If you think Manhattan is all crowds, noise and neon, head uptown for a more tranquil taste of the Big Apple – and an overwhelmingly neighbourly feel
It’s the moment when the screech of yellow cabs and the rumble coming from the subways beneath the sidewalk give way to the genteel chink of martini glasses at sunset. It’s the place where the bilious honking of taxi drivers is replaced by the whispered witticisms of a John Cheever or a Gore Vidal. It’s the time when the glass and steel of the mercantile hub dissipates into avenues of faded brown stone. And in the parks the grass feels soft underfoot and company comes from indolent dog walkers rather than crocodile formations of tour groups.
The Cloisters, an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Uptown Manhattan is where the history of this munificent and magnificent island begins, and for respite from the multitudes there is no requirement necessary other than a Metro ticket, a copy of The New Yorker for the journey and a ride on the C Line all the way up to 163rd Street. Emerge from the subterranean recesses and find yourself in a Manhattan that, far from being the restless pounding fulcrum of progress, is actually an island that still, in places, lies in thrall to atavism and a bucolic sense of peace.
The Morris-Jumel Mansion once had grounds that spread across the entire width of Manhattan. Dating from 1765, this clapboard-and-shingle colonial-era building, with a vast Tuscan portico, is the oldest house in Manhattan and was once, albeit for a mere two months, home to George Washington. It’s likely that the Father of the Nation would have spent longer in the mansion, but the rampaging English forces hastened his escape and the departure of the Morris family – the British owners, never to return, who fled the house due to fears of attack from advancing American troops.
Today, the interior of the mansion is decorated in a variety of period styles, and among the artefacts is a writing desk used by Aaron Burr, the vice president to Thomas Jefferson, who also resided here for a time. Wandering through the rooms, it’s almost possible to imagine a Manhattan where the landscape was little more than farmsteads and country lanes and where, for a brief time, the Union Jack still flew from what was then a remote outpost of the nascent British Empire.
Venturing further north from here, you can stroll into Manhattan’s most northerly neighbourhood, Inwood. Secluded and almost deserted on a chilly weekday afternoon, Inwood Hill Park marks the spot where in 1626 a business deal took place, the consequences of which still resonate today. A small plaque in the corner of a ball park by 214th Street marks the alleged spot where a group of Native American Lenapes sold a strip of land, then known as Manna-hata, to the Dutchman Peter Minuit.
The park is an oasis of tranquillity, with dense woodland (where the park’s staff are currently rearing newborn bald eagles), immense boulders deposited in glacial times, and Manhattan’s only salt marsh, where the quietude is only interrupted by the occasional flurry of feathers from quarrelling mallards or Canada geese that call this outpost home.
This is a part of town where people still know their neighbours
If you are in need of sustenance after all that perambulation, pop into the Indian Road Café, on West 218th Street, for an utterly unique dining experience. Situated on the final corner of the whole of Manhattan Island, and opened by a former production crew member from The Sopranos, the café is home to an eclectic selection of ever-changing local art that lines the walls, plus a winningly fake retro fireplace and a heavy oak bar – and views over the Hudson River. The menu has a slightly Italian and North African leaning and, although the ping of mobile phones and the tap of MacBooks are certainly far from non-existent, you will find yourself totally absorbed in your newspaper or crumbling Henry James paperback as you devour a gargantuan salad.
An Inwood café
James wrote of New York as being ‘appalling, fantastically charmless and elaborately dire’. It’s probable that the rather downside views of The Master may have been diluted slightly had James visited The Cloisters, the little-known far-northerly outpost of the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Situated at the northern end of Fort Tryon Park, in a neighbourhood now known as Hudson Heights, this is where the Rockefeller family shipped segments of five different medieval cloisters from France just before the outbreak of the Second World War, which, reconstructed and known as The Cloisters, now house the Met’s medieval art collection. The atmosphere in the adjoining Heather Gardens is reminiscent of a monastery in the depths of Auvergne in France. Festooned with violets and poppies, the garden’s peacefulness is the perfect prelude to viewing the astonishing selection of pieces inside, the star of which is the series of seven 15th-century tapestries known as The Hunt of the Unicorn.
Students warming up before boating on the Hudson
What fascinates about these dyed wool and silk tapestries, considered to be the most beautiful in existence, is the pure conjecture surrounding them. Nobody knows the exact date they were made, nor where they were made (although it is thought to be Belgium), or why they were made. No matter. Huge fields of flowers are the backdrop to a narrative of a unicorn that is being hunted by lavishly dressed noblemen, before being brought back to a castle and tied to a tree. Although violent and unsentimental (dogs and spears are at the forefront of the hunt), the images seem to represent a patina of fragility, the unicorn’s resurrection in the final tapestry a testament to the hubris of man and the votive powers of creation.
Make time for one final stop before descending underground to head back to a more familiar New York. Cabrini Wines is a rarity in the city, a temple to vino that has kept its soul, complete with staff who are walking oenophile encyclopedias, without being remotely stuffy or taciturn. Located on West 181st Street, the focal point of the Hudson Heights neighbourhood, the store is owned by Cuban Ernest Campos, who presides over a warren of narrow shelves, seven feet high, which stock more than two and a half thousand different wines, from the everyday to the investment end of the spectrum. A kosher wine tasting was in session on the day I visited. ‘You really should stick around,’ implored Amy, a regular shopper here and a long-time resident.
The Morris-Jumel Mansion, Manhattan’s oldest building
‘Once you’ve settled here and gotten used to not being at the epicentre of New York life, then your priorities change,’ she says. ‘Everyone thinks they have this almost centrifugal force pulling them into the centre of the city, but it’s easy to live up here. This is a part of town where people still know their neighbours.’
Everyone should come up this far at least once, if only just to see New York’s quiet side.