Inwood: The Sounds of Change
New York City is the indisputable capital of American classical music. Home to world-renowned facilities such as Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and to top-tier orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the city is brimming with some of the best classical musicians in the world. Every year it attracts thousands of aspiring players looking to begin their careers by studying at one of the city’s three top-flight conservatories—Julliard, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Mannes College of Music, all located on the Upper West Side.
But while more young classical musicians than ever are moving to the city, over the last decade rents in Midtown and the Upper West Side—the centerpoints of the classical music scene—have skyrocketed, outstripping the budgets of many budding musicians. As a result, the music community has shifted northward, bypassing Harlem and settling in north Washington Heights and, increasingly, in the Inwood Hill Park neighborhood, forming the nucleus of a unique colony of artists and almost single-handedly jump-starting the gentrification process for an area that was once in steep decline.
"There are a lot of refugees from the Upper West Side and Brooklyn," said Bayrd Faithfull, who lives on 214th Street and says he has noticed a large influx over the last few years. "It’s not just musicians, but intellectuals of all sorts—a lot of writers and graduate students. It’s a lot of what the Upper West Side was 20 years ago."
Most musicians living in Inwood will tell you quite bluntly that rent was their major motivation for moving to the neighborhood. Even though the average rent for all New York apartments has dropped almost 15 percent in the past year and a half. According to the New York Times, rents still stand at $2,350, with the average studio fetching $1,800 and the average one-bedroom $2,300. Rents in Inwood and Washington Heights average half of that, with the typical one-bedroom costing between $1,000 and $1,300 a month.
Inwood is bordered by Dyckman Street to the south, the Harlem River to the east and north, and the Hudson River on the west. The neighborhood was built up largely during the first few decades of the last century, when it became a location first for a station on the 1 and 9 IRT lines and, in 1932, the terminus of the A train, which today whisks residents to midtown Manhattan in 30 minutes. "You’re on train lines which go right downtown, which if you’re a jazz musician that’s where you need to be, and if you’re a classical musician you want easy convenience to the Upper West Side, Lincoln Center and all those places," said Javier Oviedo, a saxophone player who moved with his partner, Paul Linkletter, to Thayer Street—just south of Dyckman—a year ago.
So far, the influx has not generated the sort of critical-mass hipness that has defined Williamsburg and the Lower East Side in recent years— while the neighborhood is vibrant, there are no trendy restaurants, no newly opened bars, no designer clothing stores. The nearest Starbucks is in Washington Heights, nearly 30 blocks south. The area is still largely a commuter neighborhood, an affordable address for young people who work—and play—elsewhere.
According to some residents, the classical-music background of many of its newest residents may be a major factor in the community’s relatively low-key gentrification. "The funny thing is, you don’t see too many about; you just hear them," said Allison Scola, a singer/songwriter who also works at Mannes. "I don’t think there is a lot of interaction between musicians up here because there is not a coffeehouse or a place to congregate. And anyway, most of the people up here are classical musicians, so open-mike events don’t appeal to them."
Nevertheless, Inwood has so far followed the classic gentrification trajectory. A once-vibrant community of mostly first- and second-generation Irish immigrants that lost ground to white flight in the 1960s, Inwood bottomed out in the 1970s as the area suffered heavily under the city’s financial crisis and rising crime rates. But during the 1980s it became one of several hubs for newly arrived Hispanic immigrants, who repopulated the neighborhood’s businesses.
As in so many other gentrifying neighborhoods, these same Hispanic immigrants are being slowly replaced by a young, largely white population. Paul Linkletter, Oviedo’s partner and a singer, said he has noticed an increasing number of new residents on his block. "Even in our building it’s being gentrified, for better or for worse," he said. "A lot of the non-English-speaking people are moving out and a lot of the English-speaking people are moving in. It’s happening everywhere."
Or almost everywhere. Broadway, which bisects Inwood geographically, divides the neighborhood demographically as well. Most of the newcomers move into the area west of Broadway, while the streets to the east are predominantly Hispanic. This may soon change, though—studios on the west side of Inwood already run as much as 30 percent higher than those on the east side, and the west side is filling up quickly. "This is sort of the beginning," said Oviedo. "We signed a new lease for another year because I’m kind of reluctant to leave it. You never know, in another couple of years it could be a cheap rent in a great neighborhood."
Because of Inwood’s location at the tip of Manhattan, it is far from the first place that people think of when looking for a place to live in New York. Indeed, for many new residents the impetus to move came through unofficial channels—an invitation to a party in the neighborhood, a boyfriend or girlfriend in the area or just word of mouth. Scola, who moved to Inwood two years ago, said she had never considered the neighborhood until she visited a friend’s apartment on Seaman and "fell in love with it."
Scola said she started looking for a new apartment when she wanted to set up a mini-recording studio in her apartment, but found that her studio in the East Village "was too congested as it was." Her one-bedroom in Inwood, on the other hand, holds not only her recording equipment, but a baby grand piano as well. "If I lived downtown there’s no way I could fit it," she notes.
Most of Inwood’s housing stock is also optimal for musicians—built mostly in the 1920s, the apartment blocks have thick walls and large rooms, perfect for practicing or giving lessons. "Let’s say you want to teach at home—you want to invite a student over, it’s nice to put them somewhere," Oviedo said.
And while there seems to be little overt contact between musicians in the neighborhood, Scola and others say that their large numbers have helped ensure that the neighbors remain musician-friendly, enduring hours-long daily practice sessions. Leila Kushner, a soprano who lives on Seaman and commutes to SUNY-Purchase, where she is a junior, said, "There are so many musicians in the neighborhood that they’re not going to put a ban on practicing because they’d lose half their tenants."
While some schools, such as Julliard, provide both dormitories and ample practice areas, others, such as Mannes, do not, and many musicians are forced to do the majority of their practicing at home. And even students whose schools have sufficient practice space still find themselves spending time at home practicing— given that the average classical musician puts in at least four hours of practice, it’s almost impossible for them not to do so.
Few musicians report having problems with their neighbors, however. "My landlord is really nice about it," Linkletter said. "He said [we could] as long as no one complains and we’re not making too much noise."
Oviedo added that he has even been encouraged to practice. "It’s sort of an understood thing that you can practice within reasonable hours. I think it’s welcome there, actually. My neighbors have always said ‘you can practice, it’s OK.’ So at least I know the invitation is open."
Not everyone, though, has had it quite so easy. "We have a real jerk below us and he screams each time we practice," Kushner said.
New York City housing law does not place specific time limits on when musicians are allowed to practice; instead, the issue is left to the discretion of neighbors, landlords and, if worse comes to worst, judges. But while legal complications are not out of the question, Kushner and her roommate and fellow soprano, Macarena Lopez, said that a little consideration goes a long way. "I know I go high," Lopez said, "I hit high notes, which can be annoying, and I try to be considerate, I try not to repeat them for an hour non-stop."
For their part, non-musicians in the area say they are happy with, or at least resigned to, the fact that so many musicians have chosen to set up shop in Inwood. Marianne White, who has lived in several apartments in the neighborhood, said she welcomes the influx of musicians. "Perhaps it’s because the area is mainly Hispanic, and we’re a little more tolerant of loud music," she said.
Otis Russell, who has lived near the corner of 207th Street and Broadway for almost 20 years, put it in even rosier terms. "Any hard-working people are good for the neighborhood," he said.
Clay Risen is an associate editor at Flak Magazine and a contributing writer for The Morning News.