The hottest ticket in New York City this year is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical, “Hamilton,” currently at the Public Theater on Lafayette Street but moving to Broadway this summer. Coincidentally the day after I was fortunate enough to see it, while searching for a new apartment for a couple, I found a possibility for them in Hamilton Heights. Of course I had heard of the neighborhood in upper Manhattan and had been there before, but the connection to Alexander Hamilton didn’t fully register until that moment. I decided that my next dérive (an unplanned walk in an urban environment) would take place in Hamilton Heights, while the soundtrack to “Hamilton” was still freshly ringing in my head.
Hamilton Heights lies between 135th and 155th Streets to the south and north, and between Edgecombe Road and the Hudson River to the east and west. This puts it just south of Washington Heights (location of Miranda’s “In the Heights”) and just north of Manhattanville and Morningside Heights. Why all the “heights” in upper Manhattan? Take a walk in any of these neighborhoods, and you will see – the elevation in this part of the island is considerable, and some streets are quite steep, particularly rising from the Hudson. Alexander Hamilton’s farmland in the last two years of his life before the infamous duel with Aaron Burr was roughly in the part of the neighborhood between 140th and 146th Streets.
Public transportation options are good in Hamilton Heights. The 1, A, B, C, and D trains all make stops here, and it is possible to get from 155th Street to Times Square in about 15 minutes. For my dérive, I took the C and emerged at St. Nicholas Avenue and 135th Street. St. Nicholas Park rises steeply to the west of St. Nicholas Avenue here, and the majestic neo-Gothic tower of Shepard Hall of the City College of New York can be seen rising from the ice-age Manhattan schist that was used to construct the iconic campus buildings. CCNY was the first public institution of higher learning in the United States, and the beauty of its campus holds up to the private colleges and universities that predated it. Ten Nobel Prize winners have graduated from CCNY, the most recent alum winning for Medicine in 2014.
Just to the north of the main quad of CCNY sits Alexander Hamilton’s home for the final two years of his life, named Hamilton Grange after his ancestral home in Scotland. This location in St. Nicholas Park is not where he lived, however – the house itself has been moved three times, but has settled in this location, not too far from its original spot. The Grange is a National Park Service site, and has been restored to reflect its appearance during 1802-1804 when Hamilton lived in it.
Walking north on Hamilton Terrace from St. Nicholas Park, it is easy to forget that you are in Manhattan. This is a very quiet, residential neighborhood with rows of townhouses or brownstones on tree-lined streets. Hamilton Terrace goes on for blocks without any intersections, and most of the townhouses here date from the 1890’s. Hamilton Terrace runs into Convent Avenue, and continuing north, the sub-neighborhood of Sugar Hill reveals stately rowhouses that once were the residences of famous New Yorkers such as Cab Calloway, W.E.B DuBois, Duke Ellington, and Babe Ruth (when he was an infant). Nicknamed Sugar Hill because it was where wealthy residents of Harlem moved in the 1920’s to enjoy the “sweet life,” the area holds large pre-war apartments that are still affordable, by current New York City standards.
The Billy Strayhorn standard, “Take the A Train,” most familiar as an instrumental version performed by the Duke Ellington orchestra, does have lyrics, and they give you clear directions about how to get to this charming affordable neighborhood in upper Manhattan:
You must take the A Train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem
If you miss the A Train
You’ll find you’ve missed the quickest way to Harlem
Hurry, get on, now, it’s coming
Listen to those rails a-thrumming (All Aboard!)
Get on the A Train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem