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Walking the length of Manhattan (Part 1)
Starting off and covering 215th to 175th street
Administrative note: I had envisaged this would be a simple, single post, its bounds as clear as those of Manhattan. However, once I started writing and was 1,000 words into the post but only 40 blocks into the city, I realized I would have to split the essay to have any shot at my completing it or you reading it. Part 1 covers 215th to 175th Street, the rest will hit your inbox next week.
If you spoke to me any time in 2021, I probably mentioned that I was on a quest to walk every single bridge out of Manhattan.The quest was spurred by some desire to add structure to my late-pandemic urban explorations and, I admitted to myself much later, some attachment to the idea that the bridges I walked were a metaphor for my own transition to “real” adulthood. I walked the bridges when the world seemed plagued by grief, when the “bridge” to a “post-Covid” reality was unclear (it still is, though some of us are closer to the off-ramp than others). I started with Williamsburg Bridge in early 2021 and wrapped up with the Triborough Bridge in summer 2022. The remainder of 2022 was punctuated by travel away from the city and uncountable rounds of the Central Park Reservoir.
Like every other self-professed flaneur, I have thought about doing the Great Saunter or some version of it for years. In 2023, I rode my new year, new me high to make social media commitments about the great walk through (not around) Manhattan and on the first Friday of the year, found myself rolling out of bed to catch the BxM1 bus to the northern tip of the island.
Hour -1: East Harlem to 215th Street Station
I missed the bus because Google Maps messed up the timings (I swear it wasn’t my fault). In most elite yuppies’ imaginations, Manhattan ends at 110th Street / Central Park North (or 125th Street if you went to Columbia). Since urban planning tends to follow these elite yuppy preferences, getting anywhere further north, and in my case to the tip at 215th, is mildly irritating. I had to cross town on a bus and catch the local 1. What started as a packed coach incrementally deposited its passengers near Columbia, City College, and New York-Presbyterian. By the time the train pulled into Inwood, my coach was occupied by all of four souls headed uptown, against the grain of morning rush hour.
Hour 0: 215th Street to 175th Street
I got off the train, walked a block west to Broadway, and started my journey at an intersection named after Police Officer Donald J. McIntyre, who died in 9/11 rescue operations. I had recently read Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s Names of New York, which explores the city’s history through the names of its places. This practice of “naming” sections of streets on the otherwise impersonal, numbered grid started in 1992 with the City Council’s Local Law 28 – “the statute allowing for streets and corners to be granted honorary “co-names” without having to change New York’s official map,” an onerous and bureaucratic process. Schapiro writes, “If landscape is history made visible, the names we call its places are the words we use to forge maps of meaning in the city.” I was quite struck by this otherwise easily missed act of meaning-making. Who put it up? What did this sign mean for the neighborhood where the majority of the population is Dominican and the median household income is half that of Manhattan’s.
The urban scape for the first 30 blocks was quiet and residential — old medium-rise, high density buildings. I saw a smattering of gentrification architecture.
The most discernible difference from the rest of Manhattan was hidden in the storefronts — more big box supermarkets, more fast food chains. Some streets reminded me of New Haven.
After 191st, the activity on the street slowly began to heighten as a banner on a parking lot announced my entry into Washington Heights.
It’s hard to write about the walk through the Heights without sounding cliche or overly influenced by Lin Manuel Miranda. I overheard neighborly run-ins at every intersection, the UPS delivery worker seemed to know everyone by name, and the storefronts, with their extravagant display of wares and disregard for the line between their property and the sidewalk, reminded me of Lajpat Nagar. I bought empanadas at a bakery where all patrons and bakers seemed to know each other, only spoke in Spanish, and were mildly (rightly) confused by my bumbling presence.
New Yorkers love to romanticize the subway, but passing the GWB bus terminus, where beautiful signage proclaimed the Mercado, made me think of the throngs of upper and non-Manhattanites who rely on the bus system in areas where the fixedness of the subway network has been accepted. We can fantasize about extending lower Manhattan and routing the G train to Governor’s Island but for the foreseeable future, no one will spend a billion dollars per kilometer to bring better subway service to parts of the city that lie outside viewing range for billionaire’s row.
On 175th Street I passed the United Palace – a grand movie theater built in 1930, acquired by the United Christian Evangelistic Association in 1969, and now functioning as a non-denominational “spiritual arts” community.I was struck by the building’s eclectic ornamentation, described in the past as “Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco.” We usually associate performance arts and ornate buildings with tourist areas and centers of power (the two often overlap). The section of Broadway “known” for its lavishness is seven miles south of 175th and Broadway. Ornamentation in these settings feels instrumental. It’s designed to impress visitors and impress upon the masses where the centers of power lie. Ornamentation that evokes awe in the middle of the everyday – as the United Palace inadvertently did for me at the end of hour 1, when my adrenaline was waning and energy flagging – feels more special.
The quest started as “walk every single bridge in New York City” but was quickly rescoped when I realized there were over 100 and most were characteristically unfriendly to pedestrians.
Done in two segments because the pedestrian access is not contiguous and you will find yourself deposited on Randall’s Island halfway through your journey.