Finding Washington Heights

Dominque Browning’s building, the Riviera.

The first time I climbed out of the subway stop at Broadway and 157th Street in Washington Heights, I thought I had stepped back in time — and wound up in Paris.

I didn’t notice littered sidewalks, graffiti or boarded-up shop fronts. I saw the graceful oversize arches of Beaux-Arts windows, the golden sunshine slanting across the absinthe-green patina of copper roofs. I saw huge flocks of pigeons swirling through an open sky, fleeing a hawk wheeling lazily overhead. And I felt a fresh river breeze on my face.

Credit...Jane Beiles for The New York Times

Broadway was still a grand old boulevard, not yet overwhelmed by the anonymous glass fronts of high-rises and chain stores farther south. People on the wide sidewalks strolled past blankets covered with shoes and books and crockery for sale; luscious fruits spilled out of vans; a boisterous game of dominoes drew a circle of 20 enthusiastic men. A woman peeled oranges in continuous spirals and bagged them; their sweet sharp scent hung in the air.

As I was obsessed with real estate at the time, it was the architecture that caught my breath. Ahead of me, down a steep hill, was a triangular fantasy, covering an entire block, which managed to look like a Venetian fortress: the Grinnell apartment house. To my left was another intriguing facade, its stone frieze etched with the names of Indian tribes. Beyond that was an ancient cemetery. This felt like an older New York, its strong character unmolested by thoughtless development. I knew immediately it would become home.

My house in Westchester County had become too large for me, and the taxes were high. One of my sons had settled in Brooklyn, and another was contemplating a move back East from Colorado; moving into New York City made sense for me. I had rented an apartment on the upper end of Central Park West, but was priced out of that neighborhood when I wanted to buy. I rented in Harlem, but prices there were climbing fast, too. I wanted enough space to put up guests, to say nothing of books, my piano and a home office.

Having become concerned about climate change, with the storm surges of higher seas — and having seen what had happened to downtown friends during Hurricane Sandy —- I was not even shopping below 14th Street, where prices had catapulted. The marketplace may have a short memory. I do not. I wanted higher ground.

Old friends had been urging me to come visit them in Washington Heights. I had said the same thing everyone said to me when I lived in the suburbs: Oh, sure, but you live so far away. As the No. 1 train took me from my home in Harlem and sped to 157th Street, I wondered what psychological quirk is imprinted in New Yorkers’ brains that turns a few extra stops into a chasm.

After that visit, I immediately called my friends’ broker, Vivian Ducat of Halstead Property. Vivian, who is also a documentary filmmaker, has an uncanny ability to size people up quickly — and decide exactly what is right for them. She led me to a grande dame, the Riviera on Riverside Drive, a 13-story building completed about 1911. As we walked through gracious, wide hallways I heard musicians singing and playing piano. And suddenly, as I took in the high ceilings, intricate old molding, curving walls and a panorama of windows, my life changed.

This was 2012. The market in this part of Manhattan was the last to recover from the seizures of the subprime mortgage crash; prices here dropped by about 12 percent. They were beginning to rise again when I bought a three-bedroom place at the Riviera with a view out over the George Washington Bridge.

I can sit in bed in the evening, and gaze at the lights, entranced. The architect Le Corbusier called the bridge “the only seat of grace in the disordered city.” Peregrine falcons nest underneath. Its span is etched in lights against the night sky. Every once in a while, all 760 lights inside the structure are turned on, and the effect is dazzling.

The area inspires more than its share of affectionate devotees: Matthew Spady designed a website with a virtual tour of the area, sometimes known as Audubon Park. John James Audubon lived here in a rickety frame house, surrounded by birds and the creatures of the marshes, creeks, swamps and forests that once covered northern Manhattan.

All I knew about Washington Heights — because one of her students had been my philosophy professor in college — was that Hannah Arendt had lived there. She was one of the thousands of German Jewish refugees the neighborhood had absorbed around World War II. But there are all kinds of karma up here. In February 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated while he was giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom on Broadway at 165th street. Tiny Tim tiptoed through the tulips here, and Alan Greenspan, Henry Kissinger, Maria Callas and Dr. Ruth Westheimer call or once called Washington Heights home.

The neighborhood has welcomed Puerto Rican, African-American, Greek, Dominican, Russian, Ecuadorean and Mexican families, as well as many others. Among the great charms of Broadway up here are the mom-and-pop shops and restaurants, dishing out spicy food. My favorite local store is the Botanica San Lazaro at 3834 Broadway, which specializes in herbal remedies and candles with prayers to various saints and causes. Sadly, my Spanish is not good enough for me to confidently buy a love potion, as a fellow shopper suggested I do.

Once I had settled into my apartment in the Riviera, I began to take long walks through Upper Manhattan. Fortified with excellent cappuccino from Taszo, a lively cafe on Morgan Place, or a slice of delicious carrot cake from the beloved Carrot Top at 3931 Broadway, I rambled through Trinity Cemetery — just as Manhattan tourists did in the mid-19th century. I was surprised to learn of the grave of a son of Charles Dickens — he had died of a heart attack during a lecture tour honoring the centenary of his father’s birth.

Credit...Halstead Property, LLC

Or I scrambled under the Henry Hudson Parkway — a new pedestrian overpass is coming soon — while monk parakeets flap out noisily, and headed to the river. Riverside Park this far north is slowly feeling the beneficence of city dollars, as playgrounds and paths are rehabilitated. People fish off boulders and grill their catch by the water. Manhattan’s only remaining lighthouse, the Little Red Lighthouse, beckons through a thick fretwork of branches.

Wending my way home, I’ll pick up a bottle from the interesting and unpretentious selection at Columbia Wine Co., 4038 Broadway, and flowers from the cheerfully straightforward Merry Flowers at No. 3801.

Credit...Halstead Property, LLC

These days, my favorite destination is the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, with its handsome heather gardens and perennial borders. We tend to think of Lower Manhattan as having a lock on New York City history. But Washington Heights has good stories to tell.

I quickly discovered, as I caught my breath on the uphill climb, that Washington Heights is indeed higher ground; at 183rd Street in Bennett Park, a plaque marks Manhattan’s highest elevation, 265 feet above sea level. This was the site of a Revolutionary War camp for Gen. George Washington and his troops, as they attempted, unsuccessfully, to drive the British out of New York City in 1776.

Manhattan’s oldest remaining house, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, near West 160th Street, is a beauty. Built in 1765, it has a gracious and appropriately faded elegance; because it hasn’t been over-restored, tending mostly to early 19th-century New York style, the rooms have a startling intimacy.

In winter, when the wind off the Hudson is bitter, I head to the museum of the Hispanic Society of America between West 155th and 156th Streets. It was founded in 1904 by Archer Milton Huntington. This museum and reference library are devoted to the study of the arts and cultures of countries where Spanish and Portuguese are or have been the predominant spoken languages. Huntington hoped to entice his Manhattan friends up to the country to visit his exquisite collection.

When I first crossed the handsome but cracked herringbone-brick plaza, I didn’t expect much — though I did marvel at a group of sculptures sitting in the dry bowl of what must have once been a magnificent fountain. A sleepy guard in a plastic bucket chair waved me into a grand room meant to mimic a Renaissance patio — and I came face to face with the Duchess of Alba, by Goya. The society has the largest collection of Spanish old masters outside of the Prado in Spain. I have prowled through rooms of pottery and ironwork, never tiring of these quirky treasures.

Craving a fast vacation, I linger in a large room whose walls are covered in a series of oil paintings by Joaquín Sorolla, done in the early 20th century. “Vision of Spain” captures bullfighters, fishermen and dancers; 230 linear square feet of paintings hang at eye level, surrounding you; you can almost smell the fish and hear the castanets. The painterly light is so vivid that after 20 minutes I feel I have absorbed a strong dose of vitamin D. The society now has the estimable Philippe de Montebello as its chairman. I hope the new tongue of concrete leading to the front door is only a temporary aberration.

I’m thankful for the quieter pace of my neighborhood. But the Heights is in transition. Housing prices have climbed — an apartment broke a record a couple of years ago, selling for more than $2 million, and others have since sold for even more — and landlords are raising rents, driving away small businesses. This is a soulful part of Manhattan, as has not been lost on the residents who have lived and worked here for decades. We can only hope it continues to be cherished, so that another generation can make its history here.

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