Close-Up on Manhattanville


For a forlorn slice of Harlem, Manhattanville incites a stunning quality of passion. At Columbia University—perhaps the only area outside the neighborhood itself where most people have heard of Manhattanville—it is the topic of street chatter and has seen students set up tent cities or hand out fliers to call attention to university plans to expand north. In the end, students and administrators alike have put rundown West Harlem on a pedestal—and it’s an elevation that will likely leave Manhattanville poached or preserved.

Tucked under elevated train arches and nestled between the Hudson River and Harlem proper, Manhattanville has been lumped with Hamilton Heights, and at other times seems nothing more than a western fringe of Harlem. But residents, realtors, and historians defend the neighborhood, calling its boundaries clear.

True, the 125th Street retail renaissance did stop neatly short of Manhattanville’s eastern boundary, Broadway, but the unhappy result is a quarantined community of dank warehouses, mostly without use in post-industrial, pier-less Harlem. Meanwhile, Columbia has planned for three decades to build a glass-encrusted campus between 125th and 133rd west of Broadway—an area the university says currently only includes 140 legal apartments, one-third of which are unoccupied.

Even with Columbia’s long-lingering eye on Manhattanville, the sliver of Gotham is only now hitting real-estate puberty, transforming into desirable commercial and residential property. It’s been a manic change: In West Harlem last year, according to the The Daily News, the average selling price of condos and co-ops was $358,657. Ten years ago, the average price was $82,693.

Community Board 9 thusly faces regular wrestling matches: recast a decrepit factory building into a housing unit or build it into, say, a Citarella. Such decisions are microcosms of the Columbia expansion project, in which Manhattanville can flex a scrappy muscle against an Ivy strong arm. So far, most commercial plans have been tabled rather than slated, and Columbia’s expansion plan is still on the drawing board after 30-some years of planning.

Manhattanville is in an awkward phase: people are buying, but it is still forlorn, full of dingy, poorly zoned lots and subsidized apartment towers that (almost impossibly) keep their foothold in Manhattan. Under the lofty train arches and across to Riverside Park, stagnancy is the vibe, but it barely masks simmering tension between Ivy League expansionists and the few neighborhood loyalists who love their chicken shops and bodegas.

Boundaries: Real estate agents tend to say Manhattanville runs west of Broadway, stretching from the mid-120s south into West Morningside Heights. But if we apply the Ivy interpretation, Manhattanville extends from 120th or so north to 133rd, from Broadway—or even Amsterdam Avenue—west to the Hudson.

Main Drags: Broadway, 125th Street.

Transportation: Train: 1. Buses: M5; M4; 104; M60.

Average Price to Rent: Studio, $950 to $1,100; one bedroom: $1,000 to $1,200; two bedroom: $1,300 to $1,650; family unit: $1,800 or more. Jeff Gardere, an area real estate broker, says two bedrooms are at a higher premium: the average price of one is $1,800 to $2,000 in South Manhattanville. “It’s not quite Harlem yet, so it’s a very desirable location,” Gardere says.

Price to Buy: Brownstones are rare, but a clump on Manhattan Avenue comes up for sale occasionally, as do a few between 122nd and 124th Streets, where a townhouse goes for between $1.2 and $1.8 million. Along Amsterdam Avenue, studios can be found for about $200,000 and one or two bedrooms for about $400,000.

Landmarks: Riverside Church—home to many a Martin Luther King, Jr., sermon—borders the park at 122nd and offers tours on Sunday. Stop by Sakura Park just north of the church, or the Ulysses S. Grant tomb and hike, bike, blade, or hoof the many worthwhile trails nearby in Riverside Park. The elevated train at 125th is perhaps Manhattanville’s defining landmark.

Hangouts, Parks, Restaurants: Bike the trails, fish on the rocks, or just laze around in skinny, tall Riverside Park, which gives Manhattanville a Hudson fringe. Craving a crowd? Tom’s Restaurant (2880 Broadway) on the corner of 112th and Broadway is as much a tourist spot—thanks to Seinfeld and Suzanne Vega—as a local greasy spoon. For omelets without the crowd and stress, the Floridita diner (3451 Broadway) at 129th Street around the corner from the Cotton Club is a better choice. Max Soha, a local dinner date favorite, is nearby at 23rd and Amsterdam (1274 Amsterdam Ave.).

Forecast: Manhattanville is a community on the edge, unsure where to turn without falling into Columbia’s lap. In 10 years, Manhattanville could very well be a spectacle of glass-paneled science centers lofting above a massive underground research laboratory bordered by shops, restaurants, and new apartment buildings. Columbia’s central redevelopment area is an 18-acre parcel bordered by Broadway, 12th Avenue, and 125th and 133rd streets, but the envisioned rezoning extends to the north and past the banks of the Hudson River, where it marries the city’s 2002 Harlem Piers Master Plan, which includes designs for a ferry pier at 125th Street.

Politicians: Community Board 9, City Councilmember Robert Jackson, State Senator Eric T. Schneiderman, State Representative Keith L.T. Wright and U.S. Representative Charles B. Rangel. All are Democrats.

Crime Stats: Burglaries and robberies seem to be on the rise in West Harlem’s 26th Precinct: in the first five months of 2005: burglary is up 50 percent from last year, and robbery is up 30 percent. Still, the numbers are relatively low, especially compared to central and East Harlem; the precinct reports fewer than 100 major crimes per month. Reports of rapes and murders are now extremely rare in Manhattanville; in contrast to the one murder and five reported rapes so far in 2005, 1993 saw 14 murders and 26 rapes.