Morningside Heights

My friend the dramatist makes fun of me for a habit he’s observed over the years. We’d be watching a movie shot in New York and I’d say, “Hey, that was shot in my neighborhood!” as I’d witness a glimpse of some familiar corner or building from childhood.

The thing is, the neighborhood I grew up in, Morningside Heights, is not really on the cognitive map of people not from New York — and probably not on the map for many people in lower Manhattan.

(By the way, the big blue rectangle on this map is Columbia; the narrow pink rectangle is Barnard College; the unmarked pale green rectangle to the left of Barnard is the block where I grew up. Click the image to see Barnard’s guide to the neighborhood.)

George Carlin, who grew up in Morningside Heights, calls it White Harlem. We were the caucasian oasis between Spanish Harlem and Negro Harlem. George Carlin grew up in the town side of a town/gown split in that area — Morningside Heights is where Columbia University is. I grew up in faculty housing. I was the gown side of the local town/gown split.

But while the neighborhood is not well known as a neighborhood, a lot of shots make it into television and movies. The movie Eyewitness (1981) actually takes place in the neighborhood, as did the play You Can’t Take It With You, but usually Hollywood just grabs shots and ignores the setting. Sometimes, Columbia’s campus is used, as in Ghostbusters (1984) and Spiderman (2002), and sometimes it’s harder-to-identify local buildings, like Tom’s Restaurant, which has been made famous as the exterior shot for all coffee shop scenes in Seinfeld.

Now, apparently, NBC is making a sitcom called Morningside Heights, and it’s very much about the neighborhood itself. (Thanks to iceberg for forwarding me the New York Times article on this show.)

The sitcom is set on Seminary Row, the block of West 122nd Street where the Jewish Theological Seminary sits diagonally across Broadway from Union Theological Seminary. The show is a piously irreverent comedy about good-looking would-be ministers, rabbis and imams who share a dorm and try not to sleep with one another.

It could scarcely be set anywhere else.

“The neighborhood is a huge character in the show,” said Mr. Light, 31, who attended Columbia as an undergraduate and a graduate student in the film division of the School of the Arts, and whose wife studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Along with its grand Gothic churches, Riverside Church and the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the neighborhood’s sheer density of institutions of higher learning – Columbia, Barnard and Seminary Row itself – makes Morningside Heights an area that Mr. Light calls “a hotbed of seeking.”

“Whether it’s knowledge, or what your place is in the world, it’s a place to ask these huge questions,” Mr. Light said. “Whether in Riverside Park or St. John the Divine or the Hungarian Pastry Shop, it’s a truly contemplative and vibrant place that I love.”

The area also provides the soaring visual backdrop for a new, perhaps more spiritually highbrow representation of New York than America is accustomed to seeing in television comedies.

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3 Responses to Morningside Heights

  1. Anonymous says:

    Tom’s Diner is also the inspiration for the Suzanne Vega song.

  2. bkmarcus says:

    Suzanne Vega played a couple of times at my college. She’d say, “This next song is called ‘Tom’s Diner’. It’s about Tom’s … Restaurant.”

    You’ll notice in the lyrics to the song, she sings, “Oh, this rain / It will continue / Through the morning / As I’m listening / To the bells / Of the cathedral / I am thinking / Of your voice…”

    Those bells are from The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, just down the block from Tom’s. It’s where I went to school for 7 years.

    The Barnard College guide to Morningside Heights says, “Under construction since 1892, this cathedral is the world’s largest.”

  3. Anonymous says:

    Exactly. So don’t listen to the silly people who say the song is about “Tom’s Diner” in Brooklyn. They’re wrong. I lived a block from Tom’s Restaurant for the last three years (have since moved), and people were always out front taking pictures. Every few months, the Real Kramer Tour Bus would pull up and empty out a huge crowd onto that corner.The view of the Cathedral is so nice on that block – you can’t tell it’s under construction. The neighborhood is cleaner/nicer now, but my guess is it was better “back in the day.” But then, what isn’t?It’s so funny how people who are really big stars now played on college campuses.

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