The confusion is extremely common. While Marble Hill residents vote in Manhattan, do jury duty there, and are represented by Manhattan officials, their municipal services come from the Bronx. Their fight for recognition as a Manhattan neighborhood has persisted for years. As recently as this decade, neighbors turned out in force to oppose the move to change their telephone area code from 212 to 718 (they lost).
Marble Hill was lopped from Manhattan in 1895, when the northern channel of the Harlem River was redug to make way for a ship canal. Soon after, the Spuyten Duyvil Creek was filled in, cementing Marble Hill to the Bronx. The Greater New York Charter of 1897 designated Marble Hill as part of Manhattan but not of New York County, producing decades of headaches and squabbles. In 1939, the Bronx Borough President, James J. Lyons, tried unsuccessfully to annex the neighborhood to the Bronx.
In 1984, the matter was settled with some finality when Assemblyman J. Brian Murtaugh and State Senator Franz Leichter sponsored successful legislation declaring the neighborhood part of Manhattan. Mr. Murtaugh, an Inwood resident, is a longtime Marble Hill enthusiast. “It’s just a very unusual niche,” he said. “It is one of the most ethnically and economically mixed neighborhoods in New York City, and yet they operate like a small town.”
A community council meets monthly. In a recent example of civic activism, Mr. Murtaugh pointed to a successful effort by the police and local residents to close a bodega at 228th Street and Marble Hill Avenue where drug sales had been noted.
Formerly an Irish and Jewish bastion, Marble Hill’s population is now about 35 percent black and 55 percent Hispanic. In the 50’s, the construction of the Marble Hill Houses brought about the radical demographic change. “The church that I served went from an all white to an all black congregation,” recalled the Rev. William Tieck, who served for 31 years as the pastor of St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church, an old wooden church at the southeast corner of Marble Hill Avenue and 228th Street that serves as a focal point for the community.
The neighborhood’s population of middle-class Hispanic people has continued to grow in recent years, and the first Asians have begun moving in. While whites make up only about 8 percent of the population now, their influence still permeates the neighborhood: Broadway is still dotted with Irish pubs that draw a loyal local clientele, and just over the Kingsbridge border are a kosher bakery and an Orthodox synagogue.
The Rev. Leonis Quinlan, the current pastor of St. Stephen’s, moved to Marble Hill in 1991 and said that its heavily Dominican flavor came as a pleasant surprise. “It is Dominican in its essence,” he said. “You can smell the foods in the air, you can hear the music. You see older men playing dominos in front of the bodegas, and women in traditional dress.”