Upper Manhattan is a large, relatively under-visited area that ranges from 125th Street to Inwood Hill Park on the west and from 96th Street northward on the east (where the island of Manhattan tapers off unevenly). The area includes Harlem, recognized globally as a center of African-American culture and business and home to America’s historic Black nationalist movements, and East (Spanish) Harlem. 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 Side, bounded by 96th Street and the Harlem River, 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. The Latino population of the neighborhood is also diverse, and is now more Mexican than Puerto Rican.
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 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, a song by Billy Strayhorn which describes how to get to the place where his famous musical collaborator, Duke Ellington, lived. The entire west side of Harlem is a surprising mix of rundown 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 relatively 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 lies the neighborhood of Inwood, a 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.