Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Morningside Heights Walking Tour: Parks, Churches & Sunset on the Hudson

Morningside Heights -- so named because it sits atop a 135-foot bluff -- is a genteel neighborhood just above the Upper West Side. Flanked by Riverside Park to the west and the wilder, less landscaped northern section of Central Park and the sprawling Morningside Park to the east, it is one of the city's greenest communities, marked by wide tree-lined streets and dotted here and there by colorful gardens. This is a neighborhood that people truly make their home; it's not a stopping point on the way to "something better" -- it is the something better.

Officially, the Upper West Side ends and Morningside Heights begins at West 110th St. But those boundaries are more nebulous to local residents above West 96th St., who refer to the area alternately by its proper name, or the "Upper Upper West Side" or sometimes just "near Columbia," which anchors the stretch from the West 100s up to West 125th St. In addition to the parks and Columbia University, two glorious, historic churches also help define this neighborhood's character, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Riverside Church.

This isn't so much a walking tour as a strolling tour, for Morningside Heights lends itself to meandering and taking your time. Plan on spending a leisurely day here, starting in the morning and ending with a sunset picnic overlooking the Hudson. Or, if picnics aren't your thing, watch the sunset, then head back toward Broadway to one of the neighborhood's myriad restaurants.

To get to Momingside Heights, take the 1 or 9 train to either 103rd St. or 110th St.; which station you choose depends on whether you prefer croissants or bagels for breakfast.

If the former, get off at 103rd St. and walk north on Broadway to the Silver Moon Bakery at the corner of West 105th St. for its light, buttery croissants (one plain, one chocolate, $3.75) and strong coffee. If the latter, get off at 110th St., cross Broadway, and walk south to Absolute Bagels at West 107th St. Consistently rated among the city's best, these bagels are the perfect combination of slightly cruncy exterior and light, chewy interior, and are available with a variety of cream cheese, tofutti or fish salad toppings ($1.95 for plain cream cheese; $2.75 with walnut-raisin tofutti; $5.50 with whitefish salad).

Whichever breakfast you prefer, get it to-go and walk to Straus Park, situated at the junction of Broadway and West End Ave., for your nosh. This oasis of seasonal flowers, shrubs and blooming trees provides a daily respite for local residents. The park is a memorial to Isidor and Ida Straus, German immigrants who lived at Broadway and 105th St., and who met a tragic end in the TItanic disaster. Isidor Straus was the self-made department store magnate who, with his brother Nathan, turned R.H. Macy & Co. into the World's Largest Department Store. A fountain at the south end of the park pays tribute to the couple.

Once you've had your fill of breakfast and people-watching, go west on 106th St., lined by graceful mansions,toward Riverside Park. Just as you come to the Riverside Drive service road, take a detour one-half block south to the New York Buddhist Church (332 Riverside Dr.). Standing at the entrance is a towering bronze sculpture of Shinran Shonin (1173-1262), who founded the Jodu Shinshu sect of Buddhism.

What's most remarkable about this sculpture is its origin: It was brought to New York in September 1955 from Hiroshima, where it survived the atomic bomb dropped during World War II. It stands as "a testimonial to the atomic bomb devastation and a symbol of lasting hope for world peace." This is the kind of earnestness that lies at
the core of Morningside Heights' soul.

Now, backtrack to 106th St. and descend the stairs to Riverside Dr. proper, cross the drive, and you'll be on the upper promenade of Riverside Park, amid the dog walkers, joggers, families with children and other locals. This park truly belongs to the residents and, like Straus Park, is part of their daily routine. Walk two blocks north along the tree-lined Promenade to the stairs at West 108t St., and enter the park's second level (of three).

Now that you're on the park's main level, you have a choice: Ultimately, you'll be heading north, but if you're a dog lover, take another detour, and head south a few steps to a second set of stairs. At the bottom of those stairs, turn left, and you'll see the local Dog Run just up ahead at around 107th St. Full of dogs and their owners at just about any time of day, this is a great place to eavesdrop on neighborhood gossip, size up a mix of mutts and pure-breeds, and get lots of unconditional love.

From the dog run, or from the 108th St. stairs, turn right to go north through the park. You can choose one of two paths: The wooded upper path is quieter and less traveled, while the wide second-level Promenade affords sweeping views of the Hudson. Both will take you to your next destination, the Bird Sanctuary at West 115th St.
The entrance to this is about midway, from either direction, on the path that connects the upper path to the Promenade.

Step into the Bird Sanctuary, and you'll suddenly question whether you're still in the city or hiking Upstate. Created in 1916 by the Women's League for the Protection of Riverside Park, this wooded preserve is home to over 100 species of birds, including Peregrine Falcons and Red-Tailed Hawks. Even If you're not a bird-watcher, this peaceful haven is a place to linger for a while.

When you reach the far side of the Bird Sanctuary, you'll be at West 119th St. Turn right, and connect back with the upper path; then turn left, and head up the stairs back to the street-level Promenade at West 120th St. Across Riverside Dr. is The Riverside Church.

A non-denominational church with a strong social services ethic, Riverside traces its history back to February 1841, when it was founded as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church. By 1925 it had adopted its multidenominational stance, and two years later broke ground for the present church, which was modeled after the 13th Century gothic
cathedral in Chartres, France.

The doors of the church are generally open to the public. Take a few moments to sit In the stillness of the sanctuary. If it's lunchtime, you can grab a bite at the Riverside Cafe, located in the South Hall of the Martin Luther King Wing (open Sunday-Friday, 8:30-10:30 a.m. for breakfast and 12:00-3:00 p.m. for lunch;
212-870-6821). Public tours of the church are also offered; check at the entrance for availability.

Across from the northwest corner of the Riverside Church complex sits the General Grant National Memorial, more commonly known as Grant's Tomb. Operated by the National Parks Service, the final resting place for General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife was dedicated on April 27, 1897, in a ceremony attended by over 1 million people.

A wide plaza stretching northward from West 122nd St. fronts the entrance to the memorial. This is a popular spot for strollers and skateboarders. Vou can pay your respects to the Grants year-round (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Days) from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Enter the rotunda, and descend the stairs to the viewing area; it's still and quiet, and some find it a bit disconcerting, but the experience is worthwhile. Back upstairs, you can learn more about General Grant and his accomplishments as a Civil War hero and President (1869 to 1877).

Adjacent to Grant's Tomb is Sikora Park, a small neighborhood park overlooking Morningside Heights to the east. It features an expansive lawn and a quaint gazebo that provides a shady spot from the afternoon sun.

From Grant's Tomb and Sikora Park, you'll be heading south and back east over to Broadway. You can return via Riverside Park's upper Promenade, then cross over West 116th St., or descend the stairs from Sikora Park and wind your way back to Broadway through the residential streets in the western part of Morningside Heights. Your next stop is the Columbia University Quad at 116th St. and Broadway.

Entering the Quad is another one of those stepping-into-another-world experiences common in Morningside Heights. Busy with students and academics, even on weekends, it is an enclave unto itself, surrounded by classic Ivy League campus structures. It will likely seem familiar -- it has been featured in a number of films over the years, including Ghostbusters and Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives.

You can leave the Quad the way you came in, at West 116th St. and Broadway, and turn left to continue south. Alternately, you can exit the Quad on the Amsterdam Ave. side, turning right to go south. Your next stop is at West 112th and Amsterdam; taking the Broadway route, at West 112th St. you'll pass the familiar blue and pink neon signs marking Tom's Restaurant, an old-school diner and favorite Columbia student haunt made famous by Seinfeld; the neon "Restaurant" sign on the diner's south corner was used for the exterior of the show's fictional Monk's Diner. Turn left here and head east on West 112th St.

The advantage to crossing West 112th St. is the spectacular view it provides of your next destination, The Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Approaching the Cathedral from this vantage point, framed by the block, creates a feeling of anticipation that will be rewarded by your trip inside the cavernous nave.

Construction of St. John's began December 27,1892, and continues today. After an arduous initial construction period spanning 49 years, it opened on November 30, 1941. One week later, the bombing of Pearl Harbor suspended further construction, which was not resumed until 1972.

Along both sides of the nave are a number of exhibits, ranging from a tribute to poets to a larger-than-life quartz mined in the state of Arkansas. All are worth perusing, as is the eclectic gift shop. If you happen to be here late on a Sunday aftemoon, it is also worth waiting for the Choral Evensong and Organ Meditation (6:00 p.m.), when the choir chants a cappella and the great pipe organ resounds up to the vaulted ceiling.

No trip to St. John's would be complete without a turn through the Children's Sculpture Garden, with its enormous, odd centerpiece, and a trek around back to search for the peacocks that roam the grounds. Afterward, relax for a while across Ansterdam at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, a Morningside Heights mainstay. Neither the coffee nor the pastry are top-notch, but the ambience is authentic New York coffee house.

Weather permitting, the best way to end your day in Momingside Heights is back in Riverside Park, down by the Hudson River along the Cherry Walk. Lined by Cherry Blossom trees, this stretch of the pathway developed along Manhattan's west side waterfront affords gentle, unobstructed views of the sunset and is the perfect spot for a twilight picnic.

You can pick up supplies at the Milano Market (Broadway at 112th St.) or Garden of Eden (Broadway at 107th St.), both of which offer an array of prepared salads, meats, cheeses and desserts. Return to Riverside Park, go down to the main level via the stairs at 108th St. or 103rd St., and head south. As you approach the area parallel to West 100th St. on the main-level Promenade (a few blocks south of the Dog Run), a path veers off to the right and winds down under the 96th St. overpass of the West Side Highway. Pass through the tunnel under the overpass, and you'll come out on the Cherry Walk.

At the entrance to the Cherry Walk is a triangular grassy knoll. Plop down here or try out the rocks along the river's edge. Benches are available to the left. Anywhere along this stretch, which extends to about 91st St. to the south and 125th St. to the north, makes a serene place to end your tour, as the sun slowly settles over Morningside Heights.

If you're looking for food or drink after sunset, plenty of both are available on Broadway, and during spring and summer, the majority offer outdoor seating. Here's a sampler of places to end your day in Morningside Heights:
  • Mama Mexico (Tex-Mex): 2672 Broadway @ 102nd St.; 212-864-2323.
  • Henry's (American bistro): 2745 Broadway @ 105th St.; 212-866-0600.
  • La Rosita (Cuban/Dominican): 2809 Broadway @ 108th 5t.; 212-663-7804.
  • Deluxe (retro American): 2896 Broadway @ 112th 5t.; 212-662-7900.
  • Le Monde (French bistro): 2885 Broadway @ 112th 5t.; 212-531-3939.


Anonymous said...

Leslie, made me soooo hungry for some real southern food! I am going to have to cook it myself though, because it is so difficult to find that authenticity here on the California coast. I am craving some bacon-soaked green beans, macaroni and cheese, and fried catfish right now. Hey, I have never heard of CocaCola Cake! But now, thanks to your mom,I am ready to bake one. You can expect to see me soon in Manhattan because your reviews made me really want to try out some new places and take that walking tour. Bye for now.

Anonymous said...

Leslie, made me soooo hungry for some real southern food! I am going to have to cook it myself though, because it is so difficult to find that authenticity here on the California coast. I am craving some bacon-soaked green beans, macaroni and cheese, and fried catfish right now. Hey, I have never heard of CocaCola Cake! But now, thanks to your mom,I am ready to bake one. You can expect to see me soon in Manhattan because your reviews made me really want to try out some new places and take that walking tour. Bye for now.

MsManhattan said...

Hey, you! I better see you in Manhattan soon... I'm presuming this is my Taffeta Twin???