One of the last parts of Manhattan to be developed, by the early nineteenth century Washington Heights was dotted with the large country homes of wealthy New Yorkers. These houses included Minniesland (155th Street at the Hudson River), the estate of painter and naturalist John James Audubon, and the Morris-Jumel Mansion (Edgecombe and 160th streets), a 1765 building from which George Washington commanded the engagement now known as the Battle of Washington Heights. The Morris-Jumel mansion occupies a special place in the history of popular culture in America as well: it was here, in the 1890s, that moving pictures were first projected in the United States.
Baseball, or at least New York City professional baseball, also had its beginnings in Washington Heights. The New York Giants played at the famous Polo Grounds (155th Street near the Harlem River) from 1889 to 1957, as did the New York Mets in 1962 and 1963. But the Heights was also home to the city's first American League baseball: Hilltop Stadium, on the site of the present Columbia University Medical Center (165th Street and Broadway), housed the New York Highlanders from 1903 to 1913. (The team's current name: the Yankees.)
Hilltop Park, home of the Highlanders (now the New York Yankees), is now the campus of Columbia University Medical Center on 168th Street.
Courtesy of Coogan's Restaurant
Although the neighborhood was part of New York, one measure of the perceived and actual distance from the city's center is found on a marker in the garden of the Morris-Jumel mansion: eleven miles to New York City, probably meaning City Hall. So distant was the neighborhood that it was not included on the grid established for much of Manhattan in 1811. Indeed, it was not until the new subway was extended to Washington Heights that the neighborhood experienced the dense development that characterized the rest of Manhattan.
Groundbreaking for the subway took place at 157th Street in 1900, and the line was completed by 1906. A subsequent construction boom brought stately apartment buildings and tenements, attracting Irish, Greek, and Jewish New Yorkers. During the Second World War, German Jews in particular flocked to the area, and the northern part of the neighborhood was sometimes known as Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson.
Neighborhood boundaries are fluid, and the northern part of Harlem's famous Sugar Hill extended into lower Washington Heights. Many jazz greats—including Duke Ellington, Johnny Hodges, and Count Basie—lived in a particular apartment building at 555 Edgecombe Avenue, on 160th Street opposite the Morris-Jumel mansion, a building that still houses jazz musicians to this day.
After the Second World War, generations of Spanish speakers made Washington Heights their home—first Puerto Ricans and Cubans, and later Dominicans and Mexicans. In the 1980s, Washington Heights boasted the largest number of immigrants to New York City. So significant are the numbers of Dominicans living in Washington Heights today that candidates running for political office in the Dominican Republic run large campaign parades up Broadway in the 150s and 160s.
The Morris-Jumel Mansion
In the early years of the twenty-first century, the community's relatively low buildings and green spaces have attracted Manhattanites priced out of neighborhoods farther south. With the influx has come a restoration of many older structures as well as new shops and restaurants along Broadway, still a vibrant ethnic marketplace. In 2004, the National Track & Field Hall of Fame opened in the Armory at 168th Street. Once left off many tourist maps of New York City, Washington Heights is drawing more visitors uptown, and should continue to grow in coming years.
James Renner is the official Community Board 12 (Washington Heights and Inwood) historian, and a Washington Heights resident since 1973. He has written sixty historical essays on the area, which have appeared in neighborhood newspapers, and most recently on a Web site called Washington Heights and Inwood Online.
Read articles from James Renner's website.