A Short History of Our Neighborhood

Morningside Heights was first known (other than to Native Americans) as Vandewater Heights, after the 17th Century farm of Dutch settler Harmon Vandewater (whose name used to grace a street downtown that was eliminated for approach ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge). It was the site of a battle during the Revolution: American troops encamped on Hamilton Heights to the north of us (then known as Harlem Heights) lured a British unit into the valley (now W. 125th St.) separating them from Morningside Heights to the south. When the British poured down off Hamilton Heights to attack, the actual collision is supposed to have occurred roughly at Broadway and 119th St., which is now the north end of Barnard's campus and the physics laboratories of Columbia, historic in their own right as the birthplace of the Manhattan Project which produced the atomic bomb. At the time of the Revolution, the neighborhood was made up of scattered farms and, with the rest of the Upper West Side, was called Bloomingdale after the Bloomingdale Road which eventually became Broadway. This name, no relation to the famous department store, survives as the designation for the neighborhood just south of us west of Broadway.

The name Bloomingdale was also attached to an insane asylum which was the neighborhood's sole claim to fame during most of the 19th century. The asylum, whose only remnant is Buell Hall on the Columbia campus, was the object for years of attempts by local real estate interests to get rid of its "undesirable" presence so that they could develop the neighborhood. The area that is now Morningside Park was described as "inconvenient for use" by a city surveyor in 1867, meaning difficult to build property on, so it was made into a park, which was called "Morning-side park" because its east-facing slope catches the morning sun. The name was intended as temporary, but like many other park names (including "Central" Park, which was once intended to be renamed something more poetic) it stuck, and eventually rubbed off on the neighborhood above. For many years, the churchmen at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine tried to get people to call the area Cathedral Heights, even printing this on their letterhead, but without success. The Cathedral, built before the coming impact of the skyscraper was understood, was intended to tower over the city, which it does not.

Around the turn of the century, the still almost-suburban neighborhood, home to shacks and vegetable gardens, became a convenient haven for non-profit institutions fleeing the skyrocketing rents and density of Midtown Manhattan. Columbia, which arrived in 1897, used to be located near St. Patrick's Cathedral. (For Columbia's pre-Morningside history: click here and here.) Contrary to what one might expect, these institutions, which included Saint Luke's Hospital (medicine being then not a business but a charity), had little to do with one another. In fact, their poor relations with one another have been a long-standing problem in the history of the neighborhood. They competed for the same pool of wealthy donors and made little effort to harmonize with each other's architectural styles. Nevertheless, the neighborhood burgeoned when the IRT subway opened under Broadway in 1904. Apartment houses immediately began springing up on sites that had been entirely empty a few years before. Following is an excerpt about this construction from Andrew Dolkart's award-winning Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture & Development .

"As a neighborhood that was part of the first wave of middle-class apartment-house construction in New York City, Morningside Heights contains an early concentration of speculative apartment buildings designed by these architects. Three firms, George Pelham, Neville & Bagge, and Schwartz & Gross, were responsible for more than half of the apartment houses on Morningside Heights and, indeed, for thousands of other apartment buildings located throughout Manhattan. Thus, they were among the most prolific designers ever to work in New York City. Although generally unheralded, it was Schwartz & Gross, George Pelham, Neville & Bagge, and other speculator architects who, by the sheer volume of their work, created the architectural character and texture of many of New York's neighborhoods, while more prestigious architects like McKim, Mead & White, Carrere & Hastings, and Delano & Aldrich designed only a small number of great monuments that are set amidst the city's more typical speculative buildings.

"The architects who specialized in apartment-house design rarely trained at the leading architectural schools or apprenticed in prestigious offices. Rather, most were practitioners who, if they had any formal architectural training at all, had been educated in less prestigious offices or in technical schools. Since these architects were not welcome in the higher echelons of the architectural profession because of their ethnic background and "inferior" training, they entered the field at the least prestigious end, designing speculative apartment houses. In fact, in the first decades of the twentieth century, few apartment house architects were members of the American Institute of Architects or the Architectural League of New York, bastions of the professional elite.

"The most active builders on Morningside Heights were members of the Paterno family, which had emigrated from Castelemezzano near Naples. Joseph and his brothers became involved in construction because their father, John Paterno, had been a builder in Italy and eventually became a partner in the New York building firm of McIntosh & Paterno. In 1907, Charles Paterno established his own business, the Paterno Construction Company, with his brother-in-law Anthony Campagna. Working independently and in joint ventures, the members of the Paterno family built 37 apartment buildings on Morningside Heights, ranging from modest six-story structures to the impressive Luxor, Regnor, and Rexor on Broadway at 115th and 116th Streets and the Colosseum and Paterno on Riverside Drive and 116th Street. The Paternos were active on Morningside Heights during the entire span of apartment house development in the area, beginning with John Paterno's modest apartment buildings on 112th Street in 1898 and ending with Joseph Paterno's enormous 1924 building at 425 Riverside Drive. The Paternos were so proud of their buildings that the facades of some of their grandest works are emblazoned with initials referring to the family--"P" for Paterno, " JP" for Joseph Paterno, or "PB" for Paterno Brothers.

This great building boom came to an end, like a lot of things in New York City, with the great stock market crash of 1929. Fast-forward a few decades, but note the naval officer candidates drilling on the Columbia campus during WWII, and the first shoots of the counter-culture among the young returning veterans, of whom Jack Kerouac was one.

In the 1950's, Columbia and the other institutions began to be seriously worried about the slide of its surrounding area. Although we now look back on the 1950's as part of New York's safe, cheap and prosperous golden age, at the time people were very alarmed that areas could slide into slumhood. Therefore Morningside Heights, Inc. was formed, a not-for-profit corporation chaired by famous power broker David Rockefeller, whose brother Nelson was governor of the state. Its principal physical accomplishment was the construction of the pleasant enough middle-class Morningside Gardens apartment complex on 122nd St. between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave. The ethnic neighborhood it replaced, now effaced from map and memory, was called Manhattanville, and its principal surviving relic is the Corpus Christi Catholic Church on 121st St.

In 1968, all hell broke loose when the University made plans to build a gymnasium in Morningside Park, on the border with Harlem to our east. Half of the gym would have been open to the Harlem community, but since this would have been the lower and smaller part of the gym, in the climate of the 60's this was perceived as racist and soon students were protesting "Gym Crow." Despite the goodies being offered to the community in exchange for its cooperation, there was no way around the fact that a piece was being taken out of a public park to make way for a largely private building. In Columbia's defense, it should be pointed out that the site was just a small part of the park, a rather unusable rocky slope that wasn't giving anybody much use the way it was, and public parks are used all over the city for private purposes, as at the Tavern on the Green in Central Park. In the end, after a famous student strike (click here for a reminiscence by famous communitarian philosopher Amitai Etzioni) that shut down the University, the administration won the legal fight but eventually just gave up anyway. Demolition scars are still visible on some rocks in the park today. Columbia eventually built the gym on its own campus, and it is not open to the public. You can read a Barnard professor's extensive history of the 1968 radical episode by clicking here. Another personal reminiscence about these days is here. Click here for pictures.

The other long-standing grievance from the 1960's concerns housing, much of it Single-Room-Occupancy hotels, that Columbia knocked down both to build new buildings and, it was said, to drive perceived undesirables out of the neighborhood. Some of the vacant lots from that era have still not gone away, nor has the mistrust sown in the minds of local residents, though feelings are improving under the current administration of Columbia vice-president Emily Lloyd. Despite remaining frictions, Columbia has stabilized a beautiful historic neighborhood that probably would have declined otherwise, and continues to provide thousands of jobs for city residents and culture and education to the community. And after all, town-gown squabbles go back to the early days of Oxford and Cambridge 700 years ago!

There is more about neighborhood history under historic pictures, but if you really want the last word, buy local historian Andrew Dolkart's meticulously researched book from Amazon.com. Robert A.M. Stern, America's greatest living architect and a former local resident, said that every neighborhood deserves such a good history. That can't be right, but it is fine nonetheless.