BY Robert W. Snyder
The first two episodes of MTV’s “Washington Heights” are full of the dreams, schemes and romantic intrigues that are a staple of reality television. But for all the charms of the cast, the most important character in the series is the neighborhood—which is depicted not as a den of drug dealers but as a classic New York neighborhood of striving immigrants. Compared to how Washington Heights was portrayed in the media twenty years ago, that’s a major improvement.
Since the early twentieth century, Washington Heights has been home to successive generations of people who came to New York looking for a better life: Irish, Jewish, Greek, African American, Cuban and Puerto Rican, to name a few. They weren’t always greeted with a welcome mat. As far back as the 1920s, landlords tried to keep both Jews and Blacks out of Washington Heights. They didn’t succeed, especially with regard to Jewish residents, but they set a pattern of resistance to newcomers that was repeated over the decades.
Dominicans, who arrived in northern Manhattan in transforming numbers in the 1970s, faced all the old patterns of exclusion and more. The city’s industrial economy that once employed so many immigrants was collapsing. The fiscal crisis undermined municipal services. The number of schools in northern Manhattan failed to match the growing population of school-aged children. In the 1980s, a murderous drug trade appeared in the southeast Heights (in order to serve a significantly suburban clientele) and the neighborhood’s image was set as a place of violence and disorder.
Yet people have always been too ready to define Washington Heights by its extremes. Even in its toughest years, northern Manhattan was the home Dominicans and old-timers who overcame fear and mutual suspicion to rescue housing from abandonment, regain streets from drug dealers, and restore battered parks. Since the crime drop, they have established a vibrant, multi-ethnic arts scene that forms part of the backdrop for the MTV series.
In the opening scenes of “Washington Heights,” the neighborhood is described as “one of the last true neighborhoods in Manhattan,” a place of people with deep roots, close ties and big ambitions. That’s been true of the neighborhood in every generation, but it’s great to see that recognition granted to upper Manhattan today. Dominican Washington Heights can now take its rightful place alongside neighborhoods like the Jewish Lower East Side and Italian Little Italy in the history of New York City.
Yet New York is a place of ceaseless change. Washington Heights residents’ heroic and largely unsung efforts to save the neighborhood have opened the door to gentrification that threatens to displace from the neighborhood the very people who sustained it in its hardest times.
Will MTV’s “Washington Heights” be the final act of the neighborhood’s recent past? Or will it be the first installment in the history of a neighborhood where an arts-oriented revival gives residents a chance to stay in the neighborhood and prosper? It’s too early to say, but stay tuned.
Robert W. Snyder, director of the American Studies program at Rutgers-Newark, is writing a book on the history of Washington Heights and postwar New York for Cornell University Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.