A Restless History of Washington Heights

In his treatise The Poetics of Space, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard claims “a house in a big city lacks cosmicity.” Only the rambling, breezy chateaus of the countryside provided the space necessary for his daydreaming to develop into something more substantial, like thought, where quiet corners the boy never had to clean became chapels consecrated to his own heroic becoming. In the urban apartment, “Home has become mere horizontality. The different rooms that compose living quarters jammed into one floor all lack” some essential humanizing feature from which literature might emerge. My mother shares his skepticism regarding the literary potential of our apartment. She suggests I consider the illustrious history of the neighborhood instead, a world Bachelard might have recognized as worthy if he’d ever been uptown.

Washington Heights became Washington Heights in the middle of the nineteenth century, when rich New Yorkers began to build estates on the dramatic high points of Manhattan far from the tumult of downtown docks and slums, the slave market on Wall Street.

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