Wikipedia’s Take on the History of Upper Manhattan
On May 24, 1626, according to legend, Peter Minuit, the director general of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, bought the island from the Lenape Indians for 60 Dutch guilders and, the story goes, some trinkets. On the southern tip of the island Minuit founded New Amsterdam. A plaque (on a rock) marking what is believed to be the spot of the sale is in Inwood Hill Park, the only natural forest left in Manhattan.
With plenty of parks and scenic views, Inwood is one of the more peaceful neighborhoods in Manhattan.
As New Yorkers perpetually hunt for find affordable, comfortable places to live, many are turning to areas of Upper Manhattan like Inwood, rather than defaulting to the outer boroughs. Upper Manhattan — a submarket comprising Harlem, Inwood, Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights and Manhattanville — has become an increasingly popular place for both buyers and renters, with Inwood especially enjoying a growing reputation for pleasant living at a good value.
Brick Underground on the Life in the 1930’s in Inwood
The Works Progress Administration guide to New York City, written in the 1930s, describes Inwood as a place where “rivers and hills insulate a suburban community that is as separate an entity as any in Manhattan.”
The buildings are taller and closer together these days, but the gist still holds true to some degree. Inwood’s skyline is low-rise, with a mix of single-family brick houses and five- to eight-story apartment buildings, most built in the first half of the 20th century. A proposed rezoning could change all that in short order, but it has yet to be formally approved.
It’s a Lot Different than Midtown
Since 1988 I’ve lived all over the city but mostly in midtown. In fact, for five years I lived on 42nd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues which is about as Midtown West that you can get! And now when I tell people below 96th Street that I live in in Upper Manhattan in a place called Inwood above Harlem and Washington Heights, they sometimes look at me strange and say “Where?”
A Mission of Sorts
One of the reasons we started InwoodManhattan.com is because we live here and consider ourselves in some ways as ambassadors of this neighborhood. And residing here for more than a decade we know the area pretty well. So we thought it would be fun to do a post where we talk about Inwood and Washington Heights (nearby) and the rich history it has.
The Inwood Search Starts with Wikipedia
Wikipedia.org is as good a place as any to begin. Wikipedia’s Inwood Manhattan page launches with this description:
“Inwood is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, at the northern tip of Manhattan Island, in the U.S. state of New York.”
The Totally Wacky Start of Inwood Manhattan
The point of origin that Inwood Manhattan grew out of is allegedly an area where a marker now stands in Inwood Hill Park. Again we visit Wikipedia as our information source:
“On May 24, 1626, according to legend, Peter Minuit, the director general of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, bought the island from the Lenape Indians for 60 Dutch guilders and, the story goes, some trinkets. On the southern tip of the island Minuit founded New Amsterdam. A plaque (on a rock) marking what is believed to be the spot of the sale is in Inwood Hill Park, the only natural forest left in Manhattan.”
Inwood Manhattan is known in New York, NY as the Last Place in the City You Can Still Get Low Rents
It’s likely to soon change but Inwood is still somewhat affordable according to StreetEasy.com:
“As New Yorkers perpetually hunt for find affordable, comfortable places to live, many are turning to areas of Upper Manhattan like Inwood, rather than defaulting to the outer boroughs. Upper Manhattan — a submarket comprising Harlem, Inwood, Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights and Manhattanville — has become an increasingly popular place for both buyers and renters, with Inwood especially enjoying a growing reputation for pleasant living at a good value.”
The “New York Times” Weighs In
I used to read the “New York Times” obsessively but that changed as I got more and more depressed by the state of our country. Initially “The Times” was even my browser launch page. Thankfully there is a bit of an escape by living in Inwood. Here’s a description of it from an article from NYtimes.com:
“There is a way of life in Inwood, a sense of place, order and community that is more than its surroundings suggest. There are the lush parks, including the 196-acre Inwood Hill Park, the last natural forest in Manhattan, and the riverfront views. There are the streets filled with low-rise walk-up tenements. And there is the diversity: Nearly half of the residents here are foreign born.”
And a Perfect Place to Wind this Up is Taking a Look at the State of Public Transportation in Inwood
I don’t drive so I’m really not capable of living anywhere other the greatest city in the world, New York. For all the complaining people do about the subways in Manhattan, if you live here you can get to where you want to go. And who wants to go outside of the city anyway?!
Here’s a quote within a quote, meaning that on BrickUnderground.com they quoted a woman and now I’m quoting them quoting her (if that makes any sense). Regardless, here’s the nice quote (within a quote) from BrickUnderground.com:
“We are lucky to have both the A and the 1 train nearby so we can easily get to local stops on the Upper West Side. There’s an easy transfer between the A and 1 at 168th, so if one line is stalled, we can switch. Getting to the East Side is trickier. There is an expensive express bus, or you can take the crosstown bus from the West Side.”
Inwood Manhattan is a great place to live!
Magician Makes a Discovery in His Neighborhood
Due to having a background as a magician (a “semi-pro” from ages 8 to 18) I was very excited when I discovered that where I lived in Inwood Manhattan was just around the corner of 67 Payson Avenue. Why is 67 Payson Avenue such an important address? It’s because it is where the widow of Harry Houdini, Bessie Houdini, lived out the last years of her life.
When my daughter was very young we’d go to the park near the “Houdini House” (as my daughter called it), therefore I’d pass the apartment quite frequently. I was always sure to remind my daughter that the wife of Houdini had lived there. And apparently it is also the home from which every Sunday at the hour of Houdini’s death, she’d lock herself in a room with her late husband’s photo and try to communicating with him.
A Long Time Fan of Houdini
As a boy of 8 and reading all the biographies on Houdini that I could get my hands on, I over and over again was transfixed with the part of Houdini’s life where he made a pact with Bess that if he died first he’d attempt to contact her from the spirit world with a code. It was a code that only Harry and Bessie knew about so if a spirit medium was able to uncover it, Bess would know she was in touch with Houdini from beyond the grave.
Harry Houdini’s interest in the occult began in the 1920s after the death of his mother who was a very important part of his life.
The website TheGreatHarryHoudini.com describes it here:
“In the 1920s, after the death of his mother, Houdini began focusing his energy on debunking psychics and mediums. Although he eventually focused on proving these people to be fakes, his initial entry into the world of the supernatural began when he attempted to contact his dead mother. However, he found that the mediums he met were often frauds. He began investigating their methods and claims and later became a self-appointed crusader against them.”
The Film that Bess Houdini Appeared in
Wikipedia talks about this film:
“Bess Houdini appeared as herself in the 1938 film Religious Racketeers (a.k.a. Mystic Circle Murder) directed by Frank O’Conner and produced by Fanchon Royer. In the film, she expressed her belief that communication with those who have died is impossible. The film sparked controversy among spiritualists, but was praised by magicians”
I’ve seen the movie several times and it’s a bit odd but fun. The very interesting thing about it is that in the motion picture Mrs. Houdini in a cameo plays herself and talks about trying to communicate with her late husband.
Bessie Houdini’s Death
Bessie Houdini did not die in Inwood Manhattan. She died while on a train in Needless California in 1943 on her way to her family’s home in New York.
I learned this from my favorite blog about Houdini, “Wild About Harry (Houdini).” Here’s more from that site:
“An irony not pointed out here was that Bess died in the town of Needles, CA which was what Houdini always called his East Indian Needle trick — “Needles.” The original Needles train station and the adjoining El Garces Hotel were restored in 2014.”
Many Years Have Passed Since Houdini’s Wife Has Died
Now that my daughter is older (nearly 10) she doesn’t like going to the park near Bess’s apartment anymore. We call that particular park “The Houdini Park” because it is across the street from Bess Houdini’s place. And because my daughter doesn’t drag me to the Houdini Park anymore, I haven’t passed by Mrs. Houdini’s residence lately.
It should be noted that Bess Houdini never did get a communication from Houdini from beyond the grave through a spirit medium. No one ever cracked the code. Or maybe someone did! That’s a story for another time.