Sunday, January 10, 2010
Inwood: A hidden gem in the Bronx, make that Manhattan
Some time ago, I took a late-night taxi home from work and gave the address to my middle-aged New Jersey driver.
"Up in the Bronx, right?" he asked while turning on the meter.
"No, it's Manhattan. Inwood."
"Nah, nah, that's the Bronx, not Manhattan."
"I've lived there five years. It's Manhattan. We're a few blocks from a bridge that goes into the Bronx."
At this point he smirked. He shook his bald head slowly side to side, the motion of an arrogant philosophy professor who's now tired of arguing with a freshman student. What could I say to convince him? Perhaps the judicial system's stringent rules could do the job.
"I got called for jury duty in Manhattan. You can't be on a Manhattan jury if you live in the Bronx."
That finally swayed him, but he didn't accept the argument for good until we drove past a pizza joint that's four blocks from our apartment. "My friend owns that place," he said. "Hey, this is Manhattan."
Yes, Inwood is in Manhattan, even if many people who live anywhere south on the island don't really believe it. The neighborhood stretches from Dyckman Street to the south up to the Harlem River on the north and east, and the Hudson on the west. The skyline's not elevated here, but the subway is. Not many tourists visit the neighborhood, unless they're lost. But it's as much a part of Manhattan as the West Village or the Upper East Side.
Inwood is known for its parks, among them Inwood Hill Park. The park, which has the largest remaining forest land in Manhattan, has great views of the Henry Hudson Bridge, softball fields, tennis courts and basketball courts.
And it has this guy.
A year ago this older gentleman walked in front of us as we sat in the park. Moments after stripping down, he climbed the tree with the agility and fearlessness of a 10-year-old going up a newly constructed treehouse. For the next hour, he basked in the sun and the stares. He didn't go hungry, devouring a bag of food that included a healthy balance of meats and oats. Eventually people stopped staring and he blended into the background, just another part of the park and the city.
Here's Liffy's, an old Irish bar on Broadway near 213th Street that's often filled with drunks both old and new. There's a karaoke night that packs the house, but usually it's not crowded. The bartenders are friendly and easygoing, as are most of the regulars. They sometimes allow cigarettes inside. If you want to sit and silently drink by yourself, you can. But not always. A Chuck Klosterman acolyte accosted me for a half hour one night, regaling me with tidbits and insight from each of his books, even after I told her I too had read them all. I finally escaped a few moments after she began detailing what she'd do to him and herself if Klosterman "walked through that door right now." Book groupies are a rare species, but just as fascinating as their sport and rock 'n' roll counterparts.
Inwood has been home to a few famous people. Future sky-hooker Kareem-Abdul Jabbar grew up on Dyckman Street. Basketball Diaries author Jim Carroll lived here. So did Houdini's wife (we take what we can get). A few years ago I saw Colin Farrell emerge out of the Irish Eyes bar, where he was filming a scene for Pride and Glory.
These are the famous steps at 215th Street, which connect Broadway to the residential streets to the west. In recent years residents have complained about the safety of the steps, often using words like dilapidated, outdated and decaying, when not simply calling them dangerous. Following the first snowstorm of the year three weeks ago, I walked south on Broadway. A hunched-over lady in her 70s stood in the middle of the sidewalk, motionless, as if she was posing for a portrait. As I approached, she asked if I could help her navigate the 10 feet in front of her, rendered dangerous by the snow and ice.
Holding her arm, I helped her cross the obstacle. Now on dry land, I asked her if she was okay.
"Maybe just a few more feet, if you don't mind."
We slowly made our way up the street, until we were standing in front of these steps. Looking around, I wondered where she had come from, and where she was headed.
"Are you okay now?" I asked again.
Giving a sheepish smile she probably first broke out 60 years ago while wooing the boys, she glanced up at the steps and shrugged her shoulders. "I could use some help up the steps."
She'd manipulated me, physically and emotionally. Seducing me with her feminine wiles and elderly vulnerability, she'd walked me to the brink of the steps while I remained oblivious to her plan. She didn't want me to help her get over a short patch of snow; it was to get me to help her up the 100 steps. We walked up the first flight, with me holding her left arm while she grabbed the railing. Each step was labored, and as tentative as a toddler going down the basement steps. Two flights up, again on dry land, she assured me she could make it up the rest of the way, telling me she does it every day.
"And I live on my own."
I felt a little guilty leaving her, even if the original walk of 10 feet had turned into a 10-minute excursion. But I was also grateful, because who knows how many more blocks she had to go once she reached the top of the picturesque but decaying steps.
For three years, the old Twin Donut store at 218th Street and Broadway remained closed. A blight on the eyes and the neighborhood, its future was always murky. One day someone would see construction workers inside. Then two months would pass with no activity. It looked like a great place for squatters, but few could picture it turning into an actual restaurant again. It was like the haunted house of Inwood, home to outrageous rumors and speculation but no sugar or coffee.
But finally...it did reopen, proving critics and donut lovers wrong. Clean, bright, inexpensive and open 24 hours, Twin Donut's become a fairly popular hangout.
A branch of New York-Presbyterian - the recently renamed Allen Hospital - sits just blocks from us at 220th Street and Broadway.
It's always been reassuring having a hospital this close, although that confidence was dented a bit last summer, when we made our first visit to the facility. Louise cut her foot on some glass so we made our way north. About five hours later, she saw a doctor. By that time I'd left with my nephew, who was visiting from Minnesota. We were there at the height of the H1N1 panic. Folks of all ages littered the emergency room, coughing, sneezing and wheezing into their blue surgical masks, waiting for a doctor or death. It didn't concern me much, but the two germophobes I was with didn't enjoy the experience much. But we'll certainly go there again if need be, especially since it gets Mariano Rivera's seal of approval.
An ad for the Inwood Chamber of Commerce might include the line "All your favorite 99 Cent stores in one neighborhood." One of the best of them just reopened at 207th Street after a devastating fire damaged the building. Louise mourned then, but celebrated its return. Another staple of the Inwood business scene is the banner. Seemingly every new restaurant or shop or hardware store or cafe or deli opens under a parade of celebratory pennants and banners, the kind that usually trumpet great financing deals on new and used cars.
Inwood's home to the Dyckman Court, a perfect spot for hoops fanatics, whether they're players or fans. It's not as famous as Rucker Park, but it's a great spot for playground basketball. Two years ago I went there with my parents on a Friday night for some league games. Fans packed the stands on both sides, as cool of an environment for basketball as anything at the Division I level. Also that night, some guy sitting next to us offered my mom some marijuana. She politely declined.
This shot, from bouncemag.com, is a shot of Inwood's own Kareem, and was believed to be taken at the Dyckman Court in 1969, when the Captain was at the height of his powers. He'd probably still be a decent player at a Friday night game under the lights.
See, Inwood does have it all. Decent rent prices, basketball legends, parks and access to a pair of subway lines. And to the surprise of many, it has a Manhattan zip code.