The far-northern reaches of the isle of Manhattan may best be described as rock – a jagged pile of rock interrupted only by minor tufts of green. It’s a narrow strip squeezed in between the mighty Hudson to the west and the narrower Harlem to the east. Atop this pile is more stone still – and brick too. But this stone is shaped, and stacked not in jagged lines but in straight columns, piercing the sky above crisply. This layer is cut once more, scored along the land by hot lines of gray asphalt, brutally straight save for a few curves as they descend down the pile. The pile is sliced further still by an even more brutal stripe of concrete dashing across its center, entering mightily on the Hudson side as a great white behemoth of steel and exiting the other coolly atop a more modest arch. The stripe is the Trans Manhattan Expressway between 178 and 179 Sts.; the behemoth is the great George Washington; the cool arch is the Alexander Hamilton; the stone columns and the jagged pile on which they rest is Washington Heights.
Washington Heights, or, more simply, the Heights, is named for Fort Washington, the site of a bloody rebel defeat in the Revolutionary War. In November of 1776, a group of German mercenaries and British soldiers overpowered American troops at Fort Washington, leaving 53 American soldiers dead, according to an article by the History Channel. The fort no longer stands, and the site has been replaced by Bennett Park, located at Fort Washington Ave. and W. 185 St.
Bennett Park is the highest point on Manhattan Island, and is more than 260 feet above sea level. Other parks in the neighborhood include Highbridge Park (home to The High Bridge, which is open to pedestrian traffic to the Bronx) and Harlem River Park along the Harlem River. On the other side of the Heights, is Fort Washington Park, which spreads itself out along the cliffs of the Hudson, and is home to spectacular views of the George Washington Bridge and Jeffrey’s Hook Light, the lighthouse under the G.W. Bridge popularized in the children’s book “The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.”
Farther south in the neighborhood, at 162 St., east of St. Nicholas Ave., sits the Morris-Jumel mansion and the Jumel Terrace historic district. The mansion is the only remaining house in New York City built before the Revolutionary War, and it served as a strategic headquarters for then-General George Washington and for British General Sir Henry Clinton. Years later, Vice President Aaron Burr would occupy the mansion with his wife, Eliza Jumel, according to the mansion’s New York City landmark designation report, which was filed in 1967. The mansion is part of the Jumel Terrace Historic District.
Across Jumel Terrace from the mansion is Sylvan Terrace. Sylvan is lined with wooden rowhouses c. 1880, when urbanization first came to the Heights. The rowhouses look like something out of a children’s book and are crammed together along the narrow street, having gone virtually untouched since their creation, according to the City’s report on the historic district, which was filed in 1970.
According to the New York Public Library, The Heights remained relatively undeveloped until the late 1800s, which is when the Uptown streetcar arrived, bringing with it droves of immigrants. The first wave of immigration to Washington Heights was primarily Northern Europeans, such as Germans, Finns, and Irish.
The arrival of the I.R.T. line (known today as the No. 1 train) along Broadway and St. Nicholas Ave. only hastened the tide of population growth in the area, and unleashed a building boom. By the 1950s, Puerto Ricans would begin to arrive in the neighborhood, followed ultimately by Dominicans, according to the Library.
The two groups give the neighborhood its Latin-island flair memorialized in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (a Heights native) hit musical “In the Heights.”
The Puerto Rican and Dominican heritage is especially palpable along 181 St. near Broadway and St. Nicholas Ave., which, lined with shops, bars, and restaurants, has become the center of gravity for the Uptown neighborhood. The sights are rich, and the smells richer. And the mofongo, a signature Puerto Rican dish made of fried plantains, is plentiful.
This busy corridor is located just two blocks north of the unembellished steel trusses of the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal, which sits precariously over the Trans Manhattan Expressway. The expressway tore across the island at the command of master builder Robert Moses in the late 1950s, displacing more than 1,800 families, according to reporting from the New York Times in 1959. Also sitting above the expressway are the Bridge Apartments, four gigantic high rise rectangles completed in the 1960s by developer Marvin Kratter, according Kratter’s New York Times obituary from 1999. The buildings pop out from the stone-brick landscape characteristic of the rest of the area, and like the steel towers of the neighboring G.W. Bridge, they are visible from miles around (even from Manhattan College).
Washington Heights is served by the No. 1 train (157, 168, and 181 Sts.), the C train (155, 163, 168 Sts.), as well as the A train (168, 175, 181 Sts.). The No. 1 platforms at 168 and 181 Sts. are among the deepest in the system, and are accessible by elevator only.
First as a battlefield in the fight for independence, and then as an entrance ramp for new Americans, The Heights is a monument of two historical and cultural focal points of the American experiment, cast first in stone and then in steel.