Welcome to Washington Heights

by

08/05/2008

Washington Heights, NY, NY 10040

Neighborhood: Washington Heights

The day I moved to Washington Heights, a kid stood on the sidewalk and stared at me. And not a trying-not-to stare, either; a slack-jawed, wide-eyed, rooted-to-the-spot stare.

It was sweltering that day—the first day of summer—and even though it wasn’t the most practical choice for moving day, I wore one of those tank tops with the built-in bras. Horrified, I thought I must have popped out of my top picking up a box. Why else would an 8-year-old boy stare at me like that?

I looked at myself, then at him again. I was decent but he was still staring. I looked again and it became clear. I was a white lady moving into this Dominican kid’s home. I made eye contact with him and I smiled a little, as if to say: Sorry, kid, it’s true. I live here now.

Choosing to live in Washington Heights had been easy: it was in Manhattan, along with my husband’s new job, and we could afford a two-bedroom apartment so our 3-year-old daughter could finally have her own room. While I packed up my old apartment in Boston, I read everything I could about Washington Heights, wanting to plunge in and immediately feel it was my home. I learned the neighborhood had been a refuge for European Jews in the 1930s and ’40s, only to be displaced by so many Greeks, by the 1960s the neighborhood was “the Astoria of Manhattan.” The Greeks left the neighborhood to the Dominicans—the largest population outside the Dominican Republic, in fact. I filed this away as merely another neat little fact, like how Harry Belafonte, Henry Kissinger, and Red Sox left-fielder Manny Ramírez had each attended George Washington High at the end of my new street.

If I hadn’t been welcomed to the neighborhood by a gawking kid, maybe I wouldn’t have thought it, but everywhere I went, I felt people looking at me. The first neighbor to actually speak to us was a young, beautiful Dominican woman who passed my husband in the building lobby.

She addressed him in Spanish at first, but he shrugged and said he didn’t understand.

“You live here?” the woman asked, heading towards the door.

My husband nodded. “We moved in a couple days ago.”

The woman shook her head and smiled as she opened the door.

“Now I’ve seen everything!” she laughed, and slipped away.

What had she meant? Were we a sign the neighborhood was improving or were we crazy white folk, intruding into a community that didn’t want us? Every conversation my husband and I had about the neighborhood or our neighbors went like that, questioning what people meant, whether or not they were looking at us as much as it felt like they were, and everything became a debate. One noisy neighbor would turn into a 45-minute discussion on race and class: were we doing what anyone would do, or were we being intolerant if we called 311 when their party woke us up at 4:30 a.m.? Did our neighbors see us, pale as coconut among their chocolates and cinnamons, as just another neighbor? Or were we viewed as the crest of a gentrification wave, poised to wash away another old neighborhood, leaving nothing but Starbucks and higher rents in our wake?

We could have just moved—after all, our things were still in boxes—but we were already in love with this loud, strange neighborhood. As the sun set, my husband and I would drop the kid into her new Maclaren and walk along St. Nicholas Avenue, from 191st Street to 168th and back again, just to be out in the streets to watch the night unfurl. Tall, tough-looking teenage boys would stoop to greet tiny grandmothers with a kiss. Old men set up their domino tables on the sidewalks, wearing their Cuban-style shirts and smoking cigars, their laughter heard half a block away. Every couple of blocks, the frío frío man stood with his huge block of ice, rasping it into shavings to be soaked with sugary syrups.

On these walks, I started collecting moments I felt I was being accepted, turning them over and over in my mind, until the details blurred to nothing but a warm glow. The day the Mister Softee woman smiled and handed over my cone saying, “Here you go, mami.” The girls at the playground who immediately accepted my blonde, blue-eyed daughter as one of their own. The elderly neighbor who thanked me in Spanish for taking her garbage out after I gestured wordlessly: Me? Bag? Take over there?

One Saturday morning, a month after I arrived, I stepped out to get a newspaper to find a neighborhood completely transformed for the annual Dominican Day Festival. Unable to go anywhere else, I stood and peered over the police barricades, craning to see the parade that was still just a distant din, until at last, the parade strutted and swaggered down St. Nicholas Avenue.

Masked red devils ran up and leered at small kids in the crowds. Girls in towering feathered headpieces wore sequined dresses and glinted in the sun like fresh fish. Behind a pair of gigantic fake breasts, a man in a dress and wig hid behind his parasol and shook his equally enormous fake behind at the delighted crowd.

It was like Mardi Gras and Christmas and the Fourth of July all at once, and this feeling of undaunted joy rose up from the sidewalks like the shimmering August heat. And suddenly, I started to cry. Everyone around me cheering, laughing, waving flags… and I would never genuinely be a part of that. I knew I would always be on one side of the barricade, my neighbors on the other.

I also began to understand something else: I am a complete idiot.

I was never going to be and could never even pretend to be from the same half of one small Caribbean island like almost all of my neighbors. And there would be times where people would stare and wonder what I was doing in that part of town, but I wasn’t a kid trying to fit into a new school—I was in New York City, a city based largely on the premise that no one really gives a damn where you’re from, and whatever divides us, there are many more things everyone can agree on: a sugary ice is good on a hot day; teenagers should show respect to old people, and, today, I knew a guy wearing a big fake ass is far funnier than it ought to be.

I returned home, still smiling, and entered the small concrete courtyard in front of my building where a pair of boys tossed a baseball between them. As I passed, I heard it. One of the boys speaking to the other: something something gringa something estúpido something, finishing with a snort.

My heart sank. As I fumbled for my keys, I looked back and saw the same kid who stood and stared at me the day I moved in. He looked away, then at his friend. He sucked his teeth, disgusted.

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked the name-calling kid. “Why you gotta be so fucking racist all the time?”

Turning away, I swung open the front door and went home.

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