the early 1900s, particularly in the 1920s, African-American literature, art, music, dance, and social commentary began to flourish in Harlem. This African-American cultural movement became known as "The New Negro Movement" and later as the Harlem Renaissance. More than a literary movement, the Harlem Renaissance exalted the unique culture of African-Americans and redefined African-American expression. African-Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage.
Ironically, during the 1920s and 30s, many African-Americans were excluded from witnessing performances of much of the great music that members of their community were creating. Many jazz venues, like Small's and the Cotton Club (where Duke Ellington played) were open to white customers only. The Savoy, which was integrated, was closed down by municipal authorities in the 30s amid concern over interracial relationships engendered by the easy mixing there. Fortunately, segregation in New York clubs is long past, and visitors to Harlem can still listen to jazz over a meal or a few drinks today.
Many subway lines pass through the neighborhood. The A, C, and 1 go up the West Side to Manhattanville, Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights, Inwood and Fort Tryon Park. The 2 and 3 go up Lenox Avenue more or less in the center, and the 4, 5, 6 on the East Side. The B and D go up 8th Av. and St. Nicholas Av. along with the A and C as far as 155 St., then go under the Harlem River to Yankee Stadium and other stops in the Bronx. The A and D and the 4 and 5 are fast express trains during the day, as the A and D whiz passengers from 59 St. directly to 125 St., while the 4 and 5 go from 86 St. to 125 St. in one stop.
By commuter train
Metro North Railroad has a station at 125th Street and Park Avenue with easy connections to and from the Hudson Valley and Connecticut. See the By train section on the main New York City page for more info.
There is plenty of MTA bus service to the area. The M4 makes its slow way up to the Cloisters from the Village via the East Side (Madison on the way up and Fifth Avenue on the way down), across 110th St., and via Broadway and Fort Washington Av. further north - a nice way to see the changing face of Manhattan but a very slow way! There is a large commuter bus terminal under the ramps to the George Washington Bridge (175th Street between Broadway and Fort Washington Avenue) with service to points to suburban New Jersey and New York.
- The Cloisters, . Located on four acres overlooking the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park, the building incorporates elements from five medieval French cloisters--quadrangles enclosed by a roofed or vaulted passageway, or arcade--and from other monastic sites in southern France. There are various artworks on display in the museum, with the Unicorn Tapestries being the most famous. Admission is by donation, just as in its parent museum, the Metropolitan Museum. You may pay the suggested price, more, or less, as you wish..
- Fort Tryon Park. One of New York's most beautiful, is an expanse of rolling hills high above the Hudson. It contains some of the highest natural elevations on the island and is a great place to picnic or stroll in good weather and look at the great views of the New Jersey Palisades across the river.
- Apollo Theater, 253 West 125th Street (between Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. and Frederick Douglass Blvd.; Subway: A, B, C, D, 2 or 3 train to 125th St.), .
- Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue (between 103rd and 104th Sts.; Subway: 6 to 103rd St. or the 2 or 3 to 110 St.; Bus: M1, M2, M3, M4 or M106), ☎ +1 212 534-1672, . Rather large, interesting museum with all kinds of documentation of events in the history of this city and delightful artifacts of life in earlier periods, such as the extensive collection of 19th century dollhouses complete with miniature furniture.
- El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue (at 104th Street), . The only US museum devoted to Puerto Rican culture.
- Hamilton Grange National Monument, 287 Convent Avenue. Built in 1802 (and physically shifted from its original location) this was the home of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers and the first Secretary of Treasury. Hamilton Grange is temporarily closed for renovation.
- Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 135 St. and Malcolm X Boulevard (Subway: 2 or 3 to 135 St.; Bus: M7, M102, or Bx33), . A main research branch of the New York Public Library, this is a repository of priceless documents and also has various exhibitions on themes related to black history and culture.
- James Bailey House, 10 St. Nicholas Place (at W. 150th St.). Street built by architect Samuel Burrage Reed. A major mansion owned by circus entrepreneur Anthony Bailey - joined with showman Phineas T. Barnum in 1881 to form the Barnum & Bailey circus. Now Known to the children of Harlem as the Beauty and the Beast house.
- Strivers Row, . Million dollar homes in an unlikely neighborhood.
- Morris-Jumel Mansion, 65 Jumel Ter. (Subway: C to 163rd St.; Bus: M2, M3, M100, or M101), ☎ +1 212 923-8008, . Built in 1765, this is the oldest house on Manhattan Island. It served as George Washington's headquarters in 1776. Currently a museum set on a 1.5-acre park, it features a decorative-arts collection representing the colonial and Revolutionary War periods. Washington's office is among the 12 restored rooms.
- Audubon Ballroom, NE corner of Broadway and 165th Street. Where Malcolm X was assassinated. Only a part of the facade of the original building remains (Columbia University demolished the building in 1992).
- Studio Museum Harlem, 144 W 125th St, ☎ +1 212 864-4500, . W-F, Su 12PM-6PM, Sa 10AM-6PM. $7 adults, $3 students/seniors, free for children under 12.
- Riverside Park, west of Riverside Drive. A riverfront park providing pleasant views of New Jersey and sometimes breezes off the river. Summer brings al fresco movies and music to the park.
- Marcus Garvey (Mount Morris) Park. One of the oldest parks in Manhattan. The elegant brownstones on the west and south sides of the park hint at the former grandeur of the neighborhood (many were built in the 1880s). The Acropolis, a lookout seventy feet above street level gives views of the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, and Yankee Stadium. The Firetower, a landmark 1857 building, is the only surviving example of nineteenth century fire watchtowers.
- There are several interesting and pleasant routes for walking through Harlem, including:
- 125th St., the most important commercial street in the neighborhood. There is a lot of street life, and a varied lineup of businesses serving the community.
- St. Nicholas Av. in the 140s and 150s is lined with beautiful apartment houses with ornate facades and front doors. South of 142nd St., you pass by the tree-lined expanse of St. Nicholas Park.
- Convent Av. in the 140s and 150s is also lined with pretty brownstones. It is quieter and less populated than St. Nicholas Av., which is downhill from Convent and on the other side of St. Nicholas Park.
- Broadway north of 132nd St. or so is the center of a lively Dominican neighborhood.
- East 116th St. is the main commercial street of East (aka Spanish) Harlem. This is actually an ethnically mixed area and no less interesting because of that.
- A & D Restaurant, 360 Lenox Avenue (at 120th St.), ☎ +1 212 987-0912. Anglo-Caribbean.
- Blue Lagoon, 513 West 145th Street. Anglo-Caribbean.
- Caribbean Cafe, 2310 1st Avenue (between 118 and 119 Sts.), ☎ +1 212 426-2252. Anglo-Caribbean.
- Dia Restaurant, 1920 7th Avenue, ☎ +1 212 665-2653. American cuisine.
- El Malecon, 175 St. and Broadway. A Dominican restaurant famous for its pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken), has its flagship in this neighborhood. Go there and enjoy the food, the fresh-squeezed juice, and the Latin music on the jukebox.
- El Presidente, 3938 Broadway (at 165th Street), ☎ +1 212 927-7011. Offers another take on Dominican food, with good pork-stuffed plantains, guinea hen stew (an occasional special) and, oddly, a terrific Cuban sandwich.
- Extremes Restaurants & Bakery, 182 Lenox Avenue, ☎ +1 212 828-4487. Anglo-Caribbean.
- Harlem Revival, . Upscale modern cuisine. A bright spot of food in a revitalizing neighborhood.
- Mike's Bagels, 4003 Broadway (at 168th St.), ☎ +1 212 928-2300. Fresh bagels made in-house daily.
- Patsy's Pizzeria, 2287 1st Avenue (between 117th and 118th Sts.), ☎ +1 212 534-9783. This is great old-school New York coal-oven pizza. Don't go overboard on the toppings, which are not the reason why you should go there. Get a plain pizza, and enjoy the wonder of a thin, nicely charred crust with delicious sauce and cheese that aren't heaped on but applied judiciously in a style that derives clearly from its origins in Naples. A couple should be able to down a pie or two with some salad without trouble for a meal, because the crust is so thin, but note that you can also get slices for takeout.
- Settepani Bakery, 196 Lenox Avenue (corner of 120th), ☎ +1 917 492-4006, .
- Sister's Cuisine, 30 East 124th Street, ☎ +1 212 410-3000. Anglo-Caribbean.
- Lenox Lounge, 288 Lenox Avenue (Subway: 2 or 3 to 125th St.), ☎ +1 212 427-0253, . Catch great jazz in the Zebra Room.
- St. Nick's Pub, 773 St. Nicholas Avenue (at 149th Street; Subway: A, B, C, or D to 145 St.; Bus: M3 or M18). Another longstanding and well-known jazz venue.
- Bonita's, 527 Malcolm X Blvd., ☎ +1 212 283-8205.
- Doral Lounge, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. (at 145th Street), ☎ +1 212 283-8318.
- Lickety Split, 2361 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., ☎ +1 212 283-9093.
- Londel's, 2620 Frederick Douglass Blvd., ☎ +1 212 234-6114.
- Mr B's Cocktail Lounge, 2297 7th Avenue, ☎ +1 212 283-8061.
- P. J.'s, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., ☎ +1 212 283-5812.
- Rebar, 127th 8th Ave, ☎ +1 212 627-1680.
- Cotton Club, 666 West 125th Street, ☎ +1 212 663-7980.
- Bed and Bike, 264 Lenox Avenue (between 123rd & 124th Sts.), ☎ +1 917 648-1478. Newly renovated apartment in classic Harlem brownstone, available for weekly rentals. New furnishings and new appliances. Original moldings and hardwood floors throughout. Two decorative fireplaces. Sleeps 8 comfortably. Free bicycle rentals during winter months and discounted rentals at other times. Equipped with internet access, cable TV, wi-fi, and A/C. Linens and towels included. Shorter term rentals may be available. 2000/week.
- The Harlem YMCA, 180 W. 135th Street, ☎ +1 212 281-4100 x210, . Has a Health and Wellness Center and a heated swimming pool.
- Highbridge House 173rd Street Hostel, 556 West 173rd Street, ☎ +1 212 928-0393, .
- Highbridge House 146th Street Hostel, 307A West 146th Street, ☎ +1 212 283-1219, .
Violent crimes have declined dramatically in Harlem and Washington Heights, and the relative safety in upper Manhattan varies greatly depending on where and when one travels. Most of the tourist destinations are very safe. However, crime still exists, as it does throughout New York City. As in all neighborhoods, exercise caution when walking in the neighborhood at night. Subway stations are generally safe and are patrolled by uniformed and undercover police. Consider staying on main thoroughfares, especially after dark. Population density is generally high in Washington Heights, and most residents are Spanish speaking and friendly.