Way Uptown Buying Into Inwood

They say you can have it all in New York City, but sometimes that's a tough proposition: You want to live in Manhattan, but you want your home to be an idyllic retreat. You're looking for an affordable co-op, but you think it should be spacious. You want to live minutes from downtown, but you want to have woods nearby! Most New Yorkers would laugh you out of the room if you voiced this wish list out loud. But they obviously don't know about Manhattan's best kept secret"¦Inwood.

For the uninitiated, Inwood is a virtually undiscovered gem of a neighborhood hidden all the way uptown, just north of Washington Heights. Although it might feel like it's a world away from the push and pull of downtown, in reality it's only half an hour from midtown via the A train, and it's also well served by the 1/9 local. Flanked by beautiful, expansive parks and rivers, the area is a haven for nature-lovers, families and all manner of New Yorkers seeking a quiet, peaceful oasis from the stress of urban living. Even more astonishing, Inwood still boasts truly nice apartments you can afford without selling off a kidney or hocking the kids.

The Land Before Co-ops"¦

Inwood may now be the best neighborhood to find a cheap two-bedroom in an Art Deco building, but it wasn't always so. Back in the day, Inwood was prime fishing and hunting territory for several groups of Native Americans, but mainly the Lenape (or "Turtle People"), a peaceful tribe that spoke the Algonquin language. According to Susan Wolf, who has been managing and selling real estate in Inwood and Washington Heights for 23 years, and is currently a broker for Stein-Perry Real Estate, "Inwood was originally a pastoral area, and the terrain was much more uneven than it is now. It was full of little inlets and streams, and crosshatched with beaver dams. People actually tamed it and smoothed it out fairly recently with landfill from various construction projects, like the building of the subway."

The first Europeans began arriving after Henry Hudson explored the river now named for him in 1609 while sailing the Half Moon for the Dutch East India Company. "The Dutch and subsequently the British granted huge tracts of land to wealthy individuals to manage and rent out to farmers," says Wolf, and the area remained largely rural until the twentieth century.

"In the early 1900s, there was a huge immigration wave," Wolf continues. "Eastern Europeans, Jews, Greeks, Italians and Irish, among others, began flowing into lower Manhattan, crowding what was then a much smaller urban area and fueling a building boom uptown. Next came the subway, in 1905, which made the area even more accessible. So you had large numbers of respectable, working poor moving uptown and turning it into a real residential community."

Another big wave took place during and after World War II, when many European Jews made their way to Inwood and Washington Heights. "By mid-century, the neighborhood had moved away from working class to middle class," says Wolf. In the "˜80s, a wave of Dominican immigrants swept into the neighborhood as well, changing it once again. And finally, the past few years have witnessed the inevitable influx of artists who've been priced out of the rest of Manhattan. "Artists are always the first to figure out where the deals are," says Kelly Cole, a broker for The Corcoran Group. "But now everyone's getting hip to the neighborhood. Families are coming in droves for the parks," she adds.

"Now we've got everybody except the very poor and the very wealthy," Wolf notes. "We have the whole cross-section of New York - grad students, empty nesters, married couples with kids, young artists and musicians, professionals, gays, straights, elderly Eastern European couples who take post-prandial walks in the park late at night"¦"

Although the demographics of the area keep shifting, residents do tend to have some common traits - like a community-minded attitude. Unlike many New York neighborhoods, Inwoodites really do get to know their neighbors in a small-town kind of way. They also tend to stick around longer. According to Caroline Brown, vice president of Century 21 Real Estate, William B. May Company, "There's not a lot of turnover because nobody wants to leave." Of course, that makes it harder to score an apartment there, but in the long run, it's good for neighborhood stability and character.

The Forest and the Trees

Though the face of the neighborhood may be changing, one thing about Inwood has, thankfully, remained virtually the same - and that is the astounding amount of greenery to be found there. Inwood Hill Park, 196.4 acres established as parklands in 1916, is arguably the main attraction of Inwood, and one visit will tell you why. At first approach, steep wooded hills soar into the sky, creating a breathtaking backdrop of foliage for the landscaped fields below. These woods are in fact the last natural forest in Manhattan, and they contain miles of hiking and biking paths, spectacular views of the Palisades, ancient caves once inhabited by the Lenape, majestic tulip trees, a real salt marsh, and a flock of bald eagles that has been successfully reintroduced into the park, among other things. Much of the park winds along the Hudson, allowing for plenty of striking river views. "At the northern end of the park, swans drift peacefully in the harbor over the reflection of the lovely Henry Hudson Bridge," Brown notes. "The park also boasts tennis courts, baseball diamonds, a soccer field, a nature center and a band shell where they give concerts." For the aquatically inclined, there's even a canoe and kayaking launch located at the Dykman Street Marina.

If that's not enough, the neighborhood's southern end abuts the equally wonderful but far more manicured Fort Tryon Park, which houses The Cloisters. "You should also be sure to explore the Dykman Farmhouse Museum," Brown suggests. "There is also a smaller park called Isham Park, and a charming community garden at Dykman and Broadway," she continues. According to Cole, "They're making plans to develop the waterfront on the East River now too."

Northern Lights

Commercial amenities have been slow to arrive in Inwood, but they are on the rise. "There's an organic food co-op now," says Brown. "People are very excited about that." Cole put it this way: "When you're not house poor, you can afford to take cabs down to the Upper West Side. But we're seeing more services and restaurants moving into Inwood. They've got a farmers' market and a yoga studio now. There's the Target/Marshalls/Starbucks mall up on 225th Street, and The Sidewalk Café is planning on opening a restaurant."

It may be a while before the swankier services catch up with the demands of residents, but in the meantime, the basics are all there. New York-Presbyterian Hospital's well-regarded Allen Pavilion offers medical services, and several good schools service the area. "Some of the public schools are getting to be very good, but they're still not on level with the private schools," says Wolf. "P.S. 187 is very decent, and I hear the Muscota School is quite good. You can also send your kids to nearby Riverdale, where you'll find three of the city's best private schools - Riverdale Country School, Fieldston and Horace Mann," she suggests.

Green for Greenery

Of course, the real reason that Inwood is such a stellar buy right now is that it's still mercifully affordable. "Inwood is really the last frontier of Manhattan, as far as real estate goes," Cole explains. "People are looking for quality of life - and that includes living in an adult-sized apartment. That's one of the main draws of Inwood - you can actually afford real space." The architecture is lovely too. "Those old Victorian and Art Deco buildings have great details," Wolf adds. Another big plus is that properties in Inwood are a great investment. According to Wolf, "There's still growth uptown, while other neighborhoods all over Manhattan have peaked already. Prices in Inwood have been rising steadily for the past five years, and at a faster rate than downtown rates. Of course, no one has a crystal ball, but it certainly looks like a smart investment."

So what will it take to buy your personal slice of urban bliss? "Studios are selling in the high $100,000s and low $200,000s," Wolf notes. "One-bedrooms currently cost around $250,000, and two-bedrooms are fetching from the high $300,000s to the mid $400,000s. A typical one-bedroom might have a $500 per month maintenance fee, and a $1,200 per month mortgage payment, to give you a feel for what you'd have to spend," she says.

These prices refer to co-ops. Condos are a rarity in Inwood, although newly constructed buildings tend to be broken into condos. "As a rule, you can expect to pay 27 percent more for a condo [as compared to a similar co-op]," says Cole. Rentals are also on the rise. "One-bedrooms are usually $1,200 to $1,400, and two-bedrooms are renting for $1,400 to $1,800," Wolf says.

If you really want to be a pioneer and get in on the truly cheap deals, you might want to look east of Broadway, which has yet to catch fire. "There's not much happening east of Broadway yet. The area is dominated by walk-ups, which are harder to co-op, so there isn't a lot of stock - and what there is tends to be of lesser quality," Wolf explains. That said, we all know that Manhattan is a finite space, so it might be wise to get in while the getting's good.

The Grass Is Greener

When all is said and done, it looks like Inwood is only getting better. Between gorgeous parks, affordable prices, and spacious apartments, it really may be the last great deal in Manhattan. "Everyone who moves up there is fanatically enthusiastic about the area," says Cole. "It's amazing. They just become instant devotees." That bodes well for the future of the neighborhood, and clearly, whatever turns Inwood may take next, it will remain a bright spot in Manhattan for generations to come.

Alexandra Wolf is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

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