NEW YORK >> New York City is composed of many distinct neighborhoods — like the Village, Harlem, and Brooklyn Heights — all with their own unique problems, social and ethnic characters, and histories. Two of the more complex, but less renowned ones, are Washington Heights and Jackson Heights.
Washington Heights is a section of northern Manhattan bordering on Harlem to the South and Inwood to the North, the Hudson River to the West, and the Harlem River to the East. In the early 1900s, Irish immigrants moved to Washington Heights, which was still rural and mostly Protestant in 1900. European Jews who settled there to find a safe haven away from the looming Nazi threat followed them during the 1930s. By the 1980s–90s, the neighborhood went through another radical population shift, becoming Dominican (the largest Dominican community in the US), and confronted much greater social problems, like drugs and overcrowded schools, than it had faced in its past.
In the mid-'60s I lived for three years in a cheap, bare apartment with barred, smudged back windows in one of the poorer parts of Washington Heights. I was then teaching history at Hunter College night school to bright, unconventional students. My full-time job, however, was finding ways to avoid writing my PhD thesis, which I foolishly was successful at. However, the area neither captured my imagination nor evoked from me the lasting affection other places I have lived in did.
Still, over those three years I walked about the neighborhood gaining a feel for its streets and general atmosphere, and getting to know Fort Tryon Park which housed the Cloisters and bounded the wealthiest and mostly white section of Washington Height. I could already see that large slices of the neighborhood had begun to decline. Some streets, especially east of Broadway, had taken on a seedy, even ominous appearance, with drug dealers beginning to settle nightly into the shadows of tenements to ply their trade away from the glare of street lamps.
Robert W Snyder, a professor at Rutgers-Newark, has just published a history of the neighborhood, "Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City" (Cornell University Press). Snyder writes about the neighborhood in the '80s becoming infamous for its crack cocaine market, and the local high school, George Washington, turning into an utterly dysfunctional institution noted for its gang warfare and high dropout rate.
By the early 21st century, however, conditions in Washington Heights had markedly improved. Snyder's main thesis is that through a sense of "social cohesion" and community institutions the neighborhood recovered, and is "today a symbol of bustling energy, cultural vitality, and the transforming power of immigration."
The recovery has also brought on gentrification, which has threatened to make the neighborhood too expensive for small shopkeepers and long time tenants. Its relatively low-rent apartments have attracted artists, students, and high-skilled, college-educated employees at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, which is now the largest private employer in New York City.
Wall of sound
When I rode through its main street Broadway a few weeks ago its Dominican/Hispanic character was still intact, and there were few new buildings going up. A composer I know who had moved there said: "Of all the New York neighborhoods I've lived in, Washington Heights has the clearest soundtrack — the Merengue rhythms blasting from windows on hot days, the street banter at all hours — it's a constant wall of sound."
But though for the moment its aural and visual nature remains generally unchanged, he also informed me that he sees gentrification slowly sneaking in. Given that the city "is putting in a beautiful new pedestrian plaza on 175th and Broadway, which I have no doubt will cause rents to start jumping sky high in the next few years." Other signs of growing gentrification are that rent for new people moving in has grown nine percent since 2006, and the poverty rate has been steadily declining. In his book Snyder writes that it's hard to know how Washington Heights will ultimately evolve, for it's "a place that confounds simple predictions."
A new lengthy and sprawling documentary film, Frederick Wiseman's "In Jackson Heights," directed in his distinctive style, without narration and interviews, immerses the viewer in the everyday, intricate reality of the Queens neighborhood. The area is 20 minutes from Manhattan, with a low crime rate, politically liberal, and one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the world.
Jackson Heights was originally a planned development laid out by the Queensboro Corporation beginning in about 1916, initially seen as a place for middle- to upper-middle income workers from Manhattan to raise their families. The apartments were built around private parks, and packaged as "garden apartments." The co-op buildings and their parks remain well preserved.
However, the film's emphasis is not on the mostly elderly white people who live there (though they also are given screen time), but on the working class immigrants — Columbians, Mexicans, Pakistani and Bangeladeshi — who own bars and restaurants, peddle Bollywood DVDs, sell saris, and whose colorful signage, temples, and street vendors dominate and give life to the neighborhood's teeming streets.
Wiseman's camera also takes us into the meetings of a variety of organizations filled with articulate people, including the local community board, an active LGBT group, and small businesspeople. It's a flourishing, vital community that Wiseman embraces as an exemplar of grass roots democracy in action.
However, like any New York neighborhood that is at all livable, big box stores and the wealthy hordes descending from Manhattan already threaten it. Wiseman's film is implicitly committed to preserving viable urban immigrant and working class neighborhoods like Jackson and Washington Heights in a city where many of them may soon become rarities.