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Finding Washington Heights

September 23 / 2016 
By: Dominique Browning

The first time I climbed out of the subway stop at Broadway and 157th Street in Washington Heights, I thought I had stepped back in time — and wound up in Paris.

I didn’t notice littered sidewalks, graffiti or boarded-up shop fronts. I saw the graceful oversize arches of Beaux-Arts windows, the golden sunshine slanting across the absinthe-green patina of copper roofs. I saw huge flocks of pigeons swirling through an open sky, fleeing a hawk wheeling lazily overhead. And I felt a fresh river breeze on my face.

Broadway was still a grand old boulevard, not yet overwhelmed by the anonymous glass fronts of high-rises and chain stores farther south. People on the wide sidewalks strolled past blankets covered with shoes and books and crockery for sale; luscious fruits spilled out of vans; a boisterous game of dominoes drew a circle of 20 enthusiastic men. A woman peeled oranges in continuous spirals and bagged them; their sweet sharp scent hung in the air.

As I was obsessed with real estate at the time, it was the architecture that caught my breath. Ahead of me, down a steep hill, was a triangular fantasy, covering an entire block, which managed to look like a Venetian fortress: the Grinnell apartment house. To my left was another intriguing facade, its stone frieze etched with the names of Indian tribes. Beyond that was an ancient cemetery. This felt like an older New York, its strong character unmolested by thoughtless development. I knew immediately it would become home.

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