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Washington Heights is at its Height A Neighborhood on the Rise

For the last decade or so, Washington Heights has remained a well-kept secret. A narrow stretch of Upper Manhattan crowned by the picturesque Hudson Heights neighborhood, it is home to many transplanted down-towners, among others. The area, which runs from 155th Street to Fort Tryon Park, has been undergoing a renaissance of sorts, and its reputation is on the upswing.

"The cat’s out of the bag," says Gus Perry, owner of Stein-Perry Real Estate, who deals mainly with Washington Heights properties. "We’ve been discovered. People come to the neighborhood and realize it’s a diamond in the rough."

Hudson Heights in particular is considered a gem. Occupying the northwestern-most quadrant of Washington Heights, it is Manhattan’s highest point, offering splendid river views, tree-lined streets, and gracious avenues.

Lured by more affordable housing prices, many actors and musicians have recently moved into Washington Heights, as well as young tech-industry professionals. Families looking for more space than can be found in Manhattan’s cramped downtown grid are turning to the area as well. "It’s a bargain for people who want to look into Manhattan proper," Perry says. Caroline Brown, a broker with William B. May agrees. "You can buy something just as big as you could further downtown, with better views and more light."

Going Way Back

Until the turn of the last century, Washington Heights was almost entirely rural, with farms and a few scattered estates dotting the land. Then, in 1904, the IRT subway line connected the area to the urban throng downtown, and residential housing construction flourished during the next two decades. The area quickly urbanized and drew a large population of immigrants from downtown, including Irish, Dutch, Italians and Germans.

This diverse influx forced a sharp class divide along Broadway, the vestiges of which still remain. Better housing was erected on the higher, more tree-lined ground lying north and west of Broadway, leaving poorer Washington Heights residents to make do in the lowlands on the east side. Even today, the region west of Broadway is still thought of as more desirable than that to the east of Broadway.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Austrian and German Jews flooded Washington Heights. According to New York City figures, more than 20,000 Jewish refugees moved into apartments west of Broadway during that time, forming what would eventually become known as Hudson Heights. After World War II, African Americans started migrating into the area from Southern states and overcrowded sections of Harlem. Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican immigrants followed in the years to come, further diversifying the neighborhood and lending it a distinctly Latino-Caribbean flavor.

Urban Decay

The arrival of Latin immigrants and Southern African Americans in upper Manhattan triggered a pattern that played itself out in postwar neighborhoods all over the city: Anglo-European residents, feeling that their neighborhood was becoming less "desirable" with the influx of minority families fled Washington Heights for points downtown or across the rivers, taking their businesses and social legitimacy with them. In the postwar decades, Washington Heights began to suffer from the City’s disinterest in the plight of its economically disadvantaged underclass. Unemployment, a foundering educational system–and the crime that follows such developments–began to eat away at the fabric of the neighborhood.

Fast-forward to the last two or three decades, when the pastoral farmlands and bootstrap idealism of newly-minted Americans had vanished entirely from Washington Heights. According to a 1998 New York Times article, there were 119 homicides north of 155th Street in 1991 alone, making Washington Heights one of New York City’s "most murderous neighborhoods." Most of the violence could be attributed to the arrival of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s and the activities of the rival drug gangs who plied their trade on neighborhood street corners. Ironically, the six bridges and three major highways that make Washington Heights so easily accessible for today’s commuters served as arteries for a virulent drug trade. As late as 1998, drug arrests in Washington Heights occurred once every hour-and-a-half.

The crisis in Washington Heights came under public scrutiny after then-U.S. District Attorney Rudy Giuliani and future U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato went undercover to prove how easily crack cocaine could be purchased there. Public outrage–and the outrage of the people trying to pursue honest livelihoods north of 155th Street–focused attention on the blight in the Heights and inspired lawmakers to take action. A new police precinct was established in 1994, putting 200 more officers on the neighborhood’s streets, and Washington Heights residents began to form neighborhood coalitions to rebuild the sense of community that had so decayed over the last few decades.

Massive drug sweeps, enforcement of quality-of-life ordinances, and a renewed commitment from community leaders began to pay off in the latter part of the 20th Century. Crime rates began to plummet in Washington Heights, families reported feeling safer both in their homes and outside, and the neighborhood began to rebound from decades of neglect. The change has been so marked that an article recently published by the Columbia University School of Public Health in conjunction with the Columbia School of Nursing declared Washington Heights "a remarkably healthy place to live," and advised that "if you only look at [Washington Heights’] problems and needs, you miss half the story." The article went on to point out that the current crime rate in Washington Heights is "only slightly higher" than that of the area’s more fashionable neighbor to the south, the ever-popular Upper West Side.

Bad reputations and popular misconceptions die hard, however, and Washington Heights’ bad rap has often been further complicated by its proximity to Harlem–another tough neighborhood fighting hard to reclaim itself from the scourges of drugs and poverty. According to Perry, "During the late 1980s, anything north of 96th Street seemed to be lumped in as Washington Heights. There could have been a triple murder in Harlem, and it was still Washington Heights. It seemed the media at large wanted to make it the drug capital of the world. Now there’s a change of tide, and there’s a different perception of Washington Heights."

The Lay of the Land

Despite its troubles at the time, Washington Heights–like the rest of the city–saw a flurry of co-op conversions in the early and mid-1980s. At about the same time, the area’s Hudson Heights sub-neighborhood began attracting new residents again.

Nearly all Washington Heights’ 40 or so co-ops are in Hudson Heights, brokers say. Of those, Castle Village and Hudson View Gardens are the most sought-after. Built in the 1920s and 1930s, these premium co-ops have long been the area’s market leaders. They have also maintained their character, as has Hudson Heights at large. "The neighborhood hasn’t changed much from the 30s and 40s and never really needed to be ‘gentrified,’" says Perry.

According to Brown, "It’s charming, affordable and has a little bit of a village feel, but is right in Manhattan. It’s the best of both worlds: a quiet, friendly feeling and the city right there."

Built in the English Tudor style, Hudson View Gardens is one of Manhattan’s oldest co-ops. It faces both Cabrini Boulevard and Pinehurst Avenue and comprises 15 mostly-connected buildings. Castle Village, which comprises five separate buildings, has a view of the George Washington Bridge and faces the river. Both co-ops sit on 7.5 acres and have 24-hour guards–an amenity not found in all Washington Heights co-ops.

The Grinnell, at 155th Street and Riverside, and Woodrow Court at 169th Street and Broadway are two other well-known co-ops in Washington Heights. Both were built in the 1920s. Woodrow Court, like Hudson View Gardens, is one of the city’s oldest co-ops.

Washington Heights is home to just one condo building–on Cabrini Boulevard–but according to Simone Yen Song, owner of Simone Song Properties, a luxury complex with about 15 units is being built on the same street and is expected to be completed next spring.

Beyond that, most brokers agree that Washington Heights offers more rental properties than co-ops, with most lying east of Broadway. "The area east of Broadway also boasts a strong Latin population," says Errika Kalomiris Burke, sales director of Fenwick Keats North Realty, adding that there is a diverse ethnic mix to the west. "There’s also a lack of pretense up here," she adds, contrasting the area with the more ostentatious flash of downtown neighborhoods. And the commute downtown is a cinch: a 15-minute ride on the A-train will take you from 181st Street all the way down to 59th Street.

More For Your Money

Not surprisingly, Washington Heights’ most desirable co-ops are also its most expensive. "A one-bedroom home in Castle Village or Hudson View Gardens will run you $200,000 to $250,000," says Song. "A two-bedroom in the same buildings is $300,000 to $500,000." Similar co-ops in Hudson Heights will run just under these figures, she says.

A one-bedroom co-op elsewhere in Washington Heights, or "in the valley," as Song refers to it, is about $125,000; two-bedroom co-ops range from $225,000 to $260,000. Of course, the valley doesn’t offer the same views as the hilltop spots, and that accounts for some of the price differences.

According to Song, there is a lot of demand to live in both areas. "For reasonable housing, Washington Heights is really the last stronghold in Manhattan. In comparison, one-bedrooms on the Upper West Side would likely run between $400,000 and $500,000."

Brokers agree that Washington Heights’ co-op prices have been rising continuously over the last five to seven years. Song says this is the highest she has ever seen them. "Three to five years ago, the average one-bedroom would cost you between $50,000 and $125,000 in Washington Heights," says Perry. "Today, the same apartment will be $125,000 to $250,000."

According to Perry, more than 90 percent of his clients are first-time buyers making anywhere from $40,000 to over $100,000 per year, and he notes that the newcomers’ salaries are typically higher than that of the average, long-time Washington Heights resident.

Trends and Landmarks

Much of Washington Heights has already been developed. A 13-story building on Fort Washington Avenue was recently completed and will likely be a rental property or–rumor has it–a Columbia University dorm.

Just recently, the neighborhood has witnessed the establishment of new cafes and restaurants. Jessie’s Cafe on Pinehurst Avenue and 181st Street opened in the past few months, and a restaurant is also in the works on Cabrini Boulevard and 181st Street. "A Starbucks should open soon," Perry jokes.

But it is the lasting landmarks–not the coffee shop franchises–that distinguish Washington Heights. The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park houses the Metropolitan Museum’s vast collection of Medieval art and is one of the City’s most peaceful spots, with its collection of European chapels and buildings in Gothic and Romantic styles. Yeshiva University, founded in 1886 as the first Jewish parochial school in the country, dominates an eastern portion of the Heights. Ten blocks south of Yeshiva is the High Bridge Watch Tower, an architectural remnant from the City’s Roman-inspired 19th Century aqueduct system. A newer Heights feature is the Audubon Biomedical Science and Technology Park, built behind the preserved facade of the Audubon Ballroom, site of Malcolm X’s assassination.

Looking Forward, Moving On

Washington Heights has suffered more than its share of hardship, and it may take more time for the neighborhood to fully recover from its violent, impoverished past. Signs point to increased prosperity, however-for every new family or young artist that decides to make Washington Heights home, a little more of the past falls away, and the entire neighborhood takes one more step toward becoming another of New York City’s sought-after properties. Far from being a remote urban wasteland exiled to the furthest reaches of Manhattan, Washington Heights is an unsung, under-appreciated part of the City that can only benefit from the attention being paid by residents willing to give it a chance. Those who have made the move have discovered that Manhattan doesn’t end at 155th Street, and they’re happy to partake of the area’s hidden charms. Perry encapsulates the future of Washington Heights with a simple equasion: "This neighborhood [will] continue to grow," he says, "because people are here to stay."

Ms. Malek is a freelance writer living in Manhattan.

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2 Comments

  • This neighborhood is in a state of seeaggrted integration. As far as I can tell, there is plenty of community within the population of people who grew up here. There is almost zero community among the people who have moved here in the last ten or fifteen years, neither between themselves nor anyone else. It's becoming like a condensed version of the suburbs except for the inconvenient existence of an uncomfortable diversity. This diversity makes some newcomers feel all the more hip to be living in a real Brooklyn neighborhood, but where were they (or me) when 285 Lincoln Place was still a crack house. The neighborhood is turning into another Manhattan-like collection of anonymous buildings housing anonymous mid-westerners, all happy about their rent and subway ride, but oblivious to who lives next door and scared to walk down their street alone. Wherever I live, be it Crown Heights, Harlem, Hawaii or Beverly Hills, I want to be a part of a community. I want to know who lives next door and how we might be able to help each other out from time to time. The landlords have us all by the balls as long as we are divided and suspicious of one another. The perfect tenant (profit-wise) is the one who is most lacking in a connection to their community. Many of these management companies rarely even visit this neighborhood. They just collect their checks by mail and raise the rent every year. Stop complaining about the kids on the corner and get to know one of them. Be brave or be alone.
  • Kid on the corner of 181st on Saturday, March 1, 2014 10:47 PM
    I was the kid on the corner in the 1980s and despite" the bad rap" I am still alive and kicking! I was born in jewish memorial hospital and lived until I was 5 On 191st and st,Nicholas ave.We then moved permantly to 181st and Fort Wash.I went to P.S. 187 and the cloisters was my play ground..My family has been here over 40 years.Its true" The Washington Heights" will always be under fire by those who have not reached out and explored this beautiful and historic neighborhood to its fullest extent,but this community is a tough tight-knitted, melting pot of people from all over the world who know how to do one thing well,amonst many others,and that's survive!!! The neighborhood is made up of friendly,cordial doorholding,hardworking,changgiving ,family oriented people bustling in and out of their local grocery store knowing they are supporting their community. All struggling day to day to make ends meet but knowing that they can always meet up at Starbucks for coffee on the corner of 181st and fort wash! Everyone helping eachother,you just need to look a little closer.Plus, the food is great!