Morningside Heights

Morningside Heights is a neighborhood of the Borough of Manhattan in New York City and is chiefly known as the home of institutions such as Columbia University, Barnard College, the Manhattan School of Music, Bank Street College of Education, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the Riverside Church, Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Interchurch Center and St. Luke’s Hospital.

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Morningside Heights is bounded by Morningside Park to the east, Manhattanville to the north, and Riverside Park to the west.


In the 17th century, the land that is now Morningside Heights was known as Vandewater’s Heights, named for the landowner.[1]

On September 16, 1776, the Battle of Harlem Heights was fought in Morningside Heights, with the most intense fighting occurring in a sloping wheat field that is now the location of Barnard College. A plaque by the Columbia University gate on 117th Street and Broadway commemorates this battle.

Use of the name “Morningside Heights” for the neighborhood arose in the 1890s when development of the area commenced. Although the name “Bloomingdale” was used for the area about the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum (located at the present location of the main campus of Columbia University), other names such as “Morningside Hill” and “Riverside Heights.”

In time, two names gained the most use; “Morningside Heights” was preferred by the two colleges while “Cathedral Heights” was preferred by St. John’s and St. Luke’s. After about 1898, Morningside Heights became the most generally accepted, although the diocese at St. John’s continued to call the neighborhood Cathedral Heights well into the 20th century.


Many apartment buildings and rowhouses, amongst the first to use elevators in residential buildings, were built for New York’s prosperous middle class in the first two decades of the twentieth century and most of these buildings are still extant.[2]

By the mid-20th century the increasing prevalence of Single Room Occupancy (S.R.O.) hotels led to attendant socioeconomic problems and a decline in the neighborhood. Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities presented the neighborhood as a key example of the failure of the urban planning techniques of the era.

In 1947 David Rockefeller became involved in a major middle-income housing development when he was elected as chairman of Morningside Heights Inc. by fourteen major institutions that were based in the area, including Columbia University. In 1951 the organization developed Morningside Gardens, a six-building apartment complex to house middle-income families from all ethnic backgrounds.

The social problems in the area prompted Columbia to purchase much of the neighborhood’s real estate, leading to accusations of forced eviction and gentrification. This process reached its nadir in 1968, when protests erupted in both the neighborhood and on Columbia’s campus over the university’s proposal to build a gym in Morningside Park. Residents alleged that the park’s proposed separate entrance for Harlem residents on the lower level of the park was segregated, and that public park space was being annexed by a wealthy private institution.

The university was eventually forced to abandon the plan, though it has still expanded its presence in the neighborhood markedly over the last few decades, and gentrification and urban renewal have proceeded apace.

As the city grows and residents move in and out, neighborhood names change as well. In the last decade, some businesses in the area have started using the name SoHa (or “South of Harlem”) to refer to the neighborhood. Examples of this include Max’s SoHa restaurant and the former SoHa nightclub.

The neighborhood is part of the Fifteenth Congressional District of New York, which includes all of Upper Manhattan. Traditionally, Morningside Heights has been heavily Democratic.

The neighborhood’s ZIP codes are 10025, 10026, and 10027.

Points of interest

Landmarks in Morningside Heights include the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, Grant’s Tomb, Riverside Church, Interchurch Center, Corpus Christi Church (New York), where Thomas Merton was baptized, International House, and St. Luke’s Hospital.

Arguably the most famous restaurant in Morningside Heights (and one of the most famous diners in the world) is Tom’s Restaurant on Broadway at W. 112th St. It was featured in a 1990s song, “Tom’s Diner”, by Suzanne Vega (an alumna of Barnard College). Later, exterior shots were used on the television sitcom Seinfeld as a stand-in for the daily hangout of the show’s principal characters.

The West End Bar is another famous local restaurant, one which served especially as a meeting place for writers of the Beat Generation in the 1940s and ’50s as well as one for student activists prior, during, and after the Columbia University protests of 1968. In the late 2000s, it was absorbed into a Cuban restaurant chain, Havana Central, and became known as “Havana Central at the West End”.

Famous Residents

George Gershwin began composing his Rhapsody in Blue while living on 110th Street in Morningside Heights. Film director Cecil B. De Mille lived on 114th Street.

Comedian George Carlin grew up on 121st Street.

Kathy Boudin of the Weather Underground lived on Morningside Drive until she was arrested by the FBI.

Longtime Morningside resident and neighborhood guide Jacob Appel has set many of his stories, including The Magic Laundry, in Morningside Heights.

While writing a master’s thesis on William Blake at Columbia University, Thomas Merton attended Corpus Christi Church (New York) on West 121st St., where he formally converted to Catholicism.

Barack Obama once lived in a modest rented apartment at 142 West 109th St.[5][6]

[1] Jackson, Kenneth T. (ed.) “Morningside Heights” Encyclopedia of New York New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
[2] Andrew S. Dolkart, Morningside Heights: A History of its Architecture and Development, New York, Columbia University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-231-07850-1
[3] Columbia Greenhouse, “one of America’s oldest nursery schools”
[4] Brozan, Nadine (February 3, 2002). “For Co-op Complexes, Complex Choices”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-08-22.
[5] The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, Inc., 2010, p. 113.
[6] Smith, Elizabeth A. (June 7, 2010). “Bragging Rights: President Obama Studied Here”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-07-18.