There is a story about a resident of New York City who, after many years of living in the same apartment, moved less than 10 blocks away. When it came time to settle in, she was suddenly confronted with the need to find a new dry cleaner, a new corner grocery, a new laundromat, butcher and hardware store.
Ten blocks was just too far to walk to the shops in her old neighborhood. It was as if she had moved to another city hundreds of miles away.
This was Manhattan, after all, where 20 north-south blocks equal about one mile and neighborhoods are defined by unseen boundaries. The distance required to walk with bags of Saturday shopping or to the nearest bus stop on a snow-packed day in January must be considered.
Neighborhoods in New York City
More than 1.6 million people live on the island of Manhattan’s 22.7 square miles. But what visitors often fail to see are the 89 neighborhoods ranging from Inwood Hill on the far northern edge to Bowling Green and the South Ferry on the southernmost tip.
In between are places with names like Sugar Hill, Strivers Row, Morningside Heights, Hell’s Kitchen, Alphabet City, the Flatiron District and the well-known Greenwich Village and Chinatown.
Walking Tour in NYC
Walking is the best way to explore what we New Yorkers simply call “the city.” To get a real feel for where we live and work and play, get off the beaten path and head away from the normal tourist areas.
You’ll be rewarded not only with fewer crowds of gawking selfie-takers but with buildings, parks, museums, historical sites, restaurants and shops that are frequented by more city dwellers than out-of-towners.
Here’s one of my favorite self-guided walking tours from 25 years of living in several of those neighborhoods.
Takin’ the A Train
Begin by taking the A train north to 207th Street. While you’re waiting for the subway to arrive, look around and notice the decorative tiles and artwork that adorns the walls. Some are reflective of the neighborhood around the station, like the 23rd Street station where hat mosaics tell the story of famous people who lived or worked in the area at the turn of the last century.
Others are ornamented with tile mosaics and ceramic plaques that date back to 1904 when the subway opened. Go here to check out a handful of the best among the 472 stations that are in operation.
Exit the subway at 207th Street and Broadway. You are now in Inwood at the northernmost end of the island of Manhattan. It was a very rural area until the subway arrived in 1906.
Walk three blocks south on Broadway to 204th Street where the Dyckman Farmhouse stands. The oldest remaining farmhouse on the island, the small two-story home was built around 1785 by William Dyckman, grandson of Jan Dyckman, who arrived from Westphalia in 1661.
Several generations lived in the house until it was sold in 1868. By 1915 it was ready to be demolished when the Dyckman family bought it back and began restorations. Ownership was transferred to the City of New York in 1916 and it’s now a charming museum showcasing Dutch and Colonial life in upper Manhattan.
Inwood Hill Park
Two streets west of the farmhouse is Inwood Hill Park where Peter Minuet famously purchased Manhattan island for traded goods worth “the value of 60 guilders,” according to a letter from Dutch merchant Pieter Schage to directors of the West India Company dated November 5, 1626.
The old-growth forested park is also known for having the last salt marsh on the island and the caves that were used by the Lenape tribe that inhabited the area for centuries before the Europeans arrived. But let’s head a little farther south to Inwood’s sister park.
Fort Tryon Park
Continue walking south on Broadway and cross Dyckman Street. Fort Tryon Park can be seen ahead. Enter the park two blocks farther south just past Arden Street. Follow your nose around the paths or refer to this map of the park and enjoy the peace and solitude of the 67-acre green oasis far from the madding crowd.
Hudson Heights Neighborhood
You are now crossing over to the Hudson Heights neighborhood.
Primarily known for the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum’s outpost that houses collections of European medieval architecture, sculpture and decorative arts including the famous Unicorn Tapestries, few tourists linger to explore the surrounding park.
A far cry from the hordes that clog Central Park’s southern reaches, residents frequent this historic park with its walking, running and bicycle paths, benches for sitting with a book or friend, year-round fitness classes and a dog run where pups of all sizes and breeds do what canines do when let off the leash.
Like Inwood Hill Park, this is where the Lenape tribe lived and farmed for thousands of years before the Dutch arrived in the 17th century and established a fur trading post. In the 18th century, the Battle of Fort Washington raged along the shores and heights of this hilly neighborhood during the American Revolution.
George himself and his Continental Army soldiers camped on the high ground to watch for the British invaders and named their encampment Fort Washington.
By the early part of the 20th century, large country estates had been built overlooking the river by the barons of industry. Philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. began buying up several of the estates in 1917 and hired the Olmstead Brothers, whose father had designed Central Park, to create the rambles, paths and fieldstone buildings, arches and bridges that meander among the plantings and meadows.
Palisades Interstate Park
Completed in 1935, Rockefeller also purchased the land on the opposite side of the river to prevent any development that would obliterate the view. That land eventually became the Palisades Interstate Park.
Among the park’s special features are the Alpine and Heather Gardens, the largest public gardens with unrestricted access in the city. Volunteer gardeners help with weeding, pruning and general maintenance.
A personal favorite for lingering awhile is the Promenade on the west side of the Cloisters and its extension, Linden Terrace, with their sweeping views across the Hudson River to the Palisades, south to the George Washington Bridge and north to the Tappan Zee Bridge.
As you wander, slow down and take in the stone arches, bridges and ramparts, the lawns and trees, the kite flyers, picnickers, dog walkers and frisbee players. These are real New Yorkers at play and rest.
Exit the park at the south end at 190th Street and Margaret Corbin Circle, named after a nurse who fought beside her husband in the American Revolution. Notice the subway entrance that’s set into stone. This is one of the deepest stations in the system at 140 feet below ground.
Up there, Watson!
As you walk around the city, look up and notice the facades of the buildings. The stone decorations may reveal the era in which they were built, what the building once housed, or they may be sheer folly.
One of my favorite areas for architectural gawking is immediately south of Fort Tryon Park beginning at 190th Street to the George Washington Bridge.
The parallel avenues of Fort Washington Avenue and Cabrini Boulevard offer up one of the highest concentrations of Art Deco apartment buildings anywhere in the city. Detective Hercule Poirot would be right at home!
As you saunter south on Fort Washington Boulevard, note the art deco entrance to the subway at 181st Street. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
The United Church: The Palace Cathedral
At 175th Street, head east to Broadway and check out the United Church, a NYC Landmark that was built in 1930 as a movie and vaudeville theatre. Designed by famed theater designer Thomas W. Lamb, the over-the-top interior is a mash-up of Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco, as once described by former New York Times architecture critic David W. Dunlap.
It’s only open to the public during church services and cultural events, but you may be able to peek into the large foyer if the guard is feeling friendly.
Purchased in 1969 by televangelist Reverend Ike, today the theater is still used as a church and is rented out for performances and special events. I attended a Bernie Sanders rally in 2016 that brought together a wildly enthusiastic, diverse group of supporters that seemed right at home in the psychedelic theater.
Little Dominican Republic
This neighborhood is informally known as “Little Dominican Republic” and alternatively as “the Heights” which is short for Washington Heights. With more than 100,000 Dominicans living here, it was the inspiration and setting for the hit Broadway play, “In the Heights.”
Ready to eat? Head to Malecon Restaurant across the street from the United Church and order a bowl of goat stew if it’s on the day’s menu, or their famous golden roasted pollo entero that spin on spits in the window. The crisp skin and dark meat are the best part.
It’s far from fancy but you’ll be surrounded by folks from the hood speaking Spanish and a swirling madhouse of servers delivering platters of food to the tables. When you finally roll out the door, stop and watch a sidewalk domino game as the players slap their tiles down on the table when making their moves.
While those other tourists are contending with the crowd on the High Line downtown, let’s head to the uncrowded High Bridge, the historic walking bridge that connects Manhattan and the Bronx.
Walk east on 175th Street to Amsterdam Avenue and turn south to 172nd Street. Enter High Bridge Park in front of the recreation center and follow the path to the right around the center toward the High Bridge and High Bridge Tower.
Francis Marrone, author of the Architectural Guidebook to New York City, called this structure “a great Roman aqueduct, a granite arcade marching across the Harlem River with magnificent purpose and simplicity.”
The oldest bridge in the city, building began in 1839 and was completed in 1848. The stone arch design carried water from the Croton Lake Reservoir 22 miles north of the city and was the original source of water that was stored in the tower at the western end of the bridge.
A small reservoir was turned into a swimming pool in 1934 and is still in use today. The tower was closed in 1949 but the footbridge that spans the Harlem River remained a favorite stroll for the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and other residents of the neighborhood. It was closed in 1970, but renovated and brought back to life in 2015 thanks to a community-led coalition.
Walk down the stairs next to the tower to reach the span. As you stroll across the bridge, notice the historical plaques of trivia embedded in the walkway.
Turn around and walk back to the Manhattan side and turn left onto the path below the stairs. The path winds to the south, exiting on Edgemont Avenue and 162nd Street.
Morris Jumel Mansion
Cross Edgemont and take in the historic brownstones that line the tree-shaded street. Go one short block, turn left on Jumel Terrace and enter the grounds of one of the jewels in the city’s crown – the Morris Jumel Mansion. Built-in 1765 by British Colonel Roger Morris who returned to England at the start of the American Revolution, the mansion served as George Washington’s headquarters in the fall of 1776.
Subsequent residents included Aaron Burr who, at the age of 77, married the house’s owner, Eliza Jumel, after her first husband died. Notice the names of prior residents scratched in the window panes around the front door.
Leaving the mansion, cross in the center of Jumel Avenue and enter Sylvan Terrace. Once the mansion’s carriageway, the 20 wooden houses set along the cobbled street were erected in 1882 and rented to laborers and civil servants. By the 1960s, the facades had been covered in grey metal and asphalt, were in a state of disrepair and the driveway had been paved over.
Then, in 1970, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission stepped in and proclaimed the neighborhood an historic district. The houses were renovated thanks to federal community grants, but the residents were not pleased with the results and took matters into their own hands.
A palette of similar colors unify their appearance and the dissimilar doors provide an air of individuality and wit to the block.
Exit down the stairs at the far end of the terrace and walk north on St. Nicholas Blvd to 162nd Street. Cross over the avenue and continue diagonally northwest on St. Nicholas to Broadway. Don’t forget to notice your surroundings!
Where Everyone Knows Your Name
When you reach 169th Street, cross Broadway and fall into Coogan’s, where, like Cheers, everyone will soon know your name. Need I say that it’s an Irish bar? As the website explains, “Since 1985, local politicians have broken bread, made deals, smoked peace pipes.”
Surrounded by the many buildings of Columbia Presbyterian hospital as well as apartments, neighborhood parks and even a couple of the few remaining single-family homes in the city that date back to the 1920s or beyond, Coogan’s is renowned in the running world as evidenced by the memorabilia hanging from the ceiling and walls.
Called “America’s #1 Runners’ Restaurant” (and possibly the only such establishment), it shares the city block with the Armory, the premier indoor track and field location and home to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. You may be sitting next to an Olympian. Truth.
Photos populate the walls of the always-present owners with the known and not so known who have eaten there from Lin Manuel Miranda who grew up in the Heights and still lives there, to Hillary Clinton, Andrew Cuomo and Van Morrison. Sit back, relax, order a frosty libation and something from the menu and look around. Chat with the waiter and the family at the next table. Check out the photos and learn the stories behind them from the owners.
When you’re ready to head back downtown, the A train is at one block south on Broadway at 168th Street.
Audubon Theater and Ballroom
But before you go, notice that large white and grey building across Broadway at 165th Street with the massive head of Neptune above the entrance? That’s the Audubon Theater and Ballroom built in 1912 by film producer William Fox and designed by Thomas Lamb who designed the hallucinogenic Union Church that we saw earlier.
It’s now the site of a Columbia University business and technology center and the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center that carries on their work “through the advancement of human rights and social justice.” Malcolm X was assassinated in the ballroom while giving a speech during a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity on February 21, 1965.
Walking Tours of New York City
There are many walking tours of the city’s neighborhoods if you prefer to go with a guide. A search will produce lots of options. I offer these suggestions for some of my favorite museums, tours and sources of more information.
Podcasts about New York City Neighborhoods
To learn about the history and neighborhoods of New York, check out the podcasts produced by The Bowery Boys. They also offer walking tours.
Big Onion Walking Tours offers educators and grad students as guides on themed tours “through New York’s ethnic neighborhoods and historic districts.”
One of the websites I always recommend to visitors is the quirky www.nysonglines.com that offers up fun facts about the buildings, their history and former residents street-by-street and avenue-by-avenue from 61st Street in midtown southward.
To view the island from a different perspective, sign up for an architectural boat tour around Manhattan sponsored by the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and Classic Harbor Line, Another personal fav.
The Tenement Museum located on the Orchard Street on the Lower East Side is among the city’s true treasures that gives volunteer docent-led tours of the surrounding neighborhood. But book early! The tours are small, but demand is large.
Author Bio: Joyce McClure is a freelance writer, photographer and marketing consultant who moved to Yap from New York City in August 2016 as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer. At the end of her service, she decided to remain in Yap to continue working with community organizations.