NFT New York Columbia / Morningside Heights

Columbia / Morningside Heights

Squeezed between the Upper West Side and Harlem, Columbia and Morningside Heights have had a symbiotic relationship with ups and downs. In truth, any institution with a multi-billion-dollar endowment (and we're talking multi-multi-billion-dollar here) is going to get to call the shots, but like every other behemoth institution of learning in an urban environment understands, the delicate dance takes constant maintenance. For your purposes, 116th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam is the main entrance of the gorgeous main campus of Columbia. A stroll through here is almost edifying--or at the very least a pleasant escape from the chaotic city around. Just watch out for the freshmen rushing to and from class.

Until the late 19th century, Morningside Heights was mostly undeveloped farmland. In 1895, Columbia University moved from Midtown Manhattan to 116th and Broadway, the site of a former insane asylum, and the rest is history. Over time the university was perceived as a Gibraltar of culture within a barren, dangerous part of town; that psychodrama played out in the notorious 1968 campus protests, ostensibly over plans to build a gym in Morningside Park but really over just about everything as the world around seemed to implode. Tensions eased over time, especially after Morningside Heights rents began to skyrocket in the '90s, but Morningside Park still serves as the dividing line between Columbia and basically everything else. Today, that relationship ebbs and flows as the university's plans for expansion heat up, generating both land disputes (including unseemly eminent domain fights) and of course more gentrification.See more.

But speaking of "seeing light" (or whatever Columbia's "In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen" motto refers to; our Latin basically sucks), there's also the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the world's largest Anglican church and fourth largest church in the world. An awe-inspiring display of architecture and that something else that makes people want to build stuff very high into the air, the cathedral is beacon for procrastinators everywhere; although it dates back to the 19th century, the thing is still unfinished. The church has three distinct phases of construction that are immediately visible as you gaze up at the Gothic masterwork. The grounds are just as fun; look for the resident peacocks and sculptor Greg Wyatt's 40-foot-high Peace Fountain that goofs on tried-and-true allegorical representations of good and evil.

Meanwhile, there's an old corny joke that should hip you to who is actually buried in Grant's Tomb--or not, since it's really a mausoleum for the head of the Union Army and the 18th President of the United States (along with the 19th First Lady). The final resting place of Ulysses S. Grant, who spent the last part of his life in New York City working on a memoir (sounds familiar, no?), is actually a national memorial under the supervision of the National Park Service. Don't miss the asinine mosaic tile benches around the perimeter, someone's screwy idea of a "fun" public art project from the late 1960s.

Right across the street from Grant's Tomb is Riverside Church, an interdenominational house of worship with longstanding ties to the city's African American community. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Kofi Annan have all given notable speeches at the church; Dr. King most famously denounced the Vietnam war here. The Gothic architecture is modeled after the cathedral in Chartres, France and the 392-foot-high tower--one of Upper Manhattan's most notable landmarks--is unusual in that it's actually functional, with 24 floors worth of programming space.

Since outsiders rarely head uptown, neighborhood nightlife mostly consists of grad students avoiding dissertations in beer bars (1020 Bar), undergrads avoiding papers with heavier drinking (The Heights Bar & Grill), and residents avoiding that all in dives (Paddy's). Columbia will regularly bring in word-class operas at the Miller Theater.

The Columbia kids have many long-standing quick favorites such as the giant slices of Koronet Pizza or the quick Middle Eastern food of Amir's. For something more relaxed, try Ethiopian at Massawa, brunch time at Kitchenette, or the dangerously delicious meat emporium of Dinosaur BBQ. Italian lovers get their fix at cozy Max SoHa and the wonderful Pisticci.

The newly-expanded Book Culture is a world-class academic bookstore and Ricky's provides a resource for style needs. Coffee on the go at Oren's or sit and talk Nietzsche at Hungarian Pastry Shop. Groceries and free samples at the 24-hour Westside Market. Or everything at the massive Fairway. And then you have a world-class neighborhood wine store in Vino Fino.


This Neighborhood Featured in...
On the Hunt for NY's Avant-Garde

By Sarah Enelow
New York is a world-class performing arts mecca, especially when it comes to experimental work, but where exactly does one find it? NFT Editor Sarah Enelow takes us on a tour of avant-garde performance venues in the city, cutting through the Broadway fluff to find the best, most affordable offbeat events.
Cathedral of Saint John the Divine

By Annie Karni
What does this church have in common with a John Waters drag star? One word: Divine. That's pretty much all you need to known about this Morningside Heights landmark claiming to be the fourth largest church in the world. But let Annie Karni tell you the rest.


On Our Radar:

Posted By:  Layne Mosler
Photo:  Layne Mosler

The 'food desert' around Columbia University is no more--not if Vareli owner George Zoitas has anything to do with it. With a little help from the high-quality ingredients at his West Side Market across the street, Zoitas and chef Amitzur Mor have put together a simple but carefully crafted Israeli-Turkish-Balkan-Italian menu and a wine list that draws from Israel and the Basque country (as well as Italy, France, and Austria). The lamb burger (flavored with fresh mint) with pickled onions, tomatoes, and harissa is $14 of fantastic goodness. If you're lucky, singing server Larry will be the one to wait on you. A perfect spot for an elegant but affordable date, a laid-back lunch, or an afternoon glass of wine.

Posted By:  Allison Down
Photo:  Allison Down

Appletree Market
The other day I nearly killed an elderly woman in an unfamiliar grocery store with my shopping cart; I avoided a collision of disastrous proportions only by letting out a shriek and smashing my cart into the shelves as I came around the corner and saw her standing there, wide-eyed. This has always been my problem with New York grocery stores: the aisles are so tight, I'm inspired to go on a diet every time I need to squeeze past someone to get to my Wheat Thins. Enter Appletree Market, which seems to have answered my prayers by recently renovating their entire interior, including making the aisles more spacious and well-organized. I’m also particularly fond of the mix-in salad bar and sandwich counter, which, though not cheap, has fed me endless meals in a pinch, sometimes pushing 4 am (the market is open 24 hours). While the prices are still much higher than Fairway and the produce is a little questionable, the experience of running to the market to pick up a few things is much more enjoyable nowadays without the threat of breaking someone's kneecaps in the process.

Posted By:  Dave Cook

M&G Soul Food Diner
If you think visiting a Harlem "soul food diner" requires guts, you're not totally wrong. Fried chicken, ribs, and meatloaf are familiar, old-fashioned options at M&G, but for more of a challenge, try the chitterlings. These curls of boiled pork intestine (call them "chitlins," or your waitress will give you a doubting look) are chewy, bland, and considerably improved by a few shakes from the hot-sauce bottle. Somehow, the kitchen was sold out of collard greens, so I matched 'em up with black-eyed peas, yams, and biscuits, then cruised the countertop cake displays for a fat slice of coconut-lemon.

Posted By:  Joshua Cochran
Photo:  Joshua Cochran

Tom's Restaurant
If you were to show anyone this photograph, there is a 95% chance that they know where it’s from, and we’re talking about people in China, Appalachia, and even those who’ve never seen a television. Seinfeld was such a large part of American life, and for so long, that few people don’t gasp a bit when they first see it, and it’s usually a larger gasp than those that occur around other New York landmarks like the Met, Columbus Circle, or Original Famous Ray’s Pizza (or is it just Famous Ray’s Pizza?). So after taking your customary eyeful, recalling your favorite episode, what else is there to do but go inside and sit down and order, say, a tuna on rye? Well, you can of course, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. To tell you the truth, this place seems like a magnet for tourists that want to sit in the Seinfeld diner… therefore, the fine folks at Tom’s expect you to be long-gone before the indigestion sets in. While most diner items are average (only the milkshakes are above par), most menu items taste like they’re all made from the same source of pulped newspaper. Fine for an experience, fine for dragging some friend from out of town to go and gawk, but you’d be smart to take your palate elsewhere.

Posted By:  Joshua Cochran
Photo:  Joshua Cochran

Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
After traveling through Europe for a few weeks, I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I was at Notre Dame in Paris and I collapsed on the sidewalk in tears because there I was, about to go look at another freaking cathedral, as if all I'd done for three weeks was look at cathedrals, and I suddenly wanted to die. But when you haven't admired the fantastic beauty of a formidable cathedral lately, I highly suggest making a trip to St. John the Divine. A work-in-progress, the cathedral rivals any found in Europe for both it's awesome size and classic form, and it's right here in New York City. You don't ever have to go to Europe. Guided tours are available for a mere $5, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 11 am and 1 pm. Otherwise, you can peruse the grounds or attend an Episcopal service.

Posted By:  Joshua Cochran
Photo:  Joshua Cochran

Book Culture
Let’s face it, we live in a new world, a world where books and the written word are ever becoming marginalized, side-barred, usurped by internet ‘content’ and flashy toothpaste packaging. The used book store, as we have known it for the last two centuries, is largely becoming a thing of the past. Now it’s just Borders, Barnes and Noble, and The Strand as far as the eye can see. But Book Culture is as close as we can ever get to that nostalgic past. You see, Book Culture accommodates professors at Columbia, Barnard, City College, and other campuses who like to actually teach things. This means two things for you: a selection of the best books to be had on earth, and a steady collection of used copies of said books. You don’t have to wade through ten rows of crappy, flash-in-the-pan fiction, or the giant display of Steve Martin’s last gaffe, just to find something worthy of a few hours of your life. No, the books are real, they’re the best, and there’s no DVD section or café. Just books. If you want it, it’s there. If it’s not there, they’ll order it for you. Simple. No; it’s beautiful. Simply beautiful then.

Posted By:  Joshua Cochran
Photo:  Joshua Cochran

Koronet Pizza is not for the faint of heart. Their jumbo slice is not a standard slice of pie, but a yield sign made of dough, smothered in sauce and cheese. Yes, it’s that big. At $2.75, you can’t get a better deal on a slice of pie in the city, and from a self-professed connoisseur of such things, this is a hefty statement. The line can often be long, since every Columbia student knows about the place, but the guys behind the counter are efficient and true New York. When it’s your turn to order, you’d better be ready or they’ll just go to the person behind you. It’s beautiful. If you like toppings, they cost $1 each on the jumbo, and they don’t skimp on quantity. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, you’d be a fool to miss this landmark establishment.

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