I reexamined a map of New York County for an article in progress recently and was reminded exactly how odd its boundaries appeared. Most people are either unaware of this county or confuse it with the much larger New York City, or if they have a basic awareness they equate it to the island of Manhattan proper. The last one comes closest: New York County is conterminous with the Borough of Manhattan which included Manhattan Island plus several much smaller parcels scattered around its orbit. I think perhaps many of us are familiar with geo-oddities like Liberty Island which is completely surrounded by the waters of New Jersey or the even stranger situation of Ellis Island with split jurisdictions in the wake of the 1998 Supreme Court case, New Jersey v. New York. Someday maybe I’ll focus on all the Manhattan outliers but today I’ll focus on the part that was once part of the island until it was physically separated.
Marble Hill first came to my attention when reader "Joshua" commented on an article I wrote about an airport in St. Joseph, Missouri, broken from the rest of the state when the Missouri River changed course. "You should check out Marble Hill neighborhood in NYC. It’s attached to the Bronx (mainland), but part of New York County (Manhattan)" he said two years ago. I tucked it into back of my mind intending to get to it "someday" until examining a map for a different purpose triggered that latent memory.
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I’ve marked approximate boundaries for Marble Hill. The Harlem River Ship Canal / Spuyten Duyvil ("Devil’s Spout") Creek separates Manhattan Island from Marble Hill, making it the only part of New York County connected to the mainland United States. The U.S. Census Bureau conveniently designates Marble Hill as a distinct census tract allowing us to discover a number of interesting demographic characteristics as they existed in 2010: 8,463 residents; median age 34.8; racially diverse; median household income of $35,769; with an overwhelming percentage of people living in rental housing.
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The history is fascinating. I’m only able to barely scratch the surface. If you would like to know more I’d recommend the Marble Hill page on the Forgotten New York site. Great site, by the way. You’d do well to bookmark it.
Marble Hill was included in a Dutch colonial land grant in 1646. Later the Continental Army constructed a fort on Marble Hill to protect bridge approaches to Manhattan during the American Revolution. It fell to the Hessians in late 1776 who renamed the fortification Fort Prince Charles (a street in Marble Hill is called Fort Charles Place in commemoration). The Hessian forces held their position until the liberation of New York City in 1783.
Back then, Marble Hill was part of Manhattan island. Today it is part of the mainland only because Spuyten Duyvil Creek no longer follows its original watercourse. If you look closely at the satellite view above you can see where it once flowed around the northern edge of Marble Hill. Today it flows along the southern flank. The dense cluster of buildings in the image defines the original core of Marble Hill.
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The situation in Marble Hill wasn’t a natural occurrence in contrast to the Missouri example mentioned previously and the similar situation in Carter Lake, Iowa. The hand of man was fully responsible. The US Army Corps of Engineers decided that a navigable shipping route had to be created between the Hudson and Harlem Rivers. They built the Harlem Harlem River Ship Canal along the southern edge of Marble Hill, leaving it a small island. The old riverbed was later filled-in, completing Marble Hill’s migration from Manhattan Island to the mainland in 1914. The same thing happened to a small chunk of the Bronx but it became a part of Manhattan Borough, which hardly seems fair.
The former watercourse has a flatter, more level appearance, as noticeable in the Street View image, above.
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Meanwhile, back on the hillside, the stranded section looks distinctly different from the rest of Manhattan. Winding streets of detached homes wrap around contours of a rocky precipice. A century of separation created an area that more closely resembles the Bronx. This is a particularly picturesque area of Marble Hill, however most of the residents actually live in apartments away from the hill.
I know several 12MC readers live in or around New York City. I’d be interested to know if anyone has visited Marble Hill in person and would have anything further to add.