This summer I spent more time than I would have ever thought possible obsessing over the New York City streetball tournaments. I went to games and watched highlights online. I stood in line for two hours and in the stands for six. I wrote blogs and read newspaper articles. I sold the scene to friends and bought scalped tickets from strangers. I watched Kevin Durant dunk and Ron Artest defend. And, perhaps most memorably, I watched Michael Beasley mush.
And all of that happened in the Inwood section of New York City. Inwood.
Inevitably, newspaper stories, online reports and YouTube videos would announce that the games were held in “Washington Heights.” Now in the big picture this isn’t a big deal. Even in the small picture it’s not a big deal. Yet each time I read it I sighed a bit, exasperated that my little neighborhood was again being overlooked, if not forgotten, in favor of a better-known part of New York City. New York City’s known for its neighborhoods and many of them have names that are recognized in the biggest cities out West and the smallest cities in the Midwest – Times Square, the Upper West Side, the Village, Chelsea, the Upper East Side, Harlem.
Inwood’s not as famous, but it’s still a part of New York. More importantly, it’s now home. So here now, a little tour.
To find Inwood you have to go to the very top of Manhattan, it’s the northern-most neighborhood on the famous island. It starts on the south near Dyckman Street and goes to the Harlem River on the north end, although different sources offer different locations for the southernmost part of Inwood (regardless, the Dyckman Tournament hoops games are in Inwood). Downtown’s home to Wall Street, the Staten Island Ferry and Ground Zero. Uptown? Well, for landmarks you have…well, we’ll get to that. Inwood’s a residential area, not a tourist trap. The buildings aren’t sky-high, but neither is the rent – at least compared to the rest of the city.
Inwood Hill Park is perhaps the most famous part of the neighborhood. The last native forests in Manhattan are here. Use that for a trivia question sometime. In 1626, the Dutch bought the island from the Native Americans, so if you’re ever in the city and want to see the site of the real estate deal that played a part in New York City becoming what it is, hop onto the A train and head to the park, where a plaque marks where the sale supposedly took place.
A few decades ago, Inwood was primarily a Jewish and Irish neighborhood and is still home to several Irish bars, including Irish Eyes, where I watched Colin Farrell emerge from several years ago while filming Pride and Glory. Today it’s primarily a Dominican neighborhood, which you’ll learn if you’re unlucky enough to get a racist taxi driver from New Jersey who takes you home, but not before blurting out, “So, you, uh, like it up there?” which serves as either code for his belief that I shouldn’t like it, or is simply an entry point for a 10-minute rant that would make John Rocker leave the room. Yes, I like it, pal.
Inwood is primarily filled with normal folk – of all nationalities – instead of celebs. A few famous people did grow up here. Jim Carroll wrote The Basketball Diaries, and died in his Inwood apartment a few years ago. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still Lew Alcindor when he was just a boy in Inwood.
No, the famous don’t make a lot of appearances up here. Even Law & Order – the series that filmed on every block in New York and employed every working actor in the city at some point in time, even if it was just showing them as a bludgeoned corpse, while also using at least half of its citizens as dumbfounded extras who walk past Jack McCoy while he pushed the ethical boundaries just one more time – rarely set shows in Inwood. Earlier this year, an episode on Law & Order: Criminal Intent focused on the area. The show included talk of an “Inwood code,” which basically amounted to not snitching. It’s apparently an unwritten code, because I have not seen it on any of our leases. Of course, even an episode set in Inwood wasn’t even filmed in Inwood.
On Saturdays in the fall and on Sundays during the spring, I often make the three-minute walk to the Columbia University baseball diamond and football field. The Columbia football team loses more than it wins most seasons – the school once held the record for most consecutive defeats – but in recent years they’re usually around .500. Still, spending three hours watching Division I-AA (sorry, Football Championship Subdivision) action is the perfect way to spend an October day. There are plenty of good seats available, you get to see witty band performances – this is the Ivy League, after all – and thanks to a connection in the Columbia communications department, I can occasionally sneak into the hot dog feed that’s held before games. This is not something that’s available in Times Square.
Columbia caused quite a bit of controversy in the neighborhood the past two years, when a proposed construction project involving new sports facilities sparked protests from people concerned about the impact on the community. The project will also affect the nearby park and in a series of community meetings, residents expressed their concerns – often loudly, sometimes with charts and graphs – to Columbia officials, including my friend who hooks me up with the hot dogs. I attended one meeting in a jam-packed bottom floor of a nearby office building. Amongst a sea of people opposed to the project, I was one of the few to offer support of it. I finally knew what it must feel like to be a Republican in New York City. But while I had a different opinion on the project than many of the people at the meeting, I couldn’t help but be extremely impressed with their preparation and their passion. They love their neighborhood, they love Inwood. They fight for it and you can’t help but admire them, even if I’m on the opposite side of the battle.
Outsiders come to Inwood primarily to visit Inwood Hill Park. Perhaps they don a light-blue sweater and hit the Columbia football game. But there are other real tourist attractions, at least for the rural set. About eight blocks south of our apartment is the Dyckman Farmhouse. The Dyckman family built the house in 1784 and it was in the family for a century (yes, the hoops tourney carries their name, no, they didn’t build the court). It became a museum in the early 20th century. Today you can take a tour of the last farmhouse in Manhattan. A farmhouse in Manhattan. To me this is fascinating. The editors who have read my freelance pitches about the house have, as of yet, not been as fascinated. The house once sat on farmland that consisted of hundreds of acres. Today it takes up a small portion of a block on Broadway, often hidden by trees.
And that Broadway is the same Broadway known around the world. It’s the same Broadway we live on. You could walk south on it and head all the way down Manhattan, passing through all of those famous neighborhoods I mentioned earlier. We own a Broadway address, which I’ve always enjoyed, even if many people outside the city might not realize we’re not in the Theater District. No plays, musicals or performances by us on Broadway, unless you consider the daily gyrations from the shirtless guy who lives on the fourth floor and hangs out in front of our building 18 hours a day to be a one-man show that would surely be the worst-reviewed effort in Broadway history.
The neighborhood has some drawbacks, the main one being it’s home to the worst post office in the United States. This sounds like an unofficial title but I’m fairly certain it is the branch’s official title inside the USPS headquarters. When you walk in and stare at the faces of those in line, you’d think they just received a diagnosis about a terminal disease. People going through airport security aren’t this miserable. These people realize that, once again, only one person is working the booths and they are stuck behind 15 people, including a person who will try to mail 10 boxes to 10 different countries but only has addresses for seven of them and enough money for five of them. All you want is a stamp? Machine’s not working, wait in line – for 30 minutes. I’ve seen women rage and men weep. Small children who were innocent creatures 20 minutes earlier look around and say, “So there really is no god.” I make sure to bring a book for each trip – a very long book.
In the last few years several cool, well-received restaurants have popped up near our apartment. There’s a new sushi place, a beer garden, a nice wine store below our building and several fun cafes. You’ll read stories about Inwood being an up-and-coming neighborhood, a place where artists and families are migrating, thanks to the parks, rent and overall atmosphere.
I’ve lived in New York City for seven years and have loved Inwood for just as long. Growing up in Janesville, a town of 2,000, my “neighborhood” extended about one block. That section of North Mott Street was our neighborhood and if you wanted to extend it a bit you could include the nearby city park and library. Five or six families lived in our neighborhood. Today, I live in a neighborhood that’s home to tens of thousands of people, in a borough that’s home to more than a million people, in a city that’s home to 8 million. But amazingly, Inwood often feels like a small town. We know our grocer and favorite waiters and bartenders. I walk to the local library just like I did when I was a kid in Janesville. We stop on the street to talk to our neighbors. We stand up for our neighborhood.
One of the most common things you hear from people visiting Inwood for the first time is “It doesn’t feel like New York City.” They say it with a touch of surprise and a bit of admiration, taken in by the parks, caves and slower pace.
I love that about Inwood as well. It feels like you’re almost in a different region of the country. But I also love that it is a part of New York City, just like Times Square, Harlem and the Village. This is New York. And I’m a New Yorker. But Inwood is home.
And remember, the Dyckman basketball tournament? That’s a New York City event – but it’s an Inwood production.