What to do in: Washington Heights

 

Washington Heights, in northern Manhattan, was my home for my first two years in New York City. As such, it will always hold a special place in my heart. The neighborhood is bordered by 155th Street and Dyckman. Largely an immigrant community, and mostly Hispanic, with large numbers of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, Spanish is heard on the streets and in stores. Bachata and salsa are blasted from storefronts, radios and cars.

I moved there for three reasons: affordable rent for the size of the apartment, proximity to work, and the neighborhood itself. Washington Heights boasts a diverse array of restaurants, events and parks. My apartment was close to the George Washington Bridge, and Bus Terminal, as well as two different subway lines (the A and the 1), myriad grocery stores, and restaurants with cuisines from all over the world. The Bridge, which hits at the middle of the neighborhood, is somewhat of the ‘hoods cultural icon and I found it comforting. When travelling to and from New Jersey, the Bridge was a symbol of home and of the neighborhood.

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The George Washington Bridge, as seen from Fort Washington Park

My building had residents from many different countries. My next-door neighbor had lived in the apartment for decades and loved to tell me about the neighborhoods’ changes throughout the years. The other neighbors kept more to themselves, but sometimes kept me awake at night playing music. One tenant played “Llevame Contigo” by Romeo Santos practically on repeat.

Regardless, I loved living in a neighborhood that felt alive and had a pulse. In my guide here, I’ve listed the top parks and historic sites by location, starting at the southernmost border at 155th Street, heading north to the border of Inwood at Dyckman Street.  You’ll find my favorite things, written as a comprehensive guide for anyone looking to visit or move to this wonderful neighborhood.

Starting at the Bottom: 155th Street to 165th Street

On 155th Street, you can find the Hispanic Society of America’s museum. There’s no excuse not to stop by- admission is free! Their galleries feature works from Latin America, Spain and Portugal. It has a small but carefully curated collection that is worth the visit.

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Hispanic Society

 

Just north of the museum, at 160th Street, is the Morris Jumel Mansion, built in 1765. It is oldest residence in New York City and was the home of Aaron Burr. Managed by the Historic House Trust, this historic house hosts numerous community events throughout the year. My favorite way to access the house is walking up a semi-hidden staircase on St. Nicholas Avenue onto Sylvan Terrace, one of the most unique streets in Manhattan. The houses are all made of wood in the same style, with cobblestones on the street. Facing east towards the Mansion, it feels like you are in another country.

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Morris Jumel Mansion

 

For a quick shopping trip, stop by Word Up Community Bookshop on Amsterdam and 165th. This volunteer-run bookstore that has an incredible impact in the community. It is the only bookstore in the neighborhood (that I’ve seen) and it offers many books by local artists, bilingual books, and used books at affordable rates. They also host many community events.

For another dose of neighborhood history, between 165th and 166th Street on Broadway is the Shabazz Center, a memorial and educational center to honor Malcom X and Betty Shabazz. I’ve been meaning to visit, but their weekday hours pose a challenge for nine to fivers such as myself. Hint, hint!

A little in the middle: 165th Street to 175th Street

Stretching from 155th to the northernmost border of Washington Heights, Highbridge Park has a pool, recreation center, fields, playground, and a footbridge to the Bronx that reopened this past July, after being boarded up for years. The main entrance on 172nd Street and Amsterdam brings you close to the water tower terrace and stairway to the footbridge.

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Highbridge Park Water Tower, as seen from the footbridge

 

On 175th and Broadway is a cultural gem: The United Palace of Cultural Arts, a relatively new nonprofit arts organization that has been a boon to the community ever since its founding. It hosts arts and cultural events, an after school music program, movie screenings and performances for the community. Their events are held in the ornate United Palace Theater, which opened in the 1930s as a vaudeville house and movie theater. The building doubles as a church on weekends. For architects, movie and theater lovers, and history buffs, this building has it all: grand staircases, red stage curtains,chandeliers, decorative ceilings. It truly must be experienced in person.

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A view of the ceiling of the United Palace

 

After a performance at the United Palace, take a walk to J. Hood Wright Park, just off Fort Washington Avenue near 174th Street. While more of a neighborhood park, with a bridge-themed playground, dog run, chess tables, recreation center, and a field, it has my favorite view of the George Washington Bridge. At night I used to go to the north west corner of the park to see the bridge all light up with cars racing by, quietly, across the bridge.

For more scenic views of the bridge during daylight hours, head to Fort Washington Park. The park features tennis courts, walking paths, picnic tables, a playground, and the famous Little Red Lighthouse. The small but mighty lighthouse can be found  just underneath the Bridge itself. The Little Red Lighthouse was made famous by the book The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge, which is the story of a lighthouse that persevered even though the bridge’s new technologies almost rendered it obsolete. The lighthouse is now a historic monument, and during the yearly Lighthouse Festival, you can climb its stairs. (This festival is on my bucket list!)

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Little Red Lighthouse

 

Reaching the top: Fort Tryon Park

Last but not least is one of the most under-appreciated Manhattan parks. Fort Tryon Park, at 190th Street towards the northern border of the neighborhood, has winding paths, a flower garden, and sweeping views of the Hudson River, Palisades and the George Washington Bridge. The Metropolitan Museum’s extension, the Cloisters, is located at the parks’ northernmost tip. The Park also hosts an annual Medieval Festival in early October, drawing thousands of visitors. It is easily accessible by public transportation (the A train at 190th Street or at Dyckman) and taking a walk through its gardens and trails can make you forget you are in an urban metropolis.

There’s much more to the neighborhood than its outdoor spaces and historical sites, including food, shopping, and more, but I’ll save that for another post.

What would you add to this list?

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6 thoughts on “What to do in: Washington Heights

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