Due to the large number of institutes of higher learning that are housed within its borders, most notably Columbia University, Morningside Heights has a very definite college-town vibe. It has been dubbed the “Academic Acropolis,” both for the large number of schools and for the fact that the neighborhood is built high atop the Manhattan schist bluffs that are the geological bedrock of NYC. From this vantage point, which is the highest point of land in all of Manhattan, you can take in stunning views of upper Manhattan and the Hudson River. Sunsets are especially breathtaking from Riverside Park.
Walk through Morningside Heights and you’ll see a diverse population, especially when the schools are in session. It has a generally quiet atmosphere, bounded by large green spaces, dotted with small cafes, specialty stores, and restaurants that offer all manner of international cuisine. There is a modest nightlife consisting of intimate bars and small musical venues, many of which are open to the wee hours of the morning, and frequented by students.
Housing is primarily pre-war buildings that have larger apartments and beautiful architecture clustered around Broadway. You can find affordable walk-ups in low-rise buildings on the side streets. Many of the residential buildings in the area actually are owned by Columbia University.
The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. This imposing neo-Gothic cathedral is the largest in all of North America. There are free tours of the interior, which highlight the art, statuary and stained glass windows. Outside, there are multiple gardens, and a small flock of peacocks, including an albino. Don’t miss the incomprehensible 40-foot tall waterless sculpture, inexplicably named the Peace Fountain, featuring nine giraffes, a crab, a strand of DNA and the decapitated head of Satan! After you have absorbed all of the Cathedral’s interesting sights, take a stroll across Amsterdam Avenue and recover at the Hungarian Pastry Shop. Located at 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
The Hungarian Pastry Shop. This unique cafe has been a neighborhood anchor since it opened in 1951. Many students hang out here, studying and drinking a bottomless cup of coffee (refills are free). It is dimly lit, with stained glass windows, and is a throwback to the era before WiFi. Pastries and sweets can be ordered from its quirky, hand-painted menus. Be prepared to spend time in the bathroom, where the walls are covered in all manner of graffiti, unique drawings, fervid emotional declarations and political rants. Located at 111th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
General Grant National Memorial. Created in the style of neoclassical architecture by John Duncan in 1892, it is the largest tomb in the U. S., where the bodies of the 18th President, Ulysses S. Grant, and his wife are entombed. Although the marble and granite tomb, itself, is severe and imposing, it is surrounded by a colorful folk art installation, “The Rolling Bench,” consisting of 17 concrete benches, covered in colorful mosaic scenes. These benches were added in the 1970s by artist Pedro SIlva. He enlisted the help of literally hundreds of local children in adding the mosaic decorations to the benches. Located at W 122nd Street and Riverside Drive.
The Columbia Greenmarket. Every Thursday and Sunday year-round, between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., you can take a leisurely stroll through this Farmer’s Market. It is located right in front of Columbia University, so it isn’t hard to find. You will be able to purchase fresh produce at reasonable prices, as well as delicious baked goods and apple cider, in season. Located on Broadway, between 114th and 116th Streets.
What You Might See
If you know what to look for, you might find the rather unnoteworthy stairs at 500 Riverside Drive and 122nd Street that will lead you to one of Morningside Heights’ most delightful green spaces, Sakura Park, located between Claremont Avenue and Riverside Drive. The park is home to 2,500 cherry trees that were imported from Japan as a gift to the city from the Committee of Japanese Residents of New York in 1909. Unfortunately, that initial shipment of trees were all lost at sea. They were replaced in 1912. This park is glorious in the spring, when the trees are in full bloom.
What's In The Future?
Morningside Heights is in transition, similar to many other areas of the city. While some of the neighborhood landmarks, such as the Hungarian Pastry Shop, are still going strong, many new restaurants with their glossy farm-to-table offerings are cropping up throughout the neighborhood. More and more families are moving into the neighborhood, in search of larger, family-sized apartments at reasonable prices, together with green spaces where it is safe for their children to play.
Most of the neighborhood consists of low-rise, pre-war buildings. Many of these are now being renovated. There are also quite a few buildings that could be considered “high-rise” that are being built or proposed for the neighborhood, such as the Vandewater, a 32-story building of luxury condos, that is currently under construction.
What You May Not Know
Morningside Heights was originally named Vandewater’s Heights, after Harmon Vandewater, the Dutchman who was the area’s original landowner in the 17th century. The name was changed to Morningside Heights In the 1890s.
The area that is now home to Columbia University’s Main Campus was once occupied by the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. Only the wealthiest patients were admitted, even though their treatment was no better than that offered to the indigent patients in the New York City Lunatic Asylum. Only one building from the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum remains to this day, Buell Hall, which houses the French-culture center at Columbia University.
What We Love
The college town feel of the Morningside Heights neighborhood is an unexpected treat in the middle of a bustling city. The large parks provide great recreational facilities, as well as open places for children to play. Exposure to the foods of other cultures through the ethnically diverse restaurants in the area, The abundance of eclectic shopping opportunities found in interesting specialty shops. The architecturally beautiful pre-war building with larger apartments available for reasonable prices. All of these, and more, make Morningside Heights a great neighborhood.