On a crowded “A” Train heading through Harlem late one evening this week, a college-age girl in a plaid miniskirt and Brooklyn Industries tank top turned to her crew and asked, incredulously, “We’re getting off where?”
Judging from the fashionable hipster crowd lining 175th Street, this was one of many similar conversations that night. The crowd was there to see Montreal’s Arcade Fire, thee indie band of the moment, at the United Palace Theatre, a 77-year-old former movie house that has seemingly overnight become one of Manhattan’s premier live music venues. It’s just the latest in a series of new developments that have given upper Manhattan the feeling of a neighborhood that is half middle-of-nowhere, half in-the-know.
Anyone living above 14th Street has at some point tried to push the idea that “Uptown is the new Downtown,” if only out of sheer laziness and anathema to riding the subway. But few have ever meant this far Uptown. Real estate agents have been pushing Manhattan’s two northernmost neighborhoods – Inwood and Washington Heights – for years. Anyone searching for rentals on Craig’s List has scrolled through countless ads listing “Upper West Side” apartments that are closer to Yankee Stadium than Central Park. The escalating rents in the rest of the city have slowly built up a neighborhood flush with artists, students and families who can’t afford the rest of Manhattan. Now, a distinct and vibrant nightlife scene is emerging, complete with trendy coffee shops, dingy hipster hangouts, chic gay bars and even classy clubs offering up bottle service in the shadow of the GWB.
There’s no better sign of a gentrifying area than a neighborhood’s first gay bar, and No Parking has sprouted up to fill that void in Washington Heights. Sandwiched between two parking garages on Broadway near 177th Street, the subdued lounge occupies a tiny space that makes it feel less like a big city hangout than the only gay bar in a small town. Despite the erotic films and male dancers, it’s clear that this is a long way from Chelsea.
No Parking emerged as the result of the popular gay night at Monkey Room, a coffee shop by day and DJ lounge by night on nearby Fort Washington Avenue. Neighborhood regulars crowd Monkey Room for popular trivia nights and to watch sporting events on big screen TVs, while weekends see local club kids forgoing the downtown scene and packing their small dance floor. Saturday nights even feature DJ Left Cut, known for his sets at Meatpacking District hotspot LOTUS.
Like every city neighborhood, there are plenty who bemoan the changing demographics and shun new residents and establishments. But one of the aspects that set Inwood and Washington Heights apart from the rest of Manhattan is the way the new crowd is meshing with long-time residents.
One of the neighborhood’s mainstays, The Tubby Hook Café, is a picturesque spot along the Hudson River that has recently upgraded to the classier La Marina. The refurbished bar is attracting the downtown glam crowd with DJ events and bottle service, but pleases the neighborhood’s longtime Dominican population with popular salsa nights and authentic Caribbean food.
Locals of all stripes enjoy the one-of-a-kind cocktails at Mamajuana Café, a Spanish/Latin American restaurant that is packed with a diverse clientele seven days a week. The blindingly strong namesake drinks are made from a fermented herbal liquor created by the Taino Indians of the Dominican Republic. Those looking for a less intense cocktail fix sip on mojitos or order pitchers of sangria. In the summer months, Mamajuana opens a spacious sidewalk patio, a happening space that has regulars throwing out a term relatively new to these parts: “people-watching.”