This article is about the neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Highbridge, in Uptown Manhattan and The Bronx respectively. But first, a well-intentioned harangue against current trends in travel writing and thoughts on how we might return to the point of it all.
There are places you go to see and then there are places you go to feel.
New York City is full of both.
Before I moved to New York I’d been out here many times, checking off well-known sights like Central Park and The High Line and doing the whole go-out-till-7am-every-night thing because, well, it’s amazing. Yes, Central Park actually is amazing. For God’s sake, it’s a miles-long forest inside of the largest city in America, and somehow only New York’s fifth-largest park! The High Line is a newer and already beloved landmark: an abandoned elevated rail line turned into a park that winds above and through Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. Yes, it too is actually amazing. And New York has countless more places like that. The Empire State Building. The Brooklyn Bridge. The Statue of Liberty. Go see them. They are, indeed, epic.
Seeing things is wonderful, but if all you did for your vacation was follow a list you found written by some amateur connoisseur/complainer on Yelp around the city until you’d ticked all the boxes, might I ask:
What’s the point?
You rip the soul out of travel by knowing what awaits you with every move. You likely even know how many minutes it will be between each destination and chances are your phone is able to refine that figure in real-time as you near the next stop. You’ve scanned all the facts before you even get there (let me confess that at times I’m a total hypocrite here when it comes to my life-threatening Wikipedia addiction, but I digress).
How incredible is our technology...and how incredibly boring too.
These are of course my own feelings but I mean it when I say that I’m now of the opinion that travel writing has, by and large, been reduced to a mere series of lists.
The “BEST PIZZA IN BROOKLYN (legitimately not a possible claim to make nor a safe indulgence of conversation either) or “THE FIVE NEIGHBORHOODS EVERYONE NEEDS TO SEE IN NYC” or “FOURTY-SEVEN TOTALLY WHATEVER BARS WHERE YOU AND YOUR SQUADRON OF FELLOW TWENTY-THREE YEAR OLDS CAN ORDER APEROL SPRITZES AND SLUR THROUGH CONVERSATION AND PRETEND LIKE YOU’VE ALREADY MADE IT BUT REALLY YOU STILL LIVE AT HOME IN PENNSYLVANIA WITH YOUR PARENTS”.
This is wonderful and all but again, it brings us back to seeing versus feeling a city. When everything is reduced to superlatives, you’re no longer able to see a city for what it really is.
Again, I’m guilty of all of this myself at times and I’ll need to bite the bullet of hypocrisy to some extent for the writing of this article. Following lists can be helpful and seeing the sights to be seen can be enjoyable as well. Eventually, however, you will begin to feel like you’ve “seen it all”. And that, right there, is the moment when you can begin to feel instead of see.
It’s this pursuit of new sentiments that grabbed hold of my heart on the last trip I took to New York before eventually moving here. I stood at my subway station until I picked a random train emblazoned with a colored circle and letter that pleased me and jumped on. I stopped off after awhile, saw a giant bridge that crossed a river I didn’t recognize, and when I saw a sign that read “THE BRONX”, chose to truck on. That slapdash experience changed my life and set in the stone an already fiery love affair with New York that has yet to fade.
In deciding where to go for my next article the thought came to me to retrace the steps I’d taken on that fateful wandering in the past: From Washington Heights around 170th St and Amsterdam, then down into Highbridge Park and over the High Bridge into Highbridge, Bronx. Both of these neighborhoods are some of my favorite urban areas in the country and for the most part, especially in the case of Highbridge, they have nothing to offer the typical sightseer.
Lastly, and most importantly, it’d be a crime to not acknowledge that this route takes the geographic course of the life of famed rapper Cardi B, who grew up back and forth between the two neighborhoods and strongly reps The Bronx today, saying, in reference to Highbridge, “There’s no hood hooder than mine”. The first time around this was a complete coincidence and her debut album Invasion of Privacy had not yet dropped, though when it eventually did I grinned in hearing it saturated with proud references to the area.
New York City’s soul not in its geographic heart, Midtown and Lower Manhattan, but instead pervades its exoskeleton as personified in the Outer Boroughs: Brooklyn (parts of which have already been Manhattan-ified, particularly in the northern and central neighborhoods), The Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. I must throw in Uptown, particularly anything beyond 110th St though the dividing line remains controversial, as also fitting into this framework. And finally, I stand in strong defense of the Jersey side of the Hudson as inextricably a part of, or at least in odd, spiritual union with, New York City proper (specifically Jersey City, Hoboken, and the select small hyper-urban towns/cities that lay parallel to Manhattan until reaching their terminus at the The Palisades somewhere around Weehawken and Fort Lee).
New York, for me at least, begins where Manhattan ends.
Take either the 1 or the C train to 168th St Station and walk east towards Amsterdam (which for those of you unfamiliar with NYC’s odd naming and grid system, is 10th Ave’s name between 59th St and 193rd St) and onward towards the East River until you enter into Highbridge Park. Along the way you’ll feel the energy of Washington Heights in every step. The largest concentration of Dominicans outside of the Dominican Republic reside here, and you’ll feel it. This expansive neighborhood could frankly be its own Latin American city as far as I’m concerned. Spanish is the Mother Tongue, dominos is the game of choice and I wouldn’t have it any other way. A true breakdown of Washington Heights would require a deeper article of its own and I plan to write that one day here soon.
Anyways, Highbridge Park is a gigantic park, at least in terms of length...think of it as the park equivalent of the Republic of Chile in its shape. Highbridge Park runs from 155th to Dykman (WOAH! If that means nothing to you, map it) and was, like many of NYC’s parks, designed by the beyond legendary Calvert Vaux, mentor to Frederick Law Olmstead with whom he designed Central Park, Prospect Park and others.
A history of this incredible park would require yet another article and that isn’t the intention nor the focal point of this one you’re currently reading, so I’ll distill it down to this (though I highly encourage tangentially swan-diving into its remarkable and storied legacy amongst the NYC Parks system) :
Was once the pride and joy of NYC along with Central Park. City-dwellers and tourists would day trip out to the park to see its bridge and immaculate landscaping.
Fell into sharp decline around the 1940’s through changes by the extremely controversial Robert Moses, which again would take a whole other article to explain but essentially affected access to the park’s waterfront and bridge and disincentivized visitation.
NYC’s infamous financial woes and disrepair in the 1970’s, 80’s and beyond absolutely ravaged Highbridge Park, turning into a homeless hotspot. Drug addiction and prostitution ran rampant and many individuals built shacks that they lived in for decades. The New York Times wrote a fantastic article on this phenomenon of parks that even the city wouldn’t deal with that touches on Highbridge Park’s seediness as recently as 2005, with one women in the article mentioning she’d been living continuously in a shack she built within the park for thirteen years.
Since the early 2000’s, things have gotten considerably better, though this is no Central Park Loeb Boathouse (and I Like It Like That) < see what I did there?
To me, Highbridge Park’s beauty lies in its continued existence. In spite of its storied history, it’s still there. It holds the vibe of a forgotten mansion that’s fell into abandon and restored with few taking notice. I’ve met many New Yorkers who were born in Manhattan and have never been there or even heard of it. I find it beautiful and commend the people at The New York Restoration Project and NYC Parks who work hard to improve it.
The gem of the park is its bridge. The High Bridge, a former aqueduct that was once an engineering marvel only to be closed for decades and now reopened as a pedestrian walkway, is absolutely stunning. The oldest bridge in all of New York City (1848), it spans the Harlem River from Washington Heights over to the neighborhood of Highbridge in The Bronx.
Views from it back towards Midtown are, as you’ll see in my photograph below, breathtaking given the right light. I’ve until now failed to mention that the very reason the bridge can exist at such heights is the hilly terrain on either side, creating the valley through which the Harlem River flows. The hilliness, I find, is a refreshing shift in terrain from the general flatness of most of the city. You’ll feel someone transported by it, thought to where I’m not sure. Just, well, not the New York we generally think of. In fact, I saw only two people the entire time I walked along the hill line and over the bridge. It felt both melancholic and grandiose, the park and bridge eliciting a “happy sadness” and nostalgia that is best described outside of the bounds of the English language with the Portuguese word saudade .
Walking the bridge east brings welcomes you into the mystery and wonder that is The Bronx. It’s a special place, written off by most as the location of Yankee Stadium, the New York Botanical Garden and Bronx Zoo, with maybe a mention of affluent Riverdale and Fieldston (white people in Manhattan love to brag about how they’ve sent their kids to school in “The Bronx” as though they’re forward-thinking when they put them in schools in these two neighborhoods just mentioned, which, let it be known, are among the whitest and most affluent areas of the entirety of New York City and are only in The Bronx insofar as the city’s official cartographers are legally compelled to designate them as de jure being so). Highbridge, on the other hand, is the real deal Bronx. There are no tourists here, for as my rant spat at you, there are no sights to be seen. There are no artisanal bread stands, no spin classes, no macchiatos. There isn’t even a local bank branch. It’s mostly residential with small commercial outcroppings that exist to serve the people who live there.
Why then, you must inevitably ask, would you ever want to go?
I can’t tell you why you should go, but I can tell you why I do, and hopefully show you as well through the photos shared here. Highbridge somehow envelops you as you walk through it. It engulfs you and cuts you off from the rest of New York while at the same time swallowing you deeper into what I see as more New York than wherever in the city you came from to get here.
For one, it’s very, very dense. Many folks (myself included until recently) don’t realize how dense the West and South Bronx are in terms of both the sense the architecture creates and the actual, statistical population density. Highbridge feels more dense than most of Brooklyn does to me, and the buildings being built on hills seems accentuate the effect. Walking the length of Anderson Ave from north to south (my recommendation) is a journey down a valley of brick and mortar. The many re-creations across literature and film of the “endless city”, the soot-covered towers and the ball-playing and kids playing around opened-up fire hydrants in summer...fictitious settings like these emanate from neighborhoods like Highbridge.
There will, I cannot stress this enough, be no cafes, no “authentic food” to take pictures of to prove you went outside your comfort zone when you return home, none of that, period. I go here to walk and breath easy knowing that New York’s spirit lives on. For those of you children of the 90’s, Highbridge is the embodiment of the opening credits of Hey Arnold, or better yet the theme song music video for All That! , or deeper still, the dancing scene towards the end of the intro sequence for In Living Color. The quintessential urban vibe and nothing more is what brings me to Highbridge and I can’t think of a better place to just wander around by yourself on a spare day.
If you’re still lost, if you still don’t get the point of wandering for wandering’s sake, I suggest you try it. Or if you, like so many of us, can’t even muster the courage to try that and instead would rather read up on the notes of someone who already has, I encourage you to indulge in Thoreau’s essay aptly titled, “Walking”:
“The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours …but it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.”
^^ (he’d likely kill me for my use of his essay to encourage people to walk around a dense urban environment but he’s been six feet under for centuries so I’m doing it)
Go to Washington Heights.
Go to Highbridge.
Leave your phone and your Michelin guide at home,