Manhattan/Harlem and Upper Manhattan

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.


View of The Cloisters in April

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.


Frederick Douglass traffic circle in Harlem.

The original village of Harlem was established in 1658 by Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant and named Nieuw Haarlem after the Dutch city of Haarlem. Throughout the Dutch and British colonial periods, rich farms were located in the region's flat eastern portion, while some of New York's most illustrious early families, such as the Delanceys, Bleeckers, Rikers, Beekmans, and Hamiltons maintained large estates in the high, western portion of the area.

In the early 1900s, particularly in the 1920s, African-American literature, art, music, dance, and social commentary began to flourish in Harlem. This African-American cultural movement became known as "The New Negro Movement" and later as the Harlem Renaissance. More than a literary movement, the Harlem Renaissance exalted the unique culture of African-Americans and redefined African-American expression. African-Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage.

Ironically, during the 1920s and 30s, many African-Americans were excluded from witnessing performances of much of the great music that members of their community were creating. Many jazz venues, like Small's and the Cotton Club (where Duke Ellington played), were open to white customers only. The Savoy, which was integrated, was closed down by municipal authorities in the 30s amid concern over interracial relationships engendered by the easy mixing there. Fortunately, segregation in New York clubs is long past, and visitors to Harlem can still listen to jazz over a meal or a few drinks today.

Get in

Harlem Map
Upper Manhattan Map

By subway

Many subway lines pass through the neighborhood. The A, C, and 1 go up the West Side to Manhattanville, Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, Inwood and Fort Tryon Park. The 2 and 3 go up Lenox Avenue more or less in the center, and the 4, 5, 6 on the East Side. The B and D go up 8th Av. and St. Nicholas Av. along with the A and C as far as 145th St., and then following a stop at 155th St, go under the Harlem River to Yankee Stadium and other stops in the Bronx. The A and D and the 4 and 5 are fast express trains during the day, as the A and D whiz passengers from 59th St. directly to 125th St., while the 4 and 5 go from 86th St. to 125th St. in one stop. The 168th St and 181st St stops on the 1 are among the prettiest stations in the system and deserve a visit.

By commuter train

Metro North Railroad has a station at 125th Street and Park Avenue with easy connections to and from the Hudson Valley and Connecticut. See the By train section on the main New York City page for more info.

By bus

The Malcolm Shabazz Mosque on the corner of 116th St. and Lenox Av., where Malcolm X used to preach

MTA bus

There is plenty of MTA bus service to the area. The M4 makes its slow way up to the Cloisters from Penn Station via the East Side (Madison on the way up and Fifth Avenue on the way down), across 110th St., and via Broadway and Fort Washington Av. further north - a nice way to see the changing face of Manhattan but a very slow way! Or you can take the M5 uptown on the West Side all the way from South Ferry! It travels up Trinity Place, Church St., 6th Av., Broadway, Riverside Drive, Broadway again, and finally Fort Washington Av. Going downtown, it follows 5th Av. from 59th St. to 8th St., then turns east and travels the rest of the distance to the Battery via Broadway.

Commuter buses and jitneys

There is also the large though sparsely occupied Port Authority George Washington Bridge Bus Station, a commuter bus terminal that is under the ramps to the George Washington Bridge (177th Street between Broadway and Fort Washington Av., accessible from the 175th St. stop on the 1 subway line), with jitney and bus service to points in suburban New Jersey and Rockland County, New York. The jitneys, which are to be found in the parking lanes just outside the Fort Washington Av. doors of the station's lower level, are inexpensive and a very good option for trips to and from various communities in northern New Jersey, including Fort Lee, Englewood, Teaneck, and Paterson.


Henry G. Marquand House Conservatory stained glass window at Museum of the City of New York


Morris-Jumel Mansion


A view of the historic Theresa Tower, what was once the Hotel Theresa - a vibrant center of African-American life, the building is now an office tower



Apollo Theater

Performing arts

In addition to the above, the Cotton Club was a famous club and speakeasy during the Harlem Renaissance. There has been for a number of years a new incarnation of the Cotton Club, and it is part of the fabric of Harlem, but since it is on the south side of 125th St. west of Broadway, it is covered in Manhattan/Upper West Side#Drink.


Row houses at 718 (right)-730 (left) St. Nicholas Avenue at West 146th Street, which were built in Romanesque Revival style between 1889 and 1890

There are several interesting and pleasant routes for walking through Harlem, including:


116th St., the main clothes shopping street and one of the main business streets in El Barrio, aka Spanish Harlem

Shopping streets

There also are several shopping streets in Uptown Manhattan: 125th St. is lined by many shops, restaurants and department stores; E. 116th St. is known as "La Marqueta" and is the major numbered shopping street in Spanish Harlem, where you can buy cloth as well as cuchifritos, and further west on Lenox Av. (Malcolm X Boulevard), 116th St. is home to the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, an outdoor market where you can buy kente cloth and all manner of African and African-American products; 3rd Av. is the main shopping avenue in Spanish Harlem, lined by many convenience stores and Puerto Rican and Mexican eateries; and Broadway is the main business avenue and the most important city street in West Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood.


A view of Inwood Hill Park and the Henry Hudson Bridge, which connects Inwood with Riverdale, in the Bronx.


The neo-Gothic tower of Shepard Hall, the main building of City College, literally towering over a stretch of 139th St on the other side of St Nicholas Park


Jazz and Harlem are so inextricably intertwined that anyone paying the neighborhood a visit should try to make a performance. The jazz scene here is a mere shadow of its former self, when saxophones rang out the door of every bar up and down the main streets and even side streets. But it's still vibrant enough to have several options most nights of the week, which is more than you could say about almost every other American city!


Mount Morris Ascension Presbyterian Church, across the street from Marcus Garvey Park

Stay safe

Violent crimes have declined dramatically in Harlem and Washington Heights, and the relative safety in upper Manhattan varies greatly depending on where and when one travels. Most of the tourist destinations are very safe. However, crime still exists, as it does throughout New York City. As in all neighborhoods, exercise caution when walking in the neighborhood at night. Subway stations are generally safe and are patrolled by uniformed and undercover police. Consider staying on main thoroughfares, especially after dark. Population density is generally high in Washington Heights, and most residents are Spanish-speaking and friendly.

Go next

Routes through Harlem and Upper Manhattan

Bronx  N  S  Upper West Side Theater District
Bronx  N  S  Upper East Side Midtown
END  N  S  Upper West Side Theater District
Bronx  N  S  Upper West Side Theater District

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Tuesday, March 22, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.