By Soni Sangha
New York – When Margarita Santana first arrived in New York, she made coffee filters in a New Jersey factory. She worked with other Dominicans who longed for traditional home cooked meals. Eventually, she quit the factory job to cook.
Slowly, beauty salon workers in her Washington Heights neighborhood caught wind of her venture, then their clients. As word spread, her business grew. She started in her kitchen, then the basement of her building. They got so popular, she and her three sisters opened a restaurant called Margot.
You could call this an American dream. But that would miss the larger point of the venture — their restaurant was a way to make Dominicans comfortable in their new country and the sisters have been weaving their culture and their love into the Washington Heights community since they opened their doors opened 26 years ago. Margot itself feels like a home. It is tiny and cozy and she, her sisters or her sons are always around — it’s bustling with people who know each other. It’s the kind of place where everyone is welcomed with “mi amor!” and, besides Christmas and New Year’s, it’s always open.
That will change on December 31 because Washington Heights, a Dominican enclave in Northern Manhattan immortalized on Broadway by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” and on the small screen by MTV’s reality show “Washington Heights,” is changing. Sure, merengue and bachata still spill out of stores and car windows, but a growing number of long-established storefronts have been shuttering, as rents increase.
“There has been a lot of change — in all instances [landlords] are dealing with some of the oldest businesses in the neighborhood,” said Carlos Segura, one of Margarita’s sons.
In this case, the landlords of Margot’s building told merchants at the end of summer that they must close so they could renovate the aging spaces. Margot, a money wiring service, and a carniceria [meat store] that has been around for more than 30 years will leave and, in anticipation of increased rents, likely not return.