Riverside Dr. divides at 155th St. Most northbound drivers roll on, oblivious to their road's change of name from Riverside Dr. to Riverside Dr. West. Riverside Dr. proper branches off, like a Mississippi bayou, winding northeasterly between cliff-like art deco and beaux-arts apartment buildings until it strikes Edward M. Morgan Pl. and 158th St., where it turns west to rejoin Riverside Dr. West. The surrounding neighborhood, nominally part of Washington Heights, might be better defined as Audubon Terrace.
I went there some months ago because my fiancee and I were seeking a new apartment. We are both reasonably well-paid professionals and expected no difficulties. We looked in all the fashionably not-yet-fashionable neighborhoods, including one or two she'd lived in before some years before.
And yet we had difficulties from yet another new postwelfare welfare class (the first one includes all the illiterate, self-importantly gruff security guards who, post 9/11, have license to harass one at every public building). This new class consists of semi-literates who, perhaps having tried and failed behind the McDonald's counter, have become real estate brokers, armed with their employers' exclusive listings for rental apartment buildings.
For example, we liked Inwood, up at the Dyckman St. stop on the A train. We spent numerous weekends prowling its streets. However, every attractive rental building only showed apartments through brokers. The brokers invariably made appointments only at times convenient to them (such as 3:30 p.m. on a weekday, when we were both at work), for which they were invariably late, having been caught in traffic with their dingy secondhand Cadillacs. They frequently didn't have keys to the apartments that we had come to see, because they "hadn't been able to link up with the building super." They showed three or four couples the same apartment at the same time.
Other brokers were interested only in sales. We stopped by the storefront office of Inwood's leading broker during its posted business hours. The windows were full of fliers for rental, cooperative and condominium apartments. The door was locked. The only occupant was a shaven-skulled slacker, complete with tattoos, asleep on a leather couch, oblivious to our knocks. We telephoned them daily; the receptionist promised they'd call us back; they made a liar of her.
Eventually, we gave up on Inwood because its brokers seemed uninterested in helping people rent their clients' apartments. Later, through Kathi Sidewitz, a pleasant hard-charger at Buchbinder Pretium & Warren, we found a charming, affordable apartment that suited our needs.
But enough about us. Audubon Terrace begins at 155th St., the northern limit of the street commissioners' plan of 1811. They believed it the point beyond which New York "could never grow." Probably that was why Trinity Church, its Wall Street churchyard nearly full, established its rural cemetery there in 1843. Now Manhattan's last active cemetery, Trinity Cemetery offers "individual, companion and family crypts for full-casket entombment." Designed by Calvert Vaux, one of the architects of Central and Prospect Parks, Trinity's 24 acres of trees, rolling hills and grass climb from the Hudson to Amsterdam Ave., providing a sense of what our island looked like before our forefathers reshaped it to their wills.
Among its permanent residents are John Jacob Astor and Madame Jumel (streetwalker, financier and second wife of Aaron Burr, who divorced him for adultery when he was in his late 70s; somehow, one thinks that elegant old rogue took great pride in the accusation). Every Christmas, several hundred carolers visit the grave of Clement Clarke Moore, whose once-mighty literary reputation (a biography of Scanderbeg, Albanian national hero; translations of Juvenal, an edition of his father's sermons, treatises and political pamphlets) now rests entirely on "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," better known as "The Night Before Christmas."
John James Audubon lies nearby beneath a 16-foot tall Celtic cross. Among the first of many Haitians to come to New York, Audubon was a skilled portraitist who survived as a teacher of art, dancing and French. His passion was nature: his masterpiece, the collection of 435 plates published as The Birds of America, was the fruit of about two decades' travel throughout North America, from Labrador to the Florida Keys to the Louisiana bayous, working in watercolor, pencil, pastel and oil to present birds in their natural habitats, engaged in their natural activities. Even the engraving of the plates required 11 years. He financed the book by selling subscriptions, at the then-phenomenal price of $1000 each. Parenthetically, no more than 200 copies were printed.
Audubon once owned the neighborhood. He built Minnie's Land, a simple, elegant two-story Greek Revival house on what is now the site of 765 Riverside Dr., at 156th St. (Minnie, a Scots endearment for mother, refers to Lucy Audubon, his wife.) In 1863, 12 years after Audubon's death, Lucy sold the house; subsequent owners added a third floor and a mansard roof. It was demolished by 1932. Until the mid-70s, a bronze plaque was affixed to the front of 765 Riverside Dr., inscribed, "Here stood Minnie's Land, home of John James Audubon?it was while a guest of Audubon, here, that Samuel F.B. Morse sent the first telegraph message from New York to Philadelphia." The plaque vanished a generation ago, probably stolen by junkies for its value as scrap metal, and the building's owners apparently have felt no obligation to replace it.
By the 1870s, the neighborhood was an exclusive residential area called Audubon Park. Its age of elegance was short-lived: by the early 1900s, the construction of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) company's subway (today's 1 line) and of Riverside Dr. ignited a development boom, transforming Audubon Park's large homes, trees and gardens into massive beaux-arts apartment houses.
Intriguingly, the result is what should be among New York City's most livable communities: densely populated, yet rich with museums, parks, a major medical center and a university. Its river views are magnificent. Its convenient, practical street pattern, combined with the IRT 1 line, was enhanced by the Independent (IND) Subway System's 8th Ave. line in 1932, giving the neighborhood easy access to midtown and Lower Manhattan.
While open land was still available, millionaire and philanthropist Archer M. Huntington bought most of the block east of Riverside Dr. between 155th and 156th Sts. He envisioned a cultural center of museums, academies and scholarly societies, based on his own creation, the Hispanic Society of America. He offered land to other cultural institutions and frequently subsidized the construction of their buildings. The result, an enclave named Audubon Terrace, is among New York's most handsome collections of beaux-arts public buildings. Perversely, almost none of these jewel-like buildings serve their original occupants.
There stands the Hispanic Society of America; the former Museum of the American Indian (now also occupied by the Hispanic Society: the Museum's collection moved to Washington, DC; its collection at the old Customs House in Lower Manhattan is merely a boutique); the former American Geographical Society (Boricua College occupies the building); the American Numismatic Society (which is planning to move downtown); and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, America's pale imitation of the Academie Française.
Huntington was too much the aristocrat to trouble himself with charges of patronage: his architect-cousin, Charles Pratt Huntington, designed the complex, and his wife, Anna Hyatt Huntington, ornamented it with her sculpture. Thus, her grandiloquent equestrian statue of El Cid Campeador (1927) dominates the terrace. An admirer wrote, "The Cid gloriously bestrides his mount, he carries himself with exactly the flourish that is associated with his legend, and from the tips of his feet to the hand clenching the staff of his flaunting banner he is magnificently alive." Not particularly good criticism, but an accurate description. On the forecourt's rear walls are her equestrian bas-reliefs of Don Quixote (1942) and of Boabdil, Granada's last Muslim king (1943), who is shown having reined up to gaze upon his lost city for the last time. On its base is engraved a verse by Mr. Huntington:
With stolen promises and colours thin,
But now and then the wind?the wind of night?
Raised it and showed the broken thing within.
Adjacent to Audubon Terrace stands 790 Riverside Dr., a massive exemplar of American beaux-art, occupying most of the block. Its magnificent marble lobby is great fun: it has a kind of wonderful splendor, being somehow rich without ostentation or vulgarity. Interest in the building as a residence has been rising for the last decade.
Like most great buildings, 790 Riverside is no stranger to controversy. Some two years ago, longtime rent-stabilized tenants who had not purchased their apartments at the time of the building's conversion were evicted almost en masse. Their apartments had been purchased out from under them by newly rich yuppies who, as the law permits, evicted the tenants to live in the apartments themselves. Life is tough that way. A two-bedroom, two-bath, 1500-square-foot cooperative apartment in the building was recently sold for $490,000 after reportedly being on the market for one day. The monthly charges were said to be $810, 45 percent of which was tax deductible.
Nonetheless, the area needs amenities. There are no nearby supermarkets (bodegas don't count) or gyms. Riverside Park, acclaimed by those who don't know it as Manhattan's only state park, is nearly inaccessible, dark and ominous. We could only reach it by going down Dead Man's Hill, the local nickname for 155th St.'s long incline past Trinity Cemetery down to the river, and entering an underpass beneath Riverside Dr. A burned-out car lay there nearly blocking the door to a New York City Dept. of Transportation maintenance garage. (Note to the local City Councilmember: obviously, local DOT employees don't care enough to remove it; pick up the telephone and call the borough commissioner.)
The underpass crosses a railroad without crossing the Henry Hudson Pkwy., forcing us to run through traffic to get to the park. We then walked north for about 45 minutes without finding any signs showing how to leave the park. Finally, we found a decaying footbridge, leading to a labyrinth of cracking macadam paths, leading to the Henry Hudson Pkwy., again forcing us to run through traffic to regain the streets at 181st St. There's no point to a park if you can't get to it and, once there, can't leave it. (Note to local state senator and state assemblyman: a budget allocation to extend the existing footbridge across the Henry Hudson Pkwy. and for good signage wouldn't cost that much; moreover, the Governor, who is working to get Latino votes, might want to support funding for repairs to the park itself.)
However, neighborhood police protection has improved since mid-April 1994, when Police Commissioner William Bratton learned that at least several dozen cops at the 30th Precinct, the so-called "Dirty Thirty," were running a paid protection racket for local drug dealers while beating and robbing other dealers who had not learned to get with the program. This may have explained the lousy local crime statistics. When your local police are running rackets, they have no time to enforce the law. Bratton arrived with the arrest team, personally took the badges of two of the bad cops and announced that the badge numbers of the convicted officers would be permanently retired so no future cop need endure the disgrace of wearing them again.
It could only get better from there, and it has. Audubon Terrace is not the last frontier.
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New York City History Gets Personal