An Introduction To Morningside Heights

Morningside Heights is the academic quarter of New York City. It stretches irregularly from about 106th Street to about 123rd Street between Morningside Park and Riverside Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Click here for a map. From the top of a 135-foot bluff, it overlooks the Hudson River on one side and Harlem on the other. It is about 20 minutes from midtown Manhattan by subway and the area has the second-lowest crime rate in Manhattan. With apartments on the "Gold Coast" of Riverside Drive routinely selling for over $1,000,000, the Heights is one of the more desirable residential neighborhoods in Manhattan. Several books and films have been written about it or set here. It is currently home to about 35,000 people, and over the years has housed a long list of famous individuals as well as world-renowned institutions, including:

Columbia University

Barnard College

Union Theological Seminary

Jewish Theological Seminary

Bank St. College of Education

Manhattan School of Music

Riverside Church

The Interchurch Center

Cathedral of St. John the Divine

St. Luke's--Roosevelt Hospital Center

NewYorkRealty.com's Guide to Morningside Heights

New York Magazine's Guide to Morningside Heights

NYU Art Department Guide to Morningside Heights

NYC.com Guide to Morningside Heights

32 things To Do If You Visit Our Neighborhood:


Click here for full map

1. Lounge on the steps of Low Library at Columbia. Late afternoon on a warm day would be best. The drinking of alcohol has been forbidden for a decade, but one can still watch students play Frisbee on South Field under the intimidating list of famous authors on the façade of Butler Library while you feel the stone beneath you slowly give up the heat it has soaked in all day from the sun. No one will stop you if you try to picnic, and if you are really adventurous, you can try sitting up on those big ledges where the lamps are. For the utmost in style, do this with a guitar.

2.Go inside Low Library, which is neither low nor a library, but a vast echoing classical rotunda of marble.

3.Visit the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This thing will knock your socks off. You could land a jumbo jet in that nave and still have room for a football game. The rose window in itself is worth a trip to Europe. The really interesting thing about this structure is that unlike most Gothic American churches, it is being built (it's not nearly finished, impressive as it is) entirely by the original methods that would have been used in the Middle Ages. Its stonecutters yard is the only traditional stonecutters yard in the country. New Agers don't miss the 6-ft giant crystal, and animal lovers should come see the annual blessing of the animals. If St. John's really gets to you, take the tour of its secret spaces and meet a gargoyle face-to-face.

4.Riverside Church isn't quite as big as St. John's, nor has its interior so many weird medieval nooks and crannies, but it is exquisite, actually finished, and has a very tall tower with an observation deck that you can go up. Its carillon of bells is as big as a small house, and considered the cat's meow of that sort of thing (if you consider bells an effective way to make music).

5.Go to a concert at the Manhattan School of Music. Almost everything they put on is free, and their students are just going to be performing at Lincoln Center in five years anyhow, so you're getting the best of the best. (Actually, we were just being polite. MSM is now under a community boycott because of their awful new tower, and they are actually a mediocre school that survives by peddling the mystique of New York to ignorant Japanese and Korean music students. It is no accident that Columbia, which actually is a good school, has its exchange program with Julliard, 2 miles away, and not with them next door. Save your money.)

6.Or you can hear operatic arias sung at the Taci International restaurant.

7.See the courtyard of the Union Theological Seminary. You could be at Yale -- or Oxford, this place is so exquisitely cloistered and secluded. It's hard to believe you're in the midst of bustling Manhattan. It's not really open to casual visitors, but it's not hard to talk your way in, and well worth it. Sometimes you will find divinity students grilling hot-dogs and playing hacky-sack while discussing something very theological.

8.If you can't get in there, there's always the less pretty Jewish Theological Seminary's courtyard across the street. Those dogs will be kosher.

9.Visit Grant's Tomb when it's open. The interior seems to be an astonishingly big fuss for a president that everyone has forgotten, but it has huge maps of Civil War battles that remind you that this was once a very big deal. After you come out, look at the 100-ft long mosaic-covered bench around the back. This curving, swirling, organic thing dates from the 60's. Figure out what the things depicted on it are.

10.Eat at Tom's Restaurant. But don't go on a Saturday morning, when it will be crawling with fans of that Seinfeld show. Order the Broadway shake and fries with gravy.

11.Eat at Symposium (Greek). Order anything, especially in the garden.

12.Get bagels at Columbia Bagels. Once you've had them here, no-one else's will taste right.

13.Get beer at the West End Gate, even though it's been too spruced-up to pretend you're Jack Kerouac.

14.Get frozen drinks at The Heights. Go when it's warm enough for the roof deck.

15.The best local pizza is V&T's. The quintessential local pizza - by the slice - is Koronet. Bring clean arteries. You can bring toppings of your own choosing from the supermarket next door and they will put them on for you.

16.If you are on an expense account or being fussed over by a Columbia administrator, insist on going to Butler Hall for lunch or dinner. The nabe's only 3-star with a view to match. Pricey.

17.Cafe Pertutti is the only defensible choice for dessert. Italian.

18.Ignore the pretentious and mediocre DeLuxe Diner; we locals do.

19.Walk over the Riverside Drive viaduct for a spectacular view of Joizey on the other side of the Hudson River. If you catch the sun setting from here, you'll go to heaven.

20.Walk under the Riverside Drive viaduct for the weird, noir, tunnel-like effect of that half-mile-long procession of old steel arches looming over a forgotten industrial neighborhood where you can still find trolley tracks embedded in the cobblestones. While you're down there, visit Fairway Supermarket, one of the cheapest - and best - in all Manhattan. They will give you a meat-cutters parka to forage for steaks in their giant walk-in freezer.

21.Or you could buy your lunch at West Side Markets (Some are partisans for Mama Joy's up the street - now closed), which has a great selection of pre-cooked meals and sandwiches, and go eat it sitting on a bench in Riverside Park. Under no circumstances will you buy food for this purpose at D'Agostino's (now closed too) for some reason. You can play chess, watch the joggers, or think of Soviet spies holding rendezvous here, which they used to do.

22.Walk up Riverside Drive on the city (as opposed to the park) side, peering into the enormous and ornate lobbies of the buildings there. Two of the buildings have built-in carriage ports, and the curved building at 116th St. has one with a stained glass ceiling in the lobby. If you're lucky, some of the more traditional tenants along here may have put out their old-fashioned pre-air conditioning window awnings, which are striped and made of canvas. Several Nobel laureates from Columbia live along here, and that old woman you see walking her dog may have been one of Einstein's students long ago.

23.Walk down into Riverside Park, an oasis which you can only get into by a select number of gates. You will feel the city vanishing behind you.

24.Go look for butterflies at the right time of year in the field north of the Riverside Park tennis courts.

25.Sakura Park has cherry trees and at the right time of year, they bloom.

26.Find the live peacocks on the grounds of St. John's. Find the hidden-away herb garden and the Dean's house, which could be in an English village.

27.Go look at the spooky Tibetan paintings at the Nicholas Roerich Museum.

28.Go see the silent film Metropolis accompanied by organ in the nave of St. John's Cathedral.

29.Browse your esoteric interests at Labyrinth Bookstore, the largest exclusively scholarly bookstore on the East Coast. Then go hunt for a cheap used copy of the same thing from a bookseller on Broadway.

30.Our neighborhood's prettiest piece of public art is the Bacchante on the campus of Barnard College. The ugliest - the Fountain of Life in the garden of St. John's Cathedral.

31.Our best-hidden architectural gem is the chapel inside the Interchurch Center. Get someone to turn on the lights behind the translucent stone wall of this modernist gem.

32.Cross the busy Henry Hudson Parkway with care and walk along Cherry Walk, the narrow path that fronts right on the Hudson River. Fish.

33.Visit New York's memorial in Straus Park to the victims of the Titanic disaster, given by the same Straus family that endowed a fund for ice-cream to be served at Harvard in memory of their son who died.

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