Hamilton Heights


Every morning at a little past eight, you can see a man feeding pigeons in Montefiore Park. He balances his Anthora coffee cup on the crossbar of the wrought-iron fence and hooks the curved wooden handle of his umbrella on his forearm. The stubble on his face has more gray than the hair on his head. Before he can reach into his plastic bag for a piece of bread, the pigeons start waddling toward him.

On Amsterdam Avenue, there is a Unisex salon every few blocks. When the sun goes down on Fridays, the salon doors are propped open and fluorescent light from inside glows onto the sidewalk. Men wearing vinyl front capes sit facing the mirrors. They stretch their chins up and out to get a closer shave of their goatees and beards and then get their hair lines touched up. Women sit on the stoop outside or lean in a corner of the shop gossiping, and kids in brightly colored sneakers run in and out laughing.

On the side streets, parked cars sit with their doors ajar, music playing loudly on the car stereos. Three generations of women sit outside on the stairs of apartment buildings telling stories accented with quick movements of their fingernails. A woman pushes a red laundry cart full of folded clothes. On top of the clothes sits a toddler with dark, curly hair and big brown eyes. He tilts his chin up just enough to keep the milk in his bottle flowing. Men wander and strut, passing beer back and forth and shouting to friends driving by.

A softball field right off the Hudson River at 146th is used for Lacrosse on Saturday afternoons. Little kids in oversized helmets stand in line, waiting for their turn to practice running with the small rubber ball in their netted sticks. Parents stand behind the fence in baseball hats drinking coffee.

On a small triangle of grass called Alexander Hamilton Playground, people sit on hard plastic crates hunched over pieces of cardboard balanced on their laps. They are playing what appears to be Bingo. The boards have imperfect red marker demarcations of rows and columns. Pebbles keep track of progress. The figures on the cardboard and the language of the caller suggest an Asian heritage. Maybe it isn’t Bingo at all. The men on Riverside speak English and prefer dominoes.

On Sunday mornings, the steps of Convent Avenue Baptist Church are crowded with old women in pillbox hats holding the hands of young boys in sweater-vests and ties. Every other day of the week, groups of young people stroll from the subway down Convent Avenue on their way to City College.

A navy bandana lies at the entrance to the downtown A train at 145th Street. It has been there for eight days. On the train, an older white man plays a golf game on his iPad. He whisks his pointer finger against the screen as quickly as he can. The repeated motion seems unexpectedly large and enthusiastic for this context. Across from him, an Asian woman sits wearing an off-white pencil skirt and matching suit coat. Her bangs and bob are neat and precise. She is an ageless woman – she could be thirty or fifty – reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The woman next to her plays solitaire on her phone. At 59th Street, a young woman enters the car holding the hand of a boy maybe five or six years old. He has bright red hair and a blue shirt with a yellow truck on it. The woman passes him a small cardboard bowl of ice cream and a wooden spoon. He has thick glasses with auburn colored frames. Maybe when he puts on his glasses in the morning he feels like he has superpowers.

A young woman in tight jeans and a black leather coat turns left out of Hamilton Place and starts to head north on St. Nicholas Avenue. She pushes a young girl in a purple stroller. The woman’s eyes look tired, she stares straight ahead. The girl in the stroller is wearing pink leggings that match the beads in her braids. The girl catches my eye, smiles and waves enthusiastically, welcoming me to the neighborhood.