This Sunday, The New York Times ran an interesting, if slightly bizarre, write-up of the neighborhood I’ve called home for the past thirteen years: Washington Heights.
Nestled snuggly in upper Manhattan between Inwood (the uppermost neighborhood) and Harlem, Washington Heights has long been the last island bastion of spacious, affordable apartments. That’s why I came up here in the first place, back in 1994: fellow students at Manhattan School of Music enthusiastically recommended the area. Here I could afford (with my parents’ generous help) a large (by New York standards, huge) 1 bedroom that in any neighborhood south of about 125th Street would have gone for at least three times what I paid for it.
It’s an interesting part of the world. I managed to get into a good building right at the central intersection of the “toniest” part of the neighborhood, on Fort Washington Avenue near West 187th Street. When I first moved in, the majority of my neighbors were elderly orthodox Jews – the lady in 3A used to bring me leftover rugelach after her Sunday mah jongg game; the other major groups were the Russians and a surprisingly large population of Serbians, plus a generous sampling of young, white struggling artistic types: musicians and actors, mostly. Get on any northbound A train at 42nd Street around 11:00 p.m. and you will undoubtedly end up with the entire chorus of any particular Broadway musical you choose on its way home to the Heights. Open your windows on a warm Saturday afternoon and there’s a soprano to the south tuning and perfecting her D-flats in “Sempre libera” and a tenor to the north smoothing out the runs from “Il mio tesoro,” or a tuba player across the alley playing “Ride of the Valkyries” ad nauseum.
And then there were, and are, the Dominicans, who are largely the focus of the Times write-up. There are hundreds of thousands of Dominicans in an area roughly one mile square; so many, in fact, that the current President of the Dominican Republic campaigned here – marched down the street in front of my apartment, no less. And little wonder: he grew up here.
The Times article centers on the effects of the gradual gentrification of the neighborhood, which are mostly adverse for the less-affluent Dominicans who have claimed this area for so long. When I first arrived, there really wasn’t much here. In fact, as recently as 2001, I remember a lunch-break conversation with a co-worker who happened to live across the street. “Did you see the new restaurant that’s opening on 187th?” “Yes, it has tables!”
Now there are three very nice, very good restaurants on 187th, plus a diner (meh) and a Chinese take-out (ew…avoid), and an Indian place around the corner. There are several new places down on 181st, with tables and menus and everything, including a Japanese restaurant and the fancy, high-priced (but worth it) Hispaniola, next door to what has to be the best liquor store in all of Manhattan. Seriously. We even have a Starbucks.
Washington Heights has much to commend it; I have always liked the fact that upon surfacing from the subway at 181st Street after a busy day in the craziness downtown, you find yourself in a different world, with (relatively) quiet, tree-lined streets. It’s a family-friendly, community-minded kind of place, liberal and politically active, a place where Jewish people stand outside the supermarket protesting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. A place where free public yoga classes are taught in the park next to the community meditation garden, just over the monument commemorating the Battle of Fort Washington. At the end of the street is Fort Tryon Park, with its beautiful Heather Garden and panoramic views of the Hudson River, which has been the subject of so many of my photo posts here, and via a short walk, the famous Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art specializing in medieval Christian artwork.
One can’t deny that the neighborhood is changing, however. As I have mentioned before, I walk ten minutes north each morning to the next uptown subway stop in order to get a seat for the hour-long ride to work, because the population of 9-5 professionals living here has positively exploded. According to the Times, 35% of the white households in the neighborhood earn between $75-200,000. (12% of the Dominican households manage that; the median Dominican household income for the neighborhood is $32,800.) My current 600 square-foot apartment was $750/month when I took it back in 1996; with rent-stabilized increases, it’s now $1,023, but after I leave it next month and the landlord renovates it, I’m guessing it will probably go for $1,500.
As Washington Heights becomes whiter and more affluent, there seems to be a desire to alter what the neighborhood is called, to shed the image of a heavily-latino, neglected, crime-ridden part of town (which you can still find if you just cross to the east side of Broadway). A few years ago, realtors were pushing my neighborhood as “Hudson Heights.” The Times says the new hipsters are calling it “WaHi.” (Which, I’m sorry, is lame, yo.) When I was in Los Angeles in September, I impressed new acquaintances by saying I live on the Upper North Side. The best alternative, giving a nod to the significant gay population, comes from drag superstar Hedda Lettuce, who calls it “Upper upper upper upper upper upper Chelsea.”
In my opinion, however, there’s nothing wrong with Washington Heights.