The neighborhood called West Harlem by the locals is known as Manhattanville to neighborhood newcomers. The area is culturally diverse and might be considered a microcosm of the city as a whole.
Columbia University has recently expanded into the area, which is attracting student residents from all over the world. Together with students from the City College of New York and young professionals fleeing higher prices in other neighborhoods, this influx of younger residents has brought with it more restaurants and bars on W 125th Street to serve this clientele. There are also new ventures, like a rock-climbing gym, to cater to the interests of these students and young professionals. At the same time, there are many small, family-owned shops and restaurants that have been anchors of the neighborhood for multiple generations.
The area has been through a housing upgrade, as older properties have been renovated and abandoned properties have been razed to make room for new development. There are still reasonably priced apartments available. Young professionals are finding that there is a certain cachet to living in West Harlem. It provides a convenient commute to the city and all of its amenities, while providing a sense of escape at the end of a long work day.
While rentals are popular with the student population, the young professionals are delighted to find pre-war brownstones, pre-war co-ops (including some income-capped HDFCs for lower- and middle-income buyers), and post-war condos that they can afford, although prices are rising. Some new low-rise developments, sporting virtual doormen and desired amenities, are cropping up.
The Cotton Club. Not the Cotton Club of yesteryear, which was closed in 1940, this new version offers dinner and jazz on Friday and Saturday nights, brunch and gospel on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and Swing Dance on Monday nights. There is a full-sized jazz/swing band, with featured vocalists. Located at 656 W 125th Street.
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. This neighborhood icon was bought out of their 131st Street home by the Columbia University expansion, but they ended up with a bigger, better venue. The tables for the new venue were created from the large wooden beams of the older restaurant. Nothing about the menu has changed, not even the prices, even though the new location is in a prime location nearer the water. Serving up Southern fare, you can even bring your four-legged friends for outdoor seating, where they will be provided with their own water bowl. Live music on the weekends. Located at 700 W 125th Street.
The Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University Lenfest Center of the Arts. This unique museum space acts like a laboratory that integrates the efforts of various departments at Columbia University in support of the visual arts. Special exhibitions are brought in, many of them highlighting the works of artists of color. Located at 615 W 129th Street.
The Harlem Stage. Housed in an 1890s landmark building, the Harlem Stage provides an intimate performing arts venue where the emphasis is on the works of up-and-coming, as well as established, artists of color. Theater, dance, and musical events are regularly scheduled in this unique venue. Located at 150 Convent Avenue.
Church of St. Joseph of the Holy Family. An active Roman Catholic parish church, constructed of red brick in the Romanesque Revival style, this is the oldest existing church in all of Harlem and also the oldest existing church above 44th Street in Manhattan altogether. Construction started in 1859, and it was completed in 1860. It was enlarged in 1871, and the design was altered in 1889. The church is noted for its choir, that performs a diverse range of musical styles. Located at 401 W 125th Street.
What You Might See
In this largely residential, close-knit community, a major form of neighborhood entertainment is socializing with your neighbors. You can strike up a conversation that might evolve into a game of dominos, maybe becoming a block-wide tournament. By evening, food from many world cultures is being brought out by home cooks, and a block party might spontaneously spring to life.
If you’ve got the stomach for it, you can visit La Granja at 1355 Amsterdam Avenue. It is an authentic vivero, a live poultry market, where you can pick out your live chicken, turkey, or other fowl, thereby ensuring the freshest poultry in the city.
What’s In The Future
Easy access to transportation and rental prices that are rising at more moderate rates are generating an influx of new residents searching for affordable housing. Commercial development will continue on 125th Street, where new restaurants, bars, and shopping opportunities will put down roots.
What You Might Not Know
In perhaps the best use ever made of a rundown former parking lot, a beautiful new greenspace was created: the West Harlem Piers Park. This narrow strip of greenery along the Hudson River between 125th and 132nd Streets provides West Harlem residents with a place to get outdoors and play. The 2-acre waterfront park has become a fishing hotspot where anglers are regularly pulling striped bass out of the waters, right in the middle of the city. You can also kayak, walk the riverside, or catch a concert or poetry reading. If you stick around until dusk, you will have a front row seat for a spectacular sunset. The area of the park was known as Harlem Cove in 1664 when the Dutch settlers controlled the land. In 1776, it was one of the sites of the Battle of Harlem Heights. In the 18505s, it was a major transportation hub for construction materials being brought in for city development projects. Now it is a romantic spot for a sunset picnic.
What We Love
The beautiful brownstones, the affordable rents in pre-war apartment buildings, the sense of history, the green spaces, access to transportation, and the cultural diversity of the residents, shops, and restaurants make West Harlem a lively and interesting place to live.