From the NYTimes:
November 16, 2012
Hooked on the Bronx, Legally Manhattan’s By SARAH HARRISON SMITH
When the construction of the Harlem River Ship Canal separated Marble Hill from the rest of Manhattan in 1895, the little neighborhood, perched on a high mound of Inwood marble, was suddenly surrounded by water as if by a moat. Two decades later, when Spuyten Duyvil Creek, to its north, was filled in, Marble Hill joined the mainland Bronx. The hill’s identity, however, remained defiantly — irrationally, even — linked to its past, and it continues to be legally part of the borough of Manhattan. And while two train lines make it easily accessible today, the topographical and cartographic oddity feels like what it once was: an island unto itself.
FORGET THE MANHATTAN GRID. Here, streets, and even buildings, curve around the hill’s peak. On Marble Hill Avenue, the Richard Alexander House, built in 1894 for a real estate agent who helped facilitate the community’s first housing boom, is a Tudorish one-off that seems to be seeking a shady copse and a herd of roe deer. Instead, its neighbors are low-rise apartment buildings and rambling — in some cases, run-down — Victorian houses with porches and gables.
DURING THE REVOLUTION, Marble Hill was valued for its excellent views over tactically important bridges connecting Manhattan and the Bronx, bridges that George Washington’s troops retreated over after the Battle of Harlem Heights. When Hessian troops took the hill in 1776, they called their post Fort Prince Charles, after the Duke of Brunswick, a Prussian married to George III’s sister. A vestige of the name remains in Fort Charles Place.
THE HARLEM RIVER SHIP CANAL allowed boats to travel all the way around Manhattan and significantly shortened the route from the Hudson River to Long Island Sound. Its construction drew German and Irish immigrants in the final years of the 19th century. In 1897, Alexander McMillan Welch, an architect who restored the Dyckman Farmhouse and Hamilton Grange in northern Manhattan, built a grand redwood-shingled church with a square tower and a north-facing rose window here. That church, St. Stephen’s, once looked over Spuyten Duyvil Creek.
THE 1920S BROUGHT large apartment buildings. Some, like 135 West 225th street, took advantage of elevated views over the canal. Designed by Horace Ginsbern in 1937, with corner casement windows to catch sunlight, the Art Moderne building offered elegant details, like the ornate metalwork door and the stained glass in the lobby, to attract the middle class.
IN 1948, THE CITY BOUGHT about 16 acres at the foot of the hill and built the 14- and 15-story redbrick Marble Hill Houses, increasing the population of the area and changing the greater neighborhood — still roughly defined by the Spuyten Duyvil Creek bed — significantly. It is still changing: Broadway, under the shadow of the train tracks, was once the area’s primary shopping strip, but recent development spreading east along the riverfront has brought chain restaurants and department stores.
AFTER EXPLORING MARBLE HILL, it is worth venturing north to the old Telephone Building at West 230th Street and Kingsbridge Avenue. Above its fanlight door sit two Greek-costumed figures, each grasping the separate parts of an early-20th-century candlestick phone. The advent of that technology must have made a world of difference to the residents of this lofty, idiosyncratic and still-somewhat-isolated area.