The line between Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio, once seemed carved in stone. Generally speaking, El Barrio stretches north of 96th Street, from Central Park to the East River. East Harlem was New York City’s first “Little Italy,” hence the famous Italian restaurants still in the area, like the original location of Patsy’s Pizzeria and Rao’s. After World War I, a large influx of Puerto Rican immigrants began the transition of this neighborhood to Spanish Harlem. Regardless of the name, the area along Fifth Avenue north of 96th Street (now sometimes called “Upper Carnegie Hill”), has certainly undergone a transformation over the past decade.
For this dérive (an unplanned journey through an urban environment; see my previous blog posts), we start at Fifth and 96th, walking north. For several blocks, Fifth Avenue is dominated by Mount Sinai Medical Center, a dominant presence in this neighborhood. Just north of Mount Sinai, beautiful apartment buildings, pre- and post-war, emerge. Some of the apartments in these buildings with views of Central Park are being sold for prices that would have been unimaginable ten years ago!
Looking at the Central Park Conservatory Gardens (Fifth Avenue between 104th and 106th Streets), one can easily see the value of such a view. The entrance to the Gardens is a massive iron gate, built in Paris in 1894 and once the entrance to the Vanderbilt mansion at Fifth and 58th Street. The Gardens is divided into three spaces with different styles: Italian, French, and English. During the spring and summer, all sections of the Conservatory Gardens are lush and colorful, and of course in the autumn the entire park is overtaken by red, orange, and yellow foliage.
This area along Fifth Avenue also houses a few museums here at the top of “Museum Mile.” On either side of 103th Street on Fifth sit the Museum of the City of New York and El Museo del Barrio. The Museum of the City of New York was founded in 1923 to educate the populace about the past, present and future of the city. It was originally housed in Gracie Mansion (see my blog post on Yorkville) but a dedicated building was constructed on land donated by the city, completed in 1932. Interesting artifacts housed in the museum are as diverse as original manuscripts by Eugene O’Neill, a man’s suit worn to George Washington’s Inaugural ball (which took place in NYC, the nation’s capital at that time), and a dollhouse containing an original miniature work by Marcel Duchamp. Founded 40 years ago, El Museo del Barrio celebrates the art and culture of all Latin Americans in the United States, and hosts concerts, educational events, and exhibitions.
Strolling east on Fifth, there is a quiet nature to the neighborhood that does perhaps justify the term “Upper Carnegie Hill.” Turning east on 106th Street, however, things become more vibrant, with abundant dining opportunities once you reach Lexington Avenue. Heading south on Lex, you can’t miss Duffy’s Hill at 103rd, one of the steepest grades in New York. Whoever Duffy was, he was certainly out of breath! There is a 6 subway stop right at 103rd before the hill begins, if it looks too daunting. However, a little cardio and some stretched calf muscles will reward the walker with several blocks of interesting places to eat and a few new condo residential buildings. Lexington between 104th and 99th Streets has been called a new “restaurant row.” On Lexington between 99th and 100th Street, check out Lloyd’s Carrot Cake (http://www.lloydscarrotcake.com/). The first time I had a Lloyd’s carrot cake, I was at a friend’s party and the cake had been bought from the original location in Riverdale. If this location is more convenient than Riverdale (as it is for me), you can try a slice before purchasing an entire cake. On the corner of Lexington and 97th is ABV (http://www.abvny.com/), a casually sophisticated place to eat and drink, with great tapas, interesting cocktails, and live music on Monday nights.
Ending up at Lexington and 96th Street, the 6 subway or a crosstown bus can take you quickly where you need to go elsewhere in the city. Whether or not East Harlem is the “next Williamsburg,” as has been touted, it’s a neighborhood with good value and plenty to offer as a place to visit or to live.