I moved to my Upper Manhattan neighborhood in 2009, but the idea to come here was planted three years before that. It was 2006 and I was celebrating the end of my school year in Turkey on a Blue Cruise—a cruise aboard a small wooden yacht that I had rented with a group of friends for seven days of sailing in the glass-blue Mediterranean Sea.
One of my friends had invited his sister and brother-in-law to join us. The couple was from New York City and described their neighborhood as being on the very northern tip of Manhattan, the farthest you could go without hitting the Bronx. At the time, I had no plans to move to New York. After two years of teaching in Istanbul, I was heading to Vietnam for a new year-long position. After that, who knew? My husband and I had vague plans to move back to America but had no idea where. He was from California; I was from upstate New York, so we had those two states and everywhere in between to choose from.
The year in Vietnam sped by and at its end, we were no closer to knowing where we wanted to live. New York City was on the table but…even after living in Istanbul and Ho Chi Minh City, New York was formidable. The thought of getting jobs, finding an apartment, and creating a life in a city of 8 million people was intimidating.
So our choice was made by default and in the most passive of ways. My husband got a decent job offer in North Carolina and we thought, “Well, what else have we got going on?” and moved into a tiny temporary apartment in downtown Greensboro.
North Carolina looked great on paper—their winters are short and mild, it’s a fast-growing state economically-speaking, and after three years abroad (and three years in California before that), it felt nice and close to my family in upstate New York, but…
OK, I don’t want to offend anyone here, but I found out pretty quickly that Southern living wasn’t for me. I had convinced myself I was so flexible as a result of my world travels, but I soon learned that I wasn’t all that flexible.
I learned that I wasn’t a barbecue-and church person or a chat-at-every-checkout-for-five-minutes person. I like a friendly exchange but get me in and get me out, please. When I spoke to people, my voice sounded too loud, my vowels too flat. I loved the weather and the mountains and the beaches, but those weren’t enough to keep me there.
We lasted ten months in North Carolina before throwing in the towel and making the leap to New York, a city I’d dreamed of living in since I was fifteen years old. After almost a year of living in a place I knew I didn’t want to be, the intimidation of moving to New York melted away and turned to excitement. It seemed so much more important to live where we wanted.
Knowing exactly where I wanted to live, really for the first time in my life, was a weight off my shoulders. But there was still the overwhelming decision of where in the city to park ourselves. I knew that people had been pouring into Brooklyn for years, but my lifelong love for the city began and ended in Manhattan. Unfortunately, Manhattan is also an island of skyrocketing rents.
I recalled that Turkish cruise I took, and that nice couple’s description of their very far-north neighborhood. We arranged to have coffee with them and were surprised by how much they loved the neighborhood. Shortly after that, my husband was offered a job in Westchester, and our problem of where to live was pretty much solved. Living in Inwood would be an easy commute for him compared to Queens or Brooklyn, where he’d spend hours each day on trains or sitting in traffic. Rent was lower in Inwood and apartments were slightly larger than in most of Manhattan, too.
Once the pressure of choosing a neighborhood was off, I had no doubt that moving to New York was the right choice. I was born to live here and the moment we crossed the George Washington Bridge with our U-Haul, the city became my home.
I was a little skeptical of Inwood at first, though. The name doesn’t really evoke a cool urban vibe—there’s no Lower East Side edge or three-letter acronym that immediately identifies it. But nine years later, I’m still here, so that’s something. The neighborhood has really grown on me and with my nine-year anniversary coming up in July, I wanted to share some of my favorite things about it.
My neighborhood park has been the absolute surprising delight of life in Inwood. It’s a fraction of the size of Central Park and not nearly as well-manicured. In fact, its claim to fame is that it’s the last remaining natural forest in Manhattan and by natural, I mean natural—no landscaping beyond trimming the grass or overgrown branches. The park’s history cuts deep, too. Artifacts of Native American life dating back to the 17thcentury have been found in the caves that dot the wilderness trails. Now, it’s a family-oriented park with a large pleasant lawn and a separate area where families pour in every weekend for barbecues. The two baseball fields are in use from the first hint of spring until well into the fall. The winding, woodsy trails are great for walking and running. Water views of Spuyten Duyvil Creek and the Hudson River come with a family of ducks. And clustered at the north end of the park are the neighborhood sentries—a dozen or so men playing dominoes, always; their constant presence lending the comfort of routine. And every summer, Bread and Yoga treats the neighborhood to free weeknight classes that include Meditation, West African Dance and Yoga. It’s just one of the many ways that community is built around here.
When I’m at just the right intersection, I can see the highest tower of the Met-affiliated museum that houses 2,000 works of art from the Middle Ages. A sculptor named George Grey Barnard was such a fan of medieval art that he brought pieces back to New York after each visit to Europe. A couple other rich guys, J. Pierpont Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, contributed the land, and the building was modeled after grand European cloisters. It definitely evokes a medieval mood right here in New York City. Up on the hill in Ft. Tryon Park where the museum sits is even more spectacular. The view sweeps across the river to the Palisades and down toward the George Washington Bridge. And inside the museum? Here in little-old Upstate Manhattan is what some say are among the greatest works of art in the world.
The Unicorn Tapestries is a series of intricately woven tapestries whose origins remain a mystery. They were probably made in Belgium. The earliest record of their existence dates back to 1680, and they eventually ended up in Rockefeller’s hands until 1937, when he gifted them to the Cloisters. Made of woven silk and wool, the tapestries are also known as “The Hunt of the Unicorn,” and some speculate that the scenes represent the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
I’m not here to tell you that Inwood is the new foodie destination. Yes, we have restaurants, popular ones too—there’s even an area a few blocks long that locals call “restaurant row.” But none in particular warrant traveling far and wide. As for take-out, there are a couple of pizza places that are “ok for Inwood” but abysmal for New York. And I gave the local Thai restaurant about eight chances before I finally gave up on them. Dominican food is done right, of course, because it serves the community. For example, I can’t even say the name La Nueva España without craving their grilled chicken and tostones.
Overall, we’re not so much with the food but I will say one thing: the restaurants, pubs and cafés work hard at creating friendly places with a nice neighborhood vibe. Go into Indian Road Café once or twice for happy hour or a cappuccino and they’ll start to recognize you as a regular. Same with Inwood Local and Darling Coffee. Oh, and a year ago we got a bagel shop! As I was lurking outside Inwood Bagels recently, snapping photos for this piece, the owners waved me in, gave me a cup of coffee and said they truly believe Inwood is New York’s best kept secret. I’m telling you, it’s because of nice neighbors like this that New York City sometimes feels like the biggest small-town in America.
Whenever I complain to friends about Inwood being “so far” from everything, I get the same responses: “that’s normal” and “deal with it” and “who in New York doesn’t have to ride the subway for hours and hours each week.” OK, fair enough. My biggest complaint is that a lot of the friends I’ve made live in Queens and Brooklyn—and that can seem light-years away, especially when taking the subway on nights and weekends, when the whole system acts like it’s trying to play a joke on everyone by rerouting the trains for never-ending scheduled maintenance. (Always check mta.info for updates before you go!)
But that grievance aside, Inwood is pretty convenient in other ways. I have a car and I can actually park it. On the street. For free. The 1 train is dependable and if that’s out of service then the A train is up here, too. The Metro-North is just across the river if I want to head up to the Hudson Valley for the weekend and by car, I can be on the open roads of 87N within minutes of squeezing out of my parking space.
So, as you’ve probably gathered by now, I don’t live in the edgiest or trendiest or most “now” part of the city. I never set out to live in uppermost Manhattan and I still fantasize about living downtown (and then I remember the cost of rent down there). But Inwood has grown on me, and I don’t have any regrets that I ended up here.
Want to visit? Here’s an itinerary for a perfect uptown day. (Click on the links for locations in Google Maps).
Start at The Cloisters. They open at 10 a.m. everyday. You’ll run into crowds any day you go—weekdays are for school groups and weekends draw tourists, but it’s pretty spacious inside. Allow at least two hours. If you’re ready for lunch by then, New Leaf Restaurant is set right inside Fort Tryon Park and serves a good lunch, brunch and dinner in a pretty, woodsy location.
Head down the hill and you’ll eventually hit Dyckman Playground. Make your way to Broadway and 207thStreet and if you’re ready for a cup of coffee, pop into Darling Coffee. If you’re looking for something stronger, get a cold beer at Inwood Local. If it’s a Saturday, stroll through the Farmer’s Market on Isham Street. Grab a cider donut or some fruit or even a bottle of wine, and then head into Inwood Hill Park. Spread out a blanket, find a bench near the water or just go on a long nature walk.
Exit the park at 218thStreet and you can’t miss Indian Road Café. They have entertainment several times a week and they’re a good bet for dinner, a cool drink or glass of wine. They even serve homemade ice cream in the summer.
Depending on where your Inwood journey ends, you can catch the A or the 1 train. The A is express but makes local stops after 10:30 p.m. The 1 is always local.
Alright, now get out of here! You have a long ride back to wherever you came from. Hope you enjoyed Upstate Manhattan.