Morningside Heights is a distinctive Manhattan neighborhood located between the Upper West Side and Harlem.
The community extends from 110th to 125th Streets, between Morningside and Riverside Parks. The current population of the neighborhood is 32,000. Its name derives from dramatic views of the sunrise observed when the New York City parks commissioner recommended a survey of the area in 1870.
Many influential educational, cultural, religious, and medical institutions are based in Morningside Heights. These contribute to the neighborhood’s unique and vibrant character. Institutional development activities have sometimes caused tension among local residents and businesses, as is the case in many college towns. Many of the community’s institutions belong to the Morningside Area Alliance.
The area is a natural plateau rising sharply between the Hudson River and the Plains of Harlem. It was originally covered by virgin woodlands, large rock formations, and fresh water streams. The region was traversed by Weckquaesgeek Native Americans, who used it as a hunting ground prior to wide European settlement. Large estates, small homesteads, orchards, and farms arrived in the early 1700s. During the American Revolution, Morningside Heights was the setting for the first victory of the Continental Army under General Washington (the Battle of Harlem Heights, September 16, 1776).
Morningside Heights first experienced significant development in the early 19th century, as the home of two important institutions serving the growing population of New York. These were the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, which occupied the current campus of Columbia University, and the Leake and Watts Orphanage, on whose land now stands the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.
In the following decades, St. Luke’s Hospital, Grant’s Tomb, Riverside Church, Teachers College, the Union and Jewish Theological Seminaries, Barnard College, The Juilliard School (now Manhattan School of Music), and many other notable institutions were established in Morningside Heights. For this reason, and because of its high setting, the area became informally known as the “American Acropolis.”
The emergence of the Manhattan Grid ended over a century of the Bloomingdale Road’s predominance as a thoroughfare on the West Side of the island. The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum was established in what became Morningside Heights in 1821. The Asylum was a leading institution of its day, though its many abuses were exposed through investigative journalist Julius Chambers’ series of reports on his 10-day stay inside. A generation after the Asylum’s arrival, the Leake and Watts Orphanage began operations in the neighborhood. John Watts was a leading New Yorker who served as the last city recorder under British rule. Joining the patriot cause, he went on to serve in the New York State Assembly, the U.S. Congress, and as a judge. Additional institutions, businesses, and residential buildings followed the Orphanage, as the 9th Avenue Elevated Train and then the Subway were developed, forever changing the density, diversity, and character of the area. Morningside Heights is again undergoing a period of change, this time from corporate and globalist influences and a new era of luxury, out-of-context construction.
In parallel with this institutional presence, a vibrant and diverse population of residents, business owners, and workers began arriving in the neighborhood. This was facilitated by the introduction of public rail transportation, which allowed greater mobility for New Yorkers of diverse origins and means. It was during this phase of its development that the community took its current form as an architecturally distinct and coherent area of Manhattan.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and extending to 2019, Morningside Heights has been home to countless American and international luminaries in the arts, sciences, business, and government. A nuanced tension between “establishment” and “counter-cultural” perspectives has existed in the neighborhood for decades and is a central aspect of its lore and tradition.
Margaret Mead, Dwight Eisenhower, Barnard College 1960s protests, The Duke, and Seinfeld: Morningside Heights has been the setting for a wide array of personalities and perspectives over the past century. Others include Madeleine Albright, Cecil B. DeMille, John Dewey, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The neighborhood has given rise to many academic, social, political, artistic, and cultural movements. This variety of thought and experience are main elements of our community’s identity.
Members of the MHCC played an instrumental role in the neighborhood’s designation as a New York Historic District in 2017. According to the official report, “On the basis of a careful consideration of the history, the architecture, and other features of this area, the Landmarks Preservation Commission finds…a special historic and aesthetic interest and value [in this] distinct section of the city.”
And yet, so much of the fabric of Morningside Heights has been lost. This is reflected in everything from the growing scale and exclusivity of new residential and institutional projects to the number and types of storefronts in the neighborhood. Gone are the West End Bar, the Marlin Cafe, the College Inn, Drago Shoe Repair, and many other neighborhood establishments where wildly diverse people gathered and came to know each other’s backgrounds and perspectives.
These and other locally owned businesses are now either vacant, as landlords await higher-paying commercial tenants, or have been demolished or replaced by banks, chain stores, and franchise restaurants devoid of any real connection to our community.
Affordable housing is also becoming a distant memory or dream in our neighborhood.
Though these dynamics are occurring throughout New York City, we in Morningside Heights will continue to resist overdevelopment.
And we hold the high ground.
As our neighborhood continues to evolve, local residents and other community members must engage in an ongoing dialogue about our priorities and the impacts of future development in Morningside Heights. Our community is unique and too historic and relevant to defer this discussion, backed by focused and strategic advocacy. In the 21st century, we strive to develop a model for appropriate, community-minded development.