Copyright Ajay Suresh
Marble Hill is the northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan, and the only one on the North American mainland. Because it’s not on that densely-packed island, it has ample land for detached houses with large yards. Best of all, Marble Hill is still very affordable for normal people.
The area was occupied by Dutch colonizers in 1646, and a ferry was permitted in 1667. Many settlers, however, weren’t happy about the ferry toll, and so waded or swam Spuyten Duyvil Creek to enter what is now Kingsbridge, the Bronx (then part of Yonkers).
In 1693, the King’s Bridge was erected to connect Marble Hill with the mainland. The Dyckman Free Bridge opened 1 January 1759 and took a lot of traffic, and money, away from the other bridge.
The Continental Army had a fort in Marble Hill during the American Revolution, which was taken over by Hessians in November 1776 and renamed Fort Prince Charles after King George III’s brother-in-law, the Duke of Brunswick. The two bridges served as escape routes for retreating Continental soldiers after their brutal defeat at the Battle of Fort Washington on 16 November 1776.
The Dyckman Free Bridge was later destroyed during the Revolution.
In January 1777, the Continental Army attacked the occupying Hessians and drove them from Hyatt’s Tavern back into the fort to return fire, but General William Heath badly botched the attack, and his troops were routed. General Washington censured him, and he never again had command of any troops.
Marble Hill remained a sleepy, rural area with but a few businesses well into the 19th century. After Hyatt’s Tavern was razed, it was replaced by the Kingsbridge Hotel on the east side of Broadway at 226th St. Many of its patrons were fishers and sportsmen who came through the area to engage their hobbies.
Business declined when Broadway was widened, and the hotel fell into a state of disrepair. It was razed in 1917.
In 1891, Darius C. Crosby coined the name Marble Hill from deposits of dolomite underlying the area. This fairly soft rock, Inwood marble, crops out in the two northernmost neighborhoods of Manhattan. In the 1780s, it was quarried for federal buildings downtown, when NYC was the U.S. capital.
One of the oldest surviving buildings is St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church, built in 1897. Though the congregation was founded in 1826, the current church is their third. Prior, they met on Mosholu Parkway and in Riverdale.
From 1946–77, their pastor was Rev. William Tieck, who also served as official historian of the Bronx from 1989–96.
Copyright Beyond My Ken
Since the 1810s, demand for a wide canal between the Hudson and Harlem Rivers had been high, but nothing came to fruition till January 1888. The process took many years, and the canal’s first section wasn’t finished till 1895. It opened for business on 17 June of that year, with great fanfare including parades and speeches.
As badly needed as this canal was, it rendered Marble Hill an island separated from the rest of Manhattan. It was designated part of the borough in 1897’s Greater New York Charter, but its geographic and political identity became more contentious in 1914.
When the original creekbed of Spuyten Duyvil Creek was filled with rocks from the excavation of Grand Central Station’s foundation during its construction, Marble Hill became physically joined to the newly-created borough of the Bronx and thus the North American mainland.
To this day, people on both sides try to claim it as part of their borough, though it’s always been part of New York County, not Bronx County.
Uncharacteristically for modern Manhattan, Marble Hill has many large, freestanding houses with verandas, front yards, and spacious proportions. While many townhouses and rowhouses in the rest of the borough have backyards, even the largest aren’t anywhere near the size of suburban lawns. Likewise, Marble Hill verandas are normal-sized instead of barely qualifying as verandas.
The houses and prewar apartments represent a range of architectural styles—Victorian, Art Deco, Tudor, Queen Anne, Shingle, Colonial, Beaux Arts. Many streets are named for Colonial Dutch settlers.
Some of my characters move to Marble Hill in the late 1940s and early 1950s for the best of both worlds, remaining in the city and living in real houses. Not everyone seeking home ownership in the postwar era hightailed it to suburbia.
Copyright Dwayne Bent