Literary Reminiscences of Morningside Heights
(Roughly in chronological order)
During the early New Deal, Columbia professor REXFORD TUGWELL was the most famous economist in America, and had earlier been one of the shapers of the famous core curriculum at Columbia. The passages below are from his interesting memoir, To the Lesser Heights of Morningside:
"Morningside Heights was a kind of island in a restless sea. Even physically it was islandlike, standing as it did considerably above its surroundings. It rose gradually from the south, beginning at Ninety-sixth Street, but much more abruptly on all the other sides. Down a slope to the west was the wide Hudson with its Riverside Park; to the east the tides of black Harlem, swept up at the foot of stony cliffs; and on the north, streets went down to the Harlem valley. We lived and worked thus somewhat apart from, but very close to, the city's busy body. Broadway, Amsterdam Avenue, and Riverside Drive ran through our precincts, carrying heavy loads of traffic. We looked on one side over a dismal stretch of rooftops hiding slums, deteriorating year by year, and on the other over at least the upper reaches of an active harbor. It was impossible for even the most unworldly scholar to detach himself from the currents washing through the campus. The Broadway subway took us to Times Square in ten minutes and to Wall Street in twenty. The New York Times, carrying the heaviest freight of information from all the world of any journal ever known, lay fresh and voluminous on our doorsteps every morning. We could not well escape knowing a good deal of what went on at home or abroad, in New York or in Iowa, Mississippi or California, China or Africa. It not only filtered through our precinct but through our minds as well." (p.261)
"I have not said much about what the university was like in the twenties. The casual visitor could have walked up Broadway from 110th to 125th Street and not realize that the university had been passed. Barnard College and the Theological Seminary would have been on the left just after leaving 116th Street, but a dormitory and the journalism building would have risen on the other side between 114th and 116th Streets. On the same side were business, mines, engineering, and the teachers' college. At 116th Street pylons backing a formidable female figure on either side might have been noticed, and with a little imagination, the visitor might guess that they were intended to give the impression of a portal. Going through and crossing on 116th Street at Amsterdam Avenue were another matching pair. Back from the street and above it on the north, the library dominated its plaza - a classic pillared building, one of Stamford White's parthenons. It sat above a wide stone stairway on whose lower terrace Alma Mater reached out welcoming arms.
"About this center the red renaissance buildings of the various schools were disposed as blocks enclosing small rectangles. It was amazing into how small a space this plan had permitted the positioning of law, architecture, philosophy, political science, and natural science on one side, and well as the chapel, and on the other business, mines, engineering, and the union. There were even a half-dozen vacant blocks gradually being filled in as the funds could be found, but very gradually, because somehow, in spite of flowing prosperity in the nation, funds seemed harder and harder to find. Either that or, as was said by the sour oldsters in our neighborhood, the new medical center out at 168th Street was getting everything." (p.173)
Spaniard FEDERICO GARCIA LORCA's Poeta in New York, a work of dizzy but earthy surrealism, is one of the 20th century's most influential books of poetry. He wrote it in 1929-30 while a graduate student at Columbia.
"The university is marvelous. It is located on the bank of the Hudson River, in the heart of the city, on the island of Manhattan, the best part, and is very close to the great avenues. And yet it is delightfully quiet. My room is one the ninth floor, and it overlooks the playing fields, with their green grass and statues.
To one side, below the windows of the rooms just across the hall, is Broadway, the immense boulevard which runs from one end of New York to the other.
It would be foolish to even try to describe the immensity of the skyscrapers and the traffic. Everything I could say would fall short. All Granada would fit into three of these buildings. Just one of these little "houses" could hold thirty thousand people or so.
"Returning to the university is like returning to another country. It is completely quiet. The grass and the statues of Hamilton and Jefferson soothe me with their color and their broad faces of eighteenth-century revolutionaries.
... My room in John Jay is wonderful. It is on the twelfth floor of the dormitory, and I can see all the university buildings, the Hudson River, and a distant vista of white and pink skyscrapers. On the right, spanning the horizon, is a great bridge under construction, of incredible grace and strength." (p.203 and following)
LEWIS MUMFORD, the dean of American urban critics, recalled his adolescence around here thus:
"My own girl was one of those ruthless beauties who are never at ease unless they put five or six men simultaneously in a state of torture... My specialty was playing tennis on the courts near Morningside Park, a few blocks from her apartment, at six in the morning, before she started her day as an artists' model... I can't pretend that there was anything very typical of New York in this relationship. The closest thing it came to taking on the color of the city was hot summer night, on a street swarming with children and inundated by a hurdy-gurdy thumping out "Cavalleria Rusticana," when I told her I wanted to marry her. She was very self-possessed about that. She sent me round the corner for some ice cream, which the dealers used to then used to heap up in flimsy paper boxes, and then she took me up to the roof of her apartment house, a flight higher than the elevator went, so that we could talk matters over while we dipped, turn and turn, into the ice-cream box. The thick summer sky flared to the east with the lights of Harlem, and on this high roof one had a sense of separation from the rest of the world one usually doesn't achieve in Nature at a level lower than five thousand feet... And I was already sketching in my mind the first act of a play called "Love on Morningside Heights." (from The Second American Caravan p.51)
WHITTAKER CHAMBERS, who attended Columbia College, was one of America's first great repenters from Marxism, an apostasy which climaxed when his testimony convicted Alger Hiss of treason at the famous House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1948. His book Witness is one of the monuments of American autobiography.
(From his biography by Sam Tannenhaus:) "Physically Columbia was much more to Chambers' liking than Williams, a distinctively urban campus with tall peaked-roofed buildings linked by crowded walks. There were pastoral spaces as well, with statuary and plantings, and a great stretch of lawn where student soldiers had drilled in formation in 1917-18. Beyond the borders of the terraced campus were the diverse attractions of Manhattan's Upper West Side, the busy commercial streets, including Broadway with its cheap restaurants. To the west ran Riverside Drive, where grand apartment houses, some of them modeled on Tuscan villas, jutted out from bluffs overlooking the Hudson River; to the east was Morningside Park, a high ridge that rose up steeply from the valley of Harlem. The 1920's were a glorious decade for Columbia. Long a prestigious local institution, it had recently become, under President Nicholas Murray Butler, the model of a twentieth-century urban university." (p.22)
(ibid, describing a meeting with a Soviet agent during the time Chambers was a communist:) "Getting off a stop early, at 110th Street, so as to elude possible surveillance, the pair climbed up to the street and walked, in the soft evening light, to the long, narrow limb of Riverside Park, where Chambers had jogged in his collegiate days. They reached Grant's Tomb at 123rd Street, above the banks of the Hudson, facing the Jersey shore. A car waited at the curb. The two men entered, and a driver guided the vehicle along Riverside Drive." (p.82)
We presume the great beatnik and Columbia College alumnus JACK KEROUAC, author of On The Road, needs no introduction. Here are some fragments about our neighborhood:
"One great move I made was to switch my dormitory room from Hartley Hall to Livingston Hall where there were no cockroaches and where b'God I had a room all to myself, on the second floor, overlooking the beautiful trees and walkways of the campus and overlooking, to my greatest delight, besides the Van Am Quadrangle, the library itself, the new one, with its stone frieze running around entire with the names engraved in stone forever: "Goethe ... Voltaire ... Shakespeare ... Moliere ... Dante.' That was more like it. Lighting my fragrant pipe at 8 P.M., I'd open the pages of my homework, turn on station WQXR for the continual classical music, and sit there, in the golden glow of my lamp, in a sweater, sight and say, "Well, now I'm a real collegian at last." (Vanity of Duluoz p.66)
"To while away the time that winter I wrote sports a little for the college newspapers, covered the track coach interviews, wrote a few term papers for boys of Horace Mann who kept coming down to visit me. Hung around with Mike Hennessy as I say on that corner in front of the candy store on 115th and Broadway with William F. Buckley Jr. sometimes. Hobbled down to the Hudson River and sat on Riverside Drive benches smoking a cigar and thinking about mist on rivers..." (ibid. p.77 - The store, the locally celebrated Mondel's, is still there on Broadway.)
"The soft city evenings, the cries of "Rimbaud!", "New Vision!", the great
Gotterdamerung, the love song "You Always Hurt the One You Love," the smell of beers and smoke in the West End Bar, the evenings we spent on the grass by the Hudson River on Riverside Drive at 116th St. watching the rose west, watching the freighters slide by." (ibid. p.214)
An African-American William S. Burroughs, ROBERT DEANE PHARR was a grizzled addict and career waiter who published his first book at the age of 53. Naturally, it was brilliant. He mostly wrote about the bad side of Harlem, but one of his novels, S.R.O, has an extended riff on Morningside Heights during its pre-gentrification nadir in the early 60's. For better or for worse, all this chaos was scrubbed away years ago. The dialogue below takes place between residents of a fictional Single Room Occupancy hotel on 119th & Amsterdam that Columbia is trying to buy and clean up. This building seems to match the description in the book.
"What good are petitions? And who do they send them to?" I asked. "Columbia owns this building, don't they? And with students dying in here like flies they got a right to protect themselves. And don't even bother to try to tell me that these junkies from out of here don't mug the profs and their wives whenever they get the chance."
"Them profs ought to get mugged!" Joey shouted. "What they ever do for us?"
"Christ! That's no excuse to break a man's neck."
Joey was standing over me, angry and red. "Does Columbia care where we hafta move to? This is our home, Sid. Goddam Columbia, is all I gotta say. And look at the dirty way they're doing the refugee."
"Who're you talking about now? Ginsburg?"
Joey nodded vigorously. "I'm talking about Ginsburg is right. That man has a legal lease on this place for ooh-long years, but these Columbia bastids is trying to break it because they say he's operating a public nuisance."
That brought me over on Ginsburg's side. "There is no such thing as a public nuisance," I said. "We got wonderful police to break up any situation before it ever reaches the stage of being a public nuisance. If Columbia thinks the Logan is a nuisance and a danger they should demand that the police clean up the Logan, not close it. Yea. If you really want to come down to facts, maybe it was Columbia who gently egged the cops into letting the Logan become a menace in the first place. The only public nuisances we got in New York City is cops."
... The Logan tenants walked around that room all day and half the night shaking hands with each other and downing Columbia...
"J&J were at my place yesterday and tole me to move in heah. They wants to fill the hotel up with all respectable tenants so that damned Columbia won't have no case when we gits 'em in court."
"Yessirree, bub," Mr. Johnson said. "That lil Jinny got us all organized now. She done made us all brothers and sisters and we gonna fight that mighty college with all our might. Can you imagine the nerve of them educated bastids calling us a public nuisance? Yessiree, Jinny done showed the way. And us old folks is just gonna do our duty. Them wild rapscallion ones done left us in peace to fight our battle. We gonna show Columbia. Mebbe we didn't keep the ground swept too clean in front of the cabin, but we gonna show 'em and make them white folks give us another chance."
..."Ain't been a knife fight in here since Columbia tried to take over," Mr. Johnson was saying...
"I got fren's that'll give me two, three hundred thousand dollars to give to that refugee downstairs to buy this place for keeps," he said. "I got me some good white fren's and they ain't gonna let no poor white trash like Columbia put out a bunch of good Black folks like we is." Obie's eyes flashed almost maniacal fires of belief. "I mean exactly what I say. And I knows gangsters too, what my boy knows, and they'll set up machine guns down in that lobby if I tells 'em to and blow Columbia's ass to high hell." All of his listeners nodded righteously. It was the kind of fairy tale they loved to hear. Several pint bottles with pushed at Obie...
This battle was age old. It was the elite swallowing up the little ones. It was slum clearance in its highest ideals. it was to the victor belong the spoils... I remember that once the Sinman had called Columbia a brainless dreadnought of higher education. Maybe he was exactly right. Columbia not only did not know what it was doing, but at bottom it also had no brain that could be dealt with, no feelings to work on." (p.529-32)
If CONSTANCE TAYLOR COLBY is famous in some capacity we were unable to discover, our apologies. The passages below are from her memoir The View From Morningside: One Family's New York, describing the late 60's and early 70's.
"So, reluctantly, we went hunting for another apartment. We found it in the Columbia University neighborhood on Morningside Heights, only a block from Riverside Park... Best of all, we could see the Hudson River from the bedroom windows, which faced west. The street was wide and sunny, and the buildings would have looked perfectly at home on a quiet residential block in London. Each one had some sort of distinctive feature: an elegant cornice, a sculptured frieze, an arch of decorative brickwork over the entrance. One had what appeared to be a small pyramid rising from the rooftop and another had a stone lion face grinning above the door. Ours had a mosaic floor in the entryway and two urns filled with bedraggled pink petunias. In its day, we decided, this must have been a rather stylish neighborhood." (p.32)
"Of course, what we really need in our own neighborhood is a good block association, but since half the buildings on this block have been converted to college dormitories, there aren't enough regular houses to organize. Elsewhere in the city, though, block power in on the march.
"Block associations have planted trees, covered potholes, fought pornographic bookstores, created vest-pocket parks in vacant lots, bought bicycle racks, and installed new streetlights. They have hired their own security patrols and organized the elderly and other stay-at-homes into teams of block-watchers, who keep guard at their windows and blow a special whistle or call a special police number if they see anything suspicious happening in the street. That white-haired lady who is quietly knitting behind her window box of geraniums may actually be a guardian for two or three of the buildings on her block.
"One block association published a cookbook and used the proceeds to line the block with London plane trees and planters of ivy. Another organized a clean-up campaign that induced even the overworked Sanitation Department to lend a hand. If New York City's slow deterioration is ever really reversed, it will be in large part due to the efforts of these local groups.
"But if we cannot set up an association on this particular block, we can at least work to improve the larger area that makes up our neighborhood. So you will find that people from this building took part in the sit-in that kept our local branch of the public library from being closed down, went into the streets to direct traffic and escort people to their homes during the latest blackout, and helped plant tulip bulbs in the Broadway mall." (p.142)
The block where plane trees were planted was W.111th between Amsterdam and Broadway. This block association is still going strong, and you can call Jack Arbo at 865-0497 if you want to help.
PAUL AUSTER's novel Moon Palace, named after a Chinese restaurant that has long since vanished from Broadway, wanders in and out of our neighborhood. He is an alumnus of Columbia College.
"I could not resist the temptation to live alone. I found the place on West 112th Street and moved in on June fifteenth, arriving with my bags just moments before two burly men delivered the seventy-six cartons of Uncle Victor's books that had been sitting in storage for the past nine months. It was a studio apartment on the fifth floor of a large elevator building: one medium-sized room with a kitchenette in the southeast corner, a closet, a bathroom, and a pair of windows that looked out on an alley. Pigeons flapped their wings and cooed on the ledge, and six dented garbage cans stood on the ground below. The air was dim inside, tinged gray throughout, and even on the brightest days it did not exude more than a paltry radiance. I felt some pangs at first, small thumps of fear about living on my own, but then I made a singular discovery that helped me to warm up to the place and settle in. It was my second or third night there, and quite by accident I found myself standing between the two windows, positioned at an oblique angle to the one on the left. I shifted my eyes slightly in that direction, and suddenly I was able to see a slit of air between the two buildings in back. I was looking down at Broadway, the smallest, most abbreviated portion of Broadway, and the remarkable thing was that the entire area of what I could see was filled up with a neon sign, a vivid touch of pink and blue letters that spelled out the words MOON PALACE. I recognized it as the sign from the Chinese restaurant down the block, but the force with which those words assaulted me drowned out every practical reference and association. They were magic letters, and they hung there is the darkness like a message from the sky itself... I went on staring at the Moon Palace sign, and little by little I understood that I had come to the right place, that this small apartment was indeed where I was meant to live."
OSCAR HIJUELOS is a Pulitzer-prize-winning Cuban emigre. His novel Empress of the Splendid Season is set in the neighborhood:
"By the mid-1960's many of the Irish in that neighborhood had left, though several large families remained on 123rd, on the hill around the corner from where Lydia and Raul lived. A new Chinese restaurant went into business near the El train entrance, and over on Amsterdam Avenue a Japanese joint had opened on the first floor of an apartment building near an old Civil-War-era stone water house. Students abounded because of the universities, City College to the north, and to the south Columbia and Barnard ("Barnyard"). In those days they still mainly stayed in campus housing, the males, for the most part, crew-cutted and wholesome seeming, the females, teacherly. Gradually there had appeared scruffy young people, who sometimes stood in front of the subway kiosks, handing out mimeographed sheets of poetry or asking for money..."
"One afternoon in the spring of 1968, during the time of the famous university riots, a college girl, wandering lost in the cavernous and winding recesses of a many-stairwelled building at the edge of a campus "occupied" -- liberated -- by rebellious students, had nearly been raped, or so she had claimed, by three local youths... The riots had brought more and more police around, especially by the university campus, these policemen stopping people for no particular reason, like Raul, on his way to visit Martinez, an old school friend who lived over on Amsterdam on the other side of the school. They were Tactical Police Force officers, who at that point had endured weeks of tension, standing in at-the-ready formation in riot gear and with Roman-looking shields poised before them, along certain points on upper Broadway and in various places around the campus."
"Irritable and vindictive, they couldn't really give a damn about the complaints of one of them, for they (rightly) lumped her in with the bourgeois kids who'd started the trouble over a deserted piece of shit, glass-strewn university property in Morningside Park in West Harlem. The university's plan to clear away several acres of granite and shale and thickets of poison oak to build an athletic field (it is there now, just off 110th Street and Manhattan Avenue) had outraged the radical students, though few of these kids, in the ordinary course of their life at the university, would have been caught dead in that place, or anywhere else in the park, unless by accident..."
"The 'community' itself -- that is, the working people of Harlem and the West Side -- were not really involved, nor was their opinion solicited; rather, in the manner of the upper class, the radicals declared that the project would be exploitative of the people, that it was yet another example of racism, as the university leadership was white and much of the community was black and Hispanic. Assuming the righteousness of their cause, the radicals sought agreement with what they had already decided upon. Street protests against the Vietnam War, ROTC on campus, and university ownership of armament company stocks melded with the cause of community rights. In the name of liberation, students went on strike, closing down the school and occupying many of the campus buildings."
"The people in Lydia's neighborhood were against the war and for civil rights, but beyond that they were not really a part of the glory and heroism of the movement. Pamphlets were handed out on every street corner, public high-school kids were bussed in to protest (without knowing what they were protesting), condemnations of the university and the government were shouted through megaphones; a multitude of reporters roamed looking for interesting radicals to interview, while folks like Lydia and Raul, walking home, tired from work, went ignored..."
"In any event, during the strikes, which had lasted for most of the semester, it was the habit of local kids to invade the campus, attending radical rallies and dances. When the students began to occupy different buildings, shut off from the outside world, the locals found ways to get inside. Because the students had an easy enough time bringing food, money, booze, and whatever else they needed into the occupied buildings, (hanging from cord out windows were picnic baskets into which passersby on Amsterdam or Broadway could toss money or drugs or cigarettes for the cause), there was much to eat and drink; jugs of cheap wine and beer were everywhere. Some of the kids went for the young college girls, for this was the time of free love, others out of pure boredom, and some, like Johnny, went because fancy electric typewriters (IBM Selectrics being state of the art and not too heavy to carry) and the occasional radio and guitar were his lucre. Caring little about the politics of the situation, and suspending their prejudices, the poor neighborhood kids were thrilled to partake in the rich kids' world (the pussy). They would go there with the expectations and high hopes of children visiting a theme park..."
"With the passage of years the university had put up new and ghastly buildings in the neighborhood, a law school and a school of international affairs, among others, and modern sculptures so breathtakingly ugly that passersby and time-time residents of the neighborhood were immediately depressed; and the constructed all manner of blocky high-rise student housing, demolishing many a tenement (out with the past, upward and onward with the future!) and raising the rents so high that businesses like Eliseo's cafe were forced to close. Eliseo began to sell books on Broadway, and every so often Lydia, taking a walk, would stop by to see him... Six days a week he showed up with a shopping cart filled with books he had scavenged here and there in the neighborhood, spread two sheets on the sidewalk in front of a church on 113th Street and Broadway, and covered them with his merchandise. He also sold magazines and phonograph albums and in this manner, just got by."
In her 1992 novel Until the Fat Lady Sings, ALISA KWITNEY wrote,
"Columbia University in the afternoon. Its heavy iron gates mark a small territory of neatly roped-off lawns, evenly-planted rows of trees, and a section of less than cerulean sky. It is not so much a campus as it is an illusion of a campus, for Columbia's buildings and students spill into city streets and the denizens of city streets spill over into Columbia. Between the hours of 2:00 and 4:00 p.m. pigeons can be seen on the lawns foraging for food, debating pigeon politics, and attempting to negotiate a mating. Most students can be found similarly occupied, or else sprawled on the large, smooth, broad stairs which lead to Low Library, studying anything and everything that crosses their path, but not their books." (p.9)
She was describing roughly this scene.
My Morningside by Anton Kundera (2000)
I first saw Morningside Heights at the tail-end of what we now all realize were the bad old days, around 1985, when you could still gesture at Broadway and complain about the urban blight without getting rolled eyes and a whine of "What do you want? Park Avenue?" It's quite a shock to realize this is now a nicer neighborhood than NYU's, (if NYU has a neighborhood, which is a tricky question since one can't quite pin down the location of a university that doesn't even have a campus) with cleaner streets and considerably more parkland. There used to be an odd frison to living here; it was this funny place where you could enjoy the Sunday New York Times pleasures of bourgeois Manhattan while also being on the edge, on the borderland, in a place just disreputable enough to give a whiff of real bohemia to your address. One felt clever, an insider, just knowing the place was there, which most of New York didn't.
"Isn't that in Harlem?" they used to say. Well... no. Harlem is the next neighborhood over. If you live in Morningside Heights, you look down on it by the mere fact of Manhattan's topography, regardless of your social attitudes or your race. Everyone who lives here has, at some point in their lives, taken the long walk down the hill to see what it's like. It doesn't bite. Well, what did you expect? One thought such attitudes were gone but no, this is still America and people have complicated feelings about things. If you are black, you can write this off as more white liberal comedy. You know how it goes. And Harlem itself is gentrifying now, so that old Checkpoint Charlie feeling walking across Morningside Park won't last long. Walking across that park today, looking at the ducklings on the pond and the little black girls jumping rope, who has time for the old antagonisms, when Columbia was going to eat it all up to build a gymnasium and a B-52 bomber base?
The year 1968 hangs over Morningside Heights like a tattered myth in an old religion that people don't really believe anymore but can't bear to give up because its rituals were once so beautiful and its priests so noble. The Parks Department, under the notorious neighborhood-killer Robert Moses, handed over our park to Columbia University in the middle of the Vietnam War. Student radicals and black-power types fought to get it back. Students took over the university and shut it down. We were on the cover of Newsweek. Some of us were heroes of the new politics that was going to sweep away all the stuffy injustices of Eisenhower's (a former Columbia president) America. Because many students of that era eventually settled in the neighborhood, you meet figures from this era now and then in sidewalk cafes and in community meetings. Some of them are still dreaming of the Revolution like someone pining after a long-lost lover who has since married someone else. (There is one mentally-ill woman who wanders the local scene soliloquizing a kind of New-Age Marxist psychobabble that's rather touching in its own way, even poetic.) Others have wised up, though there aren't exactly a lot of neoconservatives hereabouts. Someone once told me that "1968 is like the French Resistance around here: everyone was in it." Still, go to a Community Board Nine meeting and tell me the fires of the old radicalism don't still burn.
This neighborhood doesn't socialize at cocktail parties; it socializes at community meetings. There's a whole circuit of them that people go to: Community Board Nine, Community Board Seven, Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, Manhattan Solid-Waste Advisory Board, (now there's a romantic date!) and a whole host of little committees that spring up like mushrooms whenever Columbia, the local 800-pound gorilla, twitches. You get to know people this way. Or at least "people" people, the ones who stand up and make a noise. To me, these community activists are Morningside Heights, though I know it can't be so and I really don't know all the people who actually live here and swarm about the streets. Still, we're lucky to have real streets where you can just go and see who your neighbors are. Try that in the real America of strip malls and "edge cities." I think we're proud every day that we live in a real neighborhood, and that counts for something and helps explain why people go to all those meetings.
The other Morningside, of course, is the transients, i.e. students. With five major institutions of higher learning, maybe half the population is these people. They don't seem to give it much thought, though you see them lunching on Broadway and strolling romantically down Riverside Drive, which has to be the most beautiful street in Manhattan and ours the prettiest section of it, so they must appreciate something. I guess the excitements of their college years rather dwarf the mundane satisfactions of neighborhood and community. Riverside Drive is amazing. It's the closest thing to a Parisian boulevard you'll find in America. It is much, much prettier than that over-rated Fifth Avenue that Chrysler Motors names cars after. Years ago, when I lived on Claremont Avenue, I used to cook dinner in a pot and carry it down to the chessboards at 112th St. and share it with the chess bums. Bums are not romantic personalities (they steal flowers, break into parked cars and mug people) but some of them are terrifyingly good at chess.
Unlike most of Manhattan, this is a neighborhood where people stay a long time. Because of its high professor count, it is also a neighborhood where one feels there are secrets and obscure knowledge tucked away in those high windows of that apartment building you always stop and stare at on the way to buy your morning bagel. Is that a Nobel laureate, that small Chinese woman who walks her dog every morning down Claremont Avenue? Yes. And that half-blind professor of International Relations eating scrambled eggs at Tom's is an old drinking buddy of Kissinger's. It is the kind of neighborhood you know is saturated with a lot of memories for a lot of people. It has the uniqueness and the odd corners to hold memories. Every old store that closes, every building demolished, takes with it a little bit of somebody's past. You will never know whose, unless they tell you one day, sitting drinking good beer in one of the sidewalk cafes on Broadway where people sit in ranks on sunny days like an army of leisure.
Morningside Heights is not hip, which I find a great relief. Well, there are bars, and there are the young and the beautiful at Columbia, including a few movie stars. (Uma Thurman grew up around here because her father is a professor of religion at Columbia, but she hasn't been sighted here live in years.) But it isn't part of that SoHo-to-Upper-East-Side circuit of trendiness that people in West LA or Iowa mean when they think of New York. In an odd way, it isn't even very New York. It doesn't like skyscrapers and has mostly managed to have avoided attracting any. It doesn't snap and sizzle and it isn't frantic like the guidebooks tell you it should be. It is cosmopolitan if you get literal about it, but it assimilates the Hongkongese student and the Hungarian math professor to the same bagel shop on Broadway where they both become just locals. Its best architecture is too classical for the stereotype of New York. It feels congealed, solid. Ivy growing on walls doesn't look out-of-place, particularly early on a weekend morning with just a touch of mist from the Hudson in the air and complete stillness and silence, except for the futile growls of garbage trucks and the distant hum of a city that seems sometimes to be another place entirely. Would you believe we have a bird sanctuary where the police once found a coyote? (Perhaps, but what I find really hard to believe is that when the boys at the station house named it Wiley, they were brusquely informed by another station house that they had already taken this name for their coyote.)
It's not clear how long this sense of isolation, of a village within the city, can last. We are now officially a part of rich Manhattan, and we are going to be built up and soldered onto that vast long body that reaches from a few blocks below 110th St. in a solid mass all the way down to the tip of the island near Wall St. Columbia is no doubt happy that it's no longer perceived as in a "marginal" location, but will one day have to face the fact that it's now in just another part of New York, New York, whatever that means to the world in ten years time.
But it was fun being special. Some of us will not forget.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes in her book We Are Talking About Homes: A Great University Against its Neighbors:
"I felt very attached to that building and that neighborhood after more than eighteen years and all that happened to us. It was not ideal. But it was unusual for New York: it was quiet, had a view, lots of light. It belied the things they say about New York. All the little things too -- rituals, seasonal stuff, people you knew by sight, the shopkeepers, the kids who were born there and grew up. The men playing dominoes and cards outside of the El Morro Social Club; the sign in the G & O butchers about getting your Thanksgiving turkey early, the same every November; the school bus at the corner in the mornings, year after year. Seeing the seasons change in Riverside Park. The snow there was very pretty to walk in. And the sunsets, let's not forget that."
Here's the start of the first chapter of CHERYL MENDELSON'S 2003 novel Morningside Heights, which is frankly a bit bland and doesn't remind me much of the real people of the neighborhood:
"This neighborhood was always middle-class and urban. The advent of the subway
at the start of the twentieth century transformed the countryside so rapidly
that less than a decade after the stations opened, the fields were gone and
the massive, sedate apartment buildings that you see today already lined the
streets. They were grand places, designed to persuade prosperous New York
families that their bourgeois dignities could be preserved as well in an
apartment as in a brownstone row house with a stoop. The building at 635 West
117th Street was similar to scores of others built around the same time, and,
like them, it filled with tenants as soon as it was completed, in 1906. It had
twelve stories, with four ample apartments per floor, each divided into a
living and dining room, several bedrooms, two bathrooms, all large and airy,
plus a small library, and, behind the kitchen, a miniature bedroom and
bathroom for the live-in maid. During the Depression, the landlords carved
most of the apartments into two or three, creating the ten to twelve on a
floor that you find now. The cut-up layouts made no architectural sense, but
in those hard times the new tenants could not afford to be choosy. Only a few
apartments in the building retain the original floor plan, with the cramped
kitchen and tiny sleeping nook where a lonely girl spent her days and nights
in service to the family living in comfort in the other rooms.
In the waning years of the twentieth century, prosperity returned to the
neighborhood, if not to the cash-strapped middle-class and poor people who had
lived there for many decades. Lobbies were spiffed up, exteriors scrubbed
down. One rental building after another transformed itself into an ownership
cooperative-"went co-op" in New York City parlance; and rents and prices began
climbing out of reach. The elderly residents who had come during the
Depression and World War Two barely managed to hang on to the dilapidated
studios and one-bedrooms where they had hoped to live out the few years they
had left. Except for the lucky ones who were protected by municipal
rent-control laws, everyone, old and young, scrambled to meet the higher
monthly payments, and when they failed and were forced to move, their
apartments were immediately sold or rented for astonishing profits to
high-paid business people and profes-sionals. These mobile newcomers formed a
growing group of the well-off: working single renters and couples investing in
"starter homes" they planned to sell for a profit in order to finance bigger
and better ones someplace else-moneyed transients who stayed only two or three
years and disappeared, leaving behind not so much as a forwarding address and
creating a stock of near-temporary housing that served them much as
boardinghouses and residence hotels had served their impoverished counterparts
a hundred years earlier. The residential buildings became home to ever more
numerous strangers, people who worked long hours, dressed and dined out
expensively, and whose names, faces, and circumstances no one knew, except,
perhaps, the night doorman. They didn't say "good morning" or "good night" or
hold the elevator for a straggler.
One day in April, apartment 9D came vacant for the first time since the
building went up, when the last of its old-time residents died at the age of
103. Elizabeth Miller was the daughter of the original tenants, well-to-do
people who had moved in when she was a child. Her father had owned a thriving
lithography and printing business. Her mother, who had been left comfortable
when he died, later received another substantial inheritance from her aunts.
There were stories about Miss Miller: that she had run away to be something in
show business-an actress or a dancer-or that her proper parents had thrown her
out for leading a scandalous life. It was certain, in any event, that Miss
Miller had lived elsewhere for a number of years before returning to care for
her elderly widowed mother just after World War II. When her mother died in
the late 1950s, Miss Miller inherited enough to support herself, and stayed on
in her childhood home, living what seemed, to anyone who bothered to notice, a
long, uneventful life in good health.
So gentle was her decline that even when she passed the century mark, no one
thought her death was imminent. The only sign of her diminishing vitality in
those last years was her difficulty in breathing. There were days when she
could say no more than a word or two without pausing to take in air. Then she
could do nothing but sit, and her home attendants would take her in a
wheelchair down to the lobby or out for a bit of sun, moving her gently,
because she might be left gasping by a sudden derangement of her position, or
even a high wind. Yet she did not seem to suffer much, from this or anything
else. She had a good appetite, smiled graciously at her neighbors, and
attempted jokes with the children across the hall. Finally, one of the
attendants said, she simply fell asleep at her normal time and never awoke.
She had never married, had no children, no surviving relatives or friends,
except, perhaps, her trustee, the son of a friend who had died years ago. It
was he who paid her bills and hired the quartet of women who had stayed with
her day and night on a complicated schedule of shifts.
These facts were familiar to many of her neighbors, who for months after her
death missed the sight of her tiny figure, crowned with frizzy white curls,
wrapped snugly in blankets, on the sidewalk at the front of the building, or
being wheeled through the lobby, or riding in the elevator. But none knew her
well enough to feel obliged to attend a funeral. The night attendant, who had
been on duty when Miss Miller died, and the morning attendant, who had
discovered her death, were shaken, however. After the urban death ritual of
summoning ambulance and police, they had gone together to see the trustee, for
reasons clear neither to them nor to him. He didn't want them in his office
and quickly bundled them out with their final pay and their final
instructions. The next morning, the two women returned to 9D and began
cleaning and closing the apartment as he had directed. They gathered several
bags of Miss Miller's things for thrift stores and threw out a great deal
more. Then a truck arrived and carried off silver, china, rugs, paintings,
furniture. Finally, they swept and scrubbed, and, before the week was out,
they shut the door and left the apartment for good.
Anne Braithwaite, Miss Miller's longtime neighbor, who knew her well enough to
call her Lizzie, observed this rapid disassembling of a century of life with
uncomfortably mixed feelings. The Braithwaite family, in 9E, directly across
the hall from Miss Miller, had been startled by urgent peals of their doorbell
early on the morning that Miss Miller died. Charles was out of town, but Anne
was at home with their three children, when Claire, the young morning
attendant, came to the door, distraught, to say she couldn't rouse the old
woman. Anne went to the bedside and saw for herself that Lizzie was dead. She
called an ambulance, and told Claire what to do and say when the police came.
For a day or two, Anne suffered from the painful doublethinking that death
induces, both believing in Lizzie's death and yet looking for her in the
elevator or in the lobby. They had not been close, but she had been used to
seeing her, with one or another of her attendants, several times a day for
more than fifteen years. They had always said a few words, in exchanges that
lasted a minute or two, or occasionally as many as five or ten, and Anne had
been in Lizzie's apartment once or twice. These encounters were in the true
New York style, full of goodwill that entailed no intimacy and promised no
friendship. Nonetheless, they learned a good deal about one another over the
years, as New York neighbors do, despite their standoffishness-enough, in
fact, that even in the last couple of years, when Lizzie talked so little,
Anne could manage a passable conversation with her, carrying the weight of
chatter and filling in the blanks left by her sparse words and gestures. Yet
almost before the tiny body had grown cold, Anne also found herself wondering
guiltily whether the old lady's apartment would be put up for rent. It was not
on her own account that she was interested but for the sake of a friend, who,
she had learned only the night before Lizzie's death, had arranged to spend
two years in New York-in fact right in the neighborhood, at Columbia
University-and would need a place to live.
Later that week, Anne, returning home from a visit to a doctor with news that
had crowded out any thoughts of Lizzie, saw the two attendants handing in
their keys to the doorman on their way out of the building. After offering
condolences, she got up courage enough to wonder aloud what would happen to
"The trustee will try to sublet, I think," said the older one, Monique, a
dignified Jamaican, who had been with Lizzie for many years. Now that her
employment had ended, she felt a need to air her grievances. "Miss Miller
wouldn't buy it when they were pushing her to. So now the building will want
to sell it at last, but he'll hold on to it as long as he can, to make money
charging ten times Miss Miller's rent. He's a cheap man. He grudged every
mouthful that old lady ate, and she ate like a bird. He says not to burn so
many lights, but that old lady she can't see. And he says no money for a new
coat. He's so stingy so he can put the money in his own pocket."
"She was always trying to give us presents, and he kept warning us not to take
anything," said Claire, who looked uneasy, "but I bet he took plenty." Still
shaken by her first encounter with death, Anne thought. She had protective,
maternal feelings toward Claire, who had been barely eighteen when the trustee
hired her several years ago-deceived by her matronly air and figure, no doubt,
into thinking her older. Anne knew her real age, just as she knew that money
had been tight for Lizzie. These were the sort of domestic details about the
household that she had gleaned in the years of hallway chats. The complaints
about the trustee were new to her. She did not dismiss them, having confidence
in both women after years of watching them care for Lizzie, but their
suspicions amplified her queasy guilt about her own motives.
Monique and Claire looked pained and troubled after confiding these disturbing
thoughts, and lingered aimlessly in the lobby. Anne saw that they disliked
their roles as decent bystanders, awkwardly and unfeelingly ministering the
intimate after-rites of death for this unmourned soul. Feeling officious yet
unable to stop, she found herself offering them the speech proper to the
occasion, which no one else seemed to be available to make. They had been good
to Lizzie; Lizzie knew it; and Lizzie had died happy because, as she had told
Anne a couple of years ago, "I just want to stay in my own apartment and keep
my girls. That's all I want." They were kind and diligent even though, as
Lizzie had declined and grown more and more silent, there was never anyone to
thank them for all the little extra things they did, cooking up dishes she
liked and taking her to see her favorite flowers on a spring day. But people
here knew all this, Anne assured them, while wondering if anyone did but
Now, Anne having said what a son or daughter should have said, they could
behave the way they felt they should, and they replied with self-respecting
modesty. Oh, she was no trouble, such a nice lady-to which Anne countered,
graciously, that Lizzie's time was up and that we should all hope to be lucky
enough to die painlessly in our sleep at 103. They nodded in vigorous
agreement. Yes, yes, she had had a long life, not much trouble, no real want,
and no suffering in her death.
And after a few more moments of good-hearted banalities, some tears, hands
grasped, phone numbers scribbled on paper scraps, the two women went away,
with sad but more peaceful faces. The doorman, Willie, who was putting the
keys in an envelope and labeling it 9d-eugene becker, had listened carefully
to the whole exchange.
"They were good to the old lady," he said, suppressed thoughts and emotions
erupting in ephemeral twitches around his lips and eyes. "Lots of old people
in this building have problems. But those ladies made a nice life for Miss
Charles Braithwaite got home from his out-of-town trip soon after this and
heard the story of Lizzie, first the children's excited version and then
Anne's, in which he quickly detected Anne's idea of getting Lizzie's apartment
for his old friend Morris, a not entirely satisfactory plan from his point of
view, although he could not bring himself to oppose it. And just as quickly he
scented that Anne had a worrying secret that she could not tell in the
presence of the children. As it happened, it was hours later before she found
a chance to tell him in a questioning, apologetic voice that she was pregnant.
And, as they were neither young nor rich and had three children already, this
news was nearly as unwelcome as it was unexpected.
The Braithwaite family were among the middling people of the neighborhood.
Middle-aged and middle-income, they had rented a portion of one of the
original large apartments many years before, bought it when the building went
co-op, and lived there for their entire married life. Over the years, as their
three children came along, they began to feel squeezed in every way. Space and
money got tighter and tighter until, now, they regularly exceeded their income
by an alarming amount, falling deeper into debt each year. The children were
still young. Besides Stuart, a three-year-old boy, who slept in the living
room, there were Jane, almost thirteen, and Ellen, seven, who shared a
bedroom. Anne believed that each child needed plenty of time as the youngest
before the next one was born, and managed to produce her babies at intervals
of at least four years. Charles thought this schedule was the product of sheer
strength of will, as neither caution nor the lack of it seemed to affect the
timing of her pregnancies.
Charles was a singer, a solidly second-rank baritone at the Met, who had
accepted that he would never rise further. Still, he was well respected, with
a modest international reputation, known for his versatility and scholarly
knowledge and sought out by students as a master teacher; he had a broad
operatic range and was also an accomplished recitalist and singer of art
songs. What prevented his greater success was, in part, the lingering
consequences of vocal inconsistencies that had plagued him at the start of his
career. But friends who knew him well said that Charles's character had more
to do with it. Unlike most people with courage enough to dare the
uncertainties of a career in professional singing, Charles was modest, skilled
at advancing his students' interests, but incapable of the ordinary tricks of
Joshua Henkin wrote Morningside Heights: A Novel (2021):
When Ohio-born Pru Steiner arrives in New York in 1976, she follows in a long tradition of young people determined to take the city by storm. But when she falls in love with and marries Spence Robin, her hotshot young Shakespeare professor, her life takes a turn she couldn't have anticipated.
Thirty years later, something is wrong with Spence. The Great Man can't concentrate; he falls asleep reading The New York Review of Books. With their daughter, Sarah, away at medical school, Pru must struggle on her own to care for him. One day, feeling especially isolated, Pru meets a man, and the possibility of new romance blooms. Meanwhile, Spence's estranged son from his first marriage has come back into their lives. Arlo, a wealthy entrepreneur who invests in biotech, may be his father's last, best hope.
Morningside Heights is a sweeping and compassionate novel about a marriage surviving hardship. It's about the love between women and men, and children and parents; about the things we give up in the face of adversity; and about how to survive when life turns out differently from what we thought we signed up for.