From A Neighborhood in Transition

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From the late 1700's, when Morningside Heights was nothing more than tranquil wheat fields to its present status as an educational oasis and desirable commercial and residential area, Morningside Heights is a neighborhood rich with history. As a neighborhood with multiple institutions of higher education, Morningside Heights has long held a reputation for intellect and advanced learning in New York City. However, the history of the neighborhood encompasses much more than that. As the site for battles, protests, and ongoing controversial use of land, Morningside Heights maintains its vibrant past as a historical stronghold in New York City.


The Founding

Europeans first knew Morningside Heights as Vandewater Heights after 17th century Dutch farmer and landowner, Harmon Vandewater (Note – the name “Morningside Heights” will be used from this point on). On September 16, 1776 an important battle between American and British troops occurred at modern-day Broadway and 116th Street. It was a major victory for the Colonial American Army. During the Revolution, Morningside Heights was renamed from Vandewater Heights to Bloomingdale, after Bloomingdale Road that ran through it (Bloomingdale Road is Broadway today). Morningside Heights from its founding until the late 19th century remained undeveloped. Most of the land was composed of scattered farmland.

A Lack of Value in the Face of Expansion: 19th century Morningside Heights

Morningside Heights (Bloomingdale) during the 19th century was commercially invaluable. Geology was the prime reason. Being situated on a rocky plateau, commercial development of this neighborhood was difficult and expensive. Not to mention that Morningside Heights was relatively isolated from the rest of Manhattan Island. Its geology created a natural barrier from its neighbor, Harlem. The Morningside cliff splits the upper-lying neighborhood of Morningside Heights from the low-lying, plains of Harlem. With these two geologic characteristics, Morningside Heights did not develop in infrastructure, as did the rest of Manhattan Island. One of the few developments that did occur, however, was the asylum system. With natural valleys in Morningside heights, proponents for asylums believed that patients could have a better environment in this neighborhood. They concluded that the valleys were therapeutic to patients. Until the 1880’s, Morningside Heights remained a semi-rural neighborhood of Manhattan.

This picture taken around 1890, shows the lack of development of Morningside Heights
This picture taken around 1890, shows the lack of development of Morningside Heights

Urbanization of Morningside Heights

By the 1880’s, real estate developers realized that Morningside Heights was a potentially lucrative section of the city. However, the asylums proved to be a nuisance. First, potential buyers of property saw neighboring asylums as blight to the neighborhood. Second, the large tracts of property owned by the asylums made connecting various properties nearly impossible. With their combined interests in hand, these developers eventually forced the asylum institutions to leave Morningside Heights in the years following 1888. Further complemented by the opening of the Broadway subway line in 1904, residential development of the neighborhood soon boomed. It would become New York City’s first middle class apartment-house neighborhood. Paralleling the development of residential development, public and private institutions began forming or relocating to Morningside Heights at outstanding rates. By the 20th century, this small neighborhood had become one of the premier locations for educational institutions. Some 19th century scholars called Morningside Heights the “Acropolis of the New World.” A few examples are Columbia University, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. It was also roughly at this time that Morningside Heights recieved its current name. A feud occurred between administrators of Columbia University and Teacher’s College, and St. Luke’s Hospital and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine over the naming process roughly in 1895 (Roughly the time when all these institutions confirmed they had brought property in the neighborhood). The former petitioned for Morningside Heights, while the latter for Cathedral Heights. Ultimately, the heated debate was settled decades later not by any action of the Mayor’s Office, but by the accepted use of Morningside Heights by most. Development of Morningside Heights continued until 1929 when the Stock Market crashed and caused the Great Depression. Virtually all building stopped in the neighborhood.

Only a few decades after the arrival of Columbia University, this photograph shows the rapid development the neighborhood went through by the 1920's.
Only a few decades after the arrival of Columbia University, this photograph shows the rapid development the neighborhood went through by the 1920's.

Post-Great Depression to the Present Day

Following the end of the Great Depression and eventually World War II, Morningside Heights had undergone many changes, and continues to today. Columbia University was especially involved in creating, or attempting to create new structures on and around its campus. Such proposals like the gymnasium in Morningside Park were struck down by public outcry. Others like the conversion of College Walk from a car-accessed road to a public walking path met less resistance and hence were accomplished. Ultimately, Morningside Heights continues to be a hotspot in activity as it was during the late 19th century. The current gentrification debate is just another aspect of a living and ever-changing Morningside Heights.

Interactive Timeline of Morningside Heights

Click and drag to experience the chronology of the neighborhood



2. Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development by Andrew S. Dolkart

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