Saturday, December 30, 2006

Uptown identity crisis - The Manhattanville vs. W. Harlem debate

Daily News

Uptown identity crisis
The Manhattanville vs. W. Harlem debate

Signs around neighborhood don't set the record straight. Manhattanville Station post office is on 125th St. ...

... but so is the Heart of Harlem at Engine 37-Ladder 40.

As Columbia University seeks to expand, there is almost as much debate about what to call its target neighborhood - bounded by 125th and 135th Sts., Broadway and Riverside Drive - as there is about the project itself.
Is it Manhattanville, as Columbia contends, or West Harlem?

"It's an odd sort of a quibble," said Eric Washington, author of "Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem."
The answer to the neighborhood's future, according to Washington, is rooted in its past.
Manhattanville, a name inspired by the small community of middle-class farmers and merchants that formed to the north of the Manhattan Valley in 1806, sat in the spot now marked by the intersection of 125th St. and Broadway.

From the start, it was separate from Harlem. In fact, a newspaper article called the new village a "delightful spot" that would "soon rival the town of Harlem."
Harlem, on the other hand, was a working-class town on the east side of Manhattan Island. By 1900, Harlem had spread across the island toward Manhattanville, thanks to a population boom.
At the time, some Manhattanville residents, concerned that their village was being absorbed by Harlem, decided to call their neighborhood West Harlem to "give it a proper designation," the New York Times reported in January 1900.

Today, the distinction between the two neighborhoods is still as unclear as it was more than a century ago. The Manhattanville Post Office, for example, sits only five blocks away from the Cotton Club, a staple of old Harlem.
"You can't literally draw a line in the street and say this side is this, and that side is that," said Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione.

He noted that city maps show neighborhoods called East and Central Harlem, but no place called West Harlem. In its place is Manhattanville.
There also is some uncertainty about the names of the two neighborhoods in the Encyclopedia of New York City. While the encyclopedia calls Manhattanville a "19th-century village," it also describes Harlem as a neighborhood "bounded on the West by Morningside Ave."

Under that definition, a small piece of land between Morningside and Riverside Drive falls outside the parameters of Harlem. The book is mum on what to call it.
"If I were asked," said encyclopedia editor Kenneth Jackson, "I would answer Manhattanville."
Some locals contend the university is designating the proposed expansion zone Manhattanville, and avoiding any reference to Harlem, to skirt accusations its project will displace a low-income minority community.

But the university counters it is seeking to honor the historical significance of the neighborhood.
"We have always referred to the old manufacturing area of Manhattanville, where we are seeking to expand as Manhattanville in West Harlem," said La-Verna Fountain, a Columbia spokeswoman.

Whether Columbia's stance is a tribute to the neighborhood, or public relations spin move, the university seems to have struck a balance, according to historians, who noted the two names, along with the neighborhoods they represent, have mingled over time.

"You can call it both names," said Washington.
Miscione agreed.

"Both names have a legitimate legacy," he said. Originally published on December 31, 2006

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