Publication Date

December 1, 2008

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

Immigration has transformed New York City since the 1960s. Nowhere is its impact greater than in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in northern Manhattan once defined largely by Jewish, Irish, and Greek enclaves. Today it is home to the largest Dominican community in the United States, along with other Latinos, Russians, and residents of all sorts seeking cheaper rents in an expensive city. Life in the community is affectionately depicted in the award-winning Broadway musical, In the Heights. Whether today’s immigrants will find the solid jobs and affordable housing that sustained earlier generations is a question that hangs over the Heights and the rest of New York.

This walking tour, which winds north along Broadway and Fort Washington Avenue, will introduce you to the neighborhood’s housing, parks, businesses, and houses of worship. Allow 90 minutes for this walk, and more if you stop to eat.

Varied opportunities for lunch or dinner can be found along the way. Your choices include, but by no means are limited to: Coogan’s at 4015 Broadway and W. 169 Street, which describes itself as “a neighborhood saloon with an Irish feel and a multicultural clientele”; Dominican and Hispanic Caribbean food at Malecon (don’t miss the roast chicken, 4141 Broadway at W. 175 St.) or Mambi (4181 Broadway at W. 177 St.); and new American cuisine in a restored park building at the New Leaf Café in Fort Tryon Park (1 Margaret Corbin Dr.).

Begin from Columbus Circle, where you can catch the A train uptown to 168th Street and Broadway. Walk downtown on Broadway until you reach 3940 Broadway, between W. 166th and W. 165th streets. This Columbia University Medical Center building incorporates the façade of the old Audubon Ballroom, built in 1912 and used over the years as a vaudeville theater, movie house, synagogue, and meeting hall. Although located in the Heights, the Audubon was used by the African American community to the south in Harlem. Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon in 1965. The building houses the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, and the lobby contains an interactive multimedia exhibit on the life, times, and importance of Malcolm X. The lobby and exhibit are open weekdays from 8 a.m.–4 p.m.

After you exit the Audubon exhibit, walk north, or uptown, on Broadway. (The west side of Broadway is easiest to navigate here.) At 4140 Broadway is Reverend Ike’s United Church Center, housed in the former Loew’s 175th Street Theater that opened in 1930. Attend a service or one of the concerts held here to see an intact Thomas W. Lamb theater of the “movie palace” era.

As you walk further north on Broadway, note the businesses that serve Dominican and other Latino communities in the Heights, such as the Rufi Music Café at 4095 Broadway and “La Cubana” bus at 4149 Broadway.

In Washington Heights, most housing was built in the first third of the 20th century as the construction of subway lines opened northern Manhattan to real estate development. More polished housing tends to be found west of Broadway, while more modest housing lies to the east. At 179th Street, turn right, or east, off Broadway to explore this dimension of the neighborhood.

At W. 179th Street and Wadsworth Avenue you will pass the Saint Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church (1952), focal point of a once-larger Greek community in the Heights. Further on, the Pentecostal Church at 617 W. 179th Street is part of this faith’s dynamic presence in northern Manhattan.

At Saint Nicholas Avenue (also designated Juan Pablo Duarte Boulevard, after a founder of the Dominican Republic), turn left and walk north to W. 181st Street. Saint Nicholas is a lively commercial avenue, even though high rents are a major concern for small business owners. The Dominican presence is so pronounced that the neighborhood is sometimes called Quisqueya Heights. Quisqueya is an indigenous name for the island of Hispaniola, which is shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

At W. 181st Street, turn left and walk west along the north side of the street. Continue past Fort Washington Avenue until you reach the corner of W. 181st Street and Pinehurst Avenue. To your right will be an unusual element of the New York streetscape—a “step street” that climbs a hill too steep for conventional paving.

Ascend this step street to Pinehurst Avenue, and keep walking north. In one block, to your right will be Bennett Park, named for James Gordon Bennett, founding editor and publisher of the New York Herald, who once owned the land here. During the American Revolution, this was the site of Fort Washington, which British and Hessian forces captured in 1776. To your left is Hudson View Gardens—a cooperative neo-Tudor apartment built in the 1920s that is an example of the more affluent housing found on the west side of Broadway.

At W. 185th Street, turn right and walk east past the Hebrew Tabernacle, a Reform synagogue. In the World War II era, Washington Heights became the home of many German Jewish refugees. They are still present in this congregation. At Fort Washington Avenue turn left and head north, noting the art deco apartments on the east side of the avenue, to Fort Tryon Circle.

Continue directly north into Fort Tryon Park, past its Heather Garden, to a short stone staircase. Ascend to a lookout on the site of Fort Tryon, the British name for a fortification captured from the Americans during the Revolution. The view, which takes in the George Washington Bridge, the Hudson River, and the Palisades in New Jersey, is one of the finest in the city.

At this point, you can return to Columbus Circle or walk north toward the medieval looking building in the distance: it’s the Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to medieval European art and architecture (

To return, retrace your steps to Fort Tryon Circle and take the A train from the 190th Street station back to Columbus Circle. Or board the downtown M4 bus for a more scenic ride of at least one hour that takes in the neighborhoods of Harlem, Morningside Heights, and the Upper East Side. (A trip on the M4 also takes you past the extensive collections of the museum and library of the Hispanic Society of America at Audubon Terrace, on Broadway between 155th and 156th Streets; Eventually, the M4 will leave you on Fifth Avenue near 53rd Street, a short walk west to the Hilton.


For Further Reading

Ira Katznelson, City Trenches: Urban Politics and the Patterning of Class in the United States (University of Chicago, 1982); Steven M. Lowenstein, Frankfurt on the Hudson: The German-Jewish Community of Washington Heights, 1933–1983, Its Structure and Culture (Wayne State University, 1989); and Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950 (Princeton, 2007). For more on the Dominicans, visit the Dominican Studies Institute at City College of the City University of New York or go to its web site at

Robert W. Snyder, a historian and an associate professor of journalism and American Studies at Rutgers-Newark, is writing a book about Washington Heights since the fifties. He is cofounder of the blog Greater New York, which covers the politics, culture, and history of the city and state. He is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.