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Washington Heights: New Winds at an Island Outpost
New Winds at an Island Outpost
Inside Los Guarinos bodega in Washington Heights.
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
March 4, 2007
STANDING behind the cramped counter of Los Guarinos, his bodega in Washington Heights, Joel Olivo deals not in big money but in small change. Jolly Ranchers candies, at a nickel apiece, are among his biggest sellers. Los Guarinos also sells cold beer and cigarettes, but on most days it is sweetness that prevails there. Neighborhood children ask for chocolate bars, and an arcade game in the corner fills the bodega with an electronic lullaby.
In Mr. Olivo’s establishment, in a modest storefront on Amsterdam Avenue near 161st Street, gambling is discouraged. Yet there is a running bet in the store that is a sign of changing times in this neighborhood: How many years will it take for Dominicans, who have dominated Washington Heights for decades, to become the minority there, and for whites to become the new majority?
Some of Mr. Olivo’s customers and friends say five years. Others predict seven. “I say 10 years,” Mr. Olivo said.
This is not your ordinary gentrification story. Washington Heights, the densely developed square mile that extends from 155th Street to roughly Dyckman Street, and from river to river, is to Dominicans what Harlem has been to blacks: a cultural capital with deep symbolic meaning. But over the past few years, this neighborhood of five- and six-story prewar apartment buildings has grown wealthier, hipper and better educated.
As the neighborhood has changed, a growing number of its Dominicans have moved to University Heights, Morris Heights and other neighborhoods in the west Bronx; some have left the city altogether. The wager at Los Guarinos is a lighthearted take not only on this exodus, but also on the questions it raises about the future of Washington Heights as a working-class Dominican stronghold.
The Dominican migration, powered by rising rents and other costs, is scattering families and friends who lived in the neighborhood for generations. This reshuffling is also fueling an uptown real estate boom, widening the gap between rich and poor, and realigning Dominican political power in the city. The shifts have even inspired an Off Broadway musical.
Mr. Olivo is confident about his prediction as to the neighborhood’s future. “I know I’ll win,” he said, “because everyone is moving.” But he does not believe that he will be around to collect. “The rent,” he explained, “will kick me out.”
Washington Heights has welcomed immigrants for a century. The Irish arrived in the early 1900s. European Jews, among them the family of Henry Kissinger, flocked there to escape the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, around the time that affluent African-Americans like the jazz musician Count Basie migrated up from Harlem. By the 1950s and 1960s, so many Greeks lived in Washington Heights that the neighborhood was known as the Astoria of Manhattan. Even as that label gained currency, Cubans and Puerto Ricans were beginning to move in.
The ’80s and the ’90s, however, belonged to the Dominicans.
Bremilde Ramos, a 29-year-old waitress with dark hair and a bright smile, remembers the summers: old men playing dominoes on tables on the sidewalk, the packed streets transformed into playgrounds. She also remembers the scary times, like the day in 1999 when a man was shot and killed inside her building on West 162nd Street. And she remembers that one apartment operated as a makeshift brothel.
Yet Ms. Ramos, who, like thousands of her fellow Dominicans, immigrated to Washington Heights with her family as a child, also recalls the vibrancy amid the grime. “You felt like you were in your own,” she said. “This was your own little country, you know, so many Hispanics were around.”
New York has many Hispanic enclaves, but only in Washington Heights did the size, density and visibility of the Latino population create a kind of sixth borough. From this high perch, visitors often wonder if they have accidentally stumbled into the 31st province of the Dominican Republic.
Those visitors can pass a barbershop on 181st Street and see a customer who happens to be the nephew of Joaquín Balaguer, a former president of the Dominican Republic. They can find not only Dominican merchants, but also Dominican doctors and Dominican lawyers. The red, white and blue Dominican flag flies from fire escapes, streetlights, even Pepsi trucks.
One morning in 2004, the local streets erupted with noisy political debate as thousands of voters cast their ballots for president. But the focus was not on Bush and Kerry. It was on Mejía and Fernández, candidates for the Dominican presidency. The vote represented the first time that Dominicans living abroad could vote in a Dominican presidential election.
‘Rich Folks and Hipsters’
The recent transformation of Washington Heights is reflected not only on the streets but also on the stage. “In the Heights,” a charming little musical that opened last month at 37 Arts, on West 37th Street near 10th Avenue, offers a snapshot of a neighborhood in flux. “When this whole city is rich folks and hipsters,” a bodega owner wonders, “who’s going to miss this raggedy little business?” The owner of a hair salon announces that she is moving her shop to the Bronx, where rents are cheaper.
When another character learns that the bodega is shutting for good, he screams: “This is the end of an era!” The line is intended as a joke, but seven miles north of the theater, in the shops and restaurants of Washington Heights, the words resonate less cheerfully.
Signs of change, many small but telling, fill the streets. You can still get a crispy chicken empanada for $1 at 181st Street and Audubon Avenue, where Jose Castillo has been selling them from a pushcart for nearly a decade, but you can also buy an $8 goat cheese tartine a half-mile away at In Vino Veritas, on St. Nicholas Avenue. While some tenants still pay $600 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, others pay triple that.
In a sense, the neighborhood is becoming two neighborhoods, even down to its name. Old-timers call it the Heights; newcomers, particularly those who log onto www.washington-heights.us, refer to Washington Heights and its northern neighbor Inwood as WaHI, in a kind of SoHo-speak.
The corner of 181st Street and Audubon Avenue still bustles noon to night with flashes of rapid-fire Spanish conversations and bursts of merengue blaring from passing cars. But the signs of change are increasingly visible. New residents can enjoy live jazz Thursday nights at Plum Pomidor on Broadway. They can visit the Starbucks on 181st Street. At the elegant Hispaniola restaurant a few doors down from Starbucks, they can dine on miso butterfish with steamed rice for $28.
Ms. Ramos, the waitress, sees fewer Dominican mom-and-pop stores and more chain stores. Mr. Olivo can now count among his Dominican customers six people who moved to the Bronx. And when Ms. Ramos visits her mother’s building on 162nd Street, she notices more non-Hispanic white faces. Her best friend, who used to live on the same floor, has moved to the Bronx. Others have migrated to Florida.
“The neighborhood was one way, and now you look and you don’t know anybody,” Ms. Ramos said. “Everybody’s gone.”
A new set of census-based numbers, prepared by the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, illustrates the neighborhood’s gradual change, while offering signs that the Dominican presence remains strong.
From 1990 to 2000, the Dominican population in Washington Heights and Inwood soared, from about 88,000 to nearly 117,000. But in the following five years their numbers dropped slightly, to fewer than 113,000. During those same five years, the total number of Latinos in the area also fell, from about 165,000 to 155,000, while the number of non-Hispanic whites increased from fewer than 29,000 to more than 30,000.
Laird Bergad, the center’s director, described the decrease of Dominicans as statistically insignificant, possibly a reflection of a small drop in the area’s overall population. Dominicans, in fact, increased as a percentage of the total population in Washington Heights and Inwood, from 43 percent in 1990 to 53 percent in 2005.
What the census figures do clearly show, however, is a sharp decline in the number of foreign-born Dominicans in the area. In 1990, 89 percent of Dominicans in Washington Heights and Inwood between 15 and 44 years old had been born in the Dominican Republic. Ten years later, that figure was down to 78 percent. In 2005, it was 67 percent.
“This is unmistakable evidence that immigration has slowed,” Professor Bergad said, pointing out that this trend casts a shadow on one of the most important roles of Washington Heights — as Dominicans’ main portal into New York. However, with the area buffeted by that shift and by the influx of wealthier residents and the migration of Dominicans to the Bronx and elsewhere, it is hard to surmise what the future face of Washington Heights will be.
These trends come vividly to life in the experiences of Ms. Ramos. Nearly two years ago, she moved to the South Bronx with her boyfriend and her 8-year-old son. She would have preferred to stay in Washington Heights, but her new home, a two-bedroom brick town house at Boston Road and Third Avenue, cost only $416,000. Half a mile from the building where her mother still lives, a three-bedroom condo was recently on the market for $1 million.
Ms. Ramos likes her new home. The neighborhood is calm, and there’s a bus stop just two blocks away. But she misses her old place in the Heights, especially the way it used to be. “It’s very, very quiet,” she said of her old building now. “People just pass by you and you don’t even notice them because they keep to themselves.”
Not everyone sees the changes in Washington Heights as a threat to its Dominican identity.
One person who is confident that the neighborhood will remain a Dominican stronghold for decades to come is Josephine Infante, executive director of the Hunts Point Economic Development Corporation in the Bronx. Although a growing number of Dominicans live in her borough, she notes that they are spread out, and that there is no concentration of Dominican stores, restaurants and hair salons.
“That’s why everyone goes to Washington Heights,” Ms. Infante said. “There’s an aroma. There’s something there that’s very special.”
Politically speaking, too, Dominicans in the Bronx are barely visible. Even though the Dominican population, at 213,000, is not too distant from the Puerto Rican population of 300,000, the borough has no elected Dominican officials.
“You have this kind of Puerto Rican political machine right now in the Bronx that’s pretty formidable,” said Angelo Falcón, president and founder of the National Institute for Latino Policy, a New York-based research and advocacy group.
But in the opinion of Adriano Espaillat, who has represented Washington Heights since he was elected the first Dominican member of the State Assembly in 1996, the Dominican political base in the neighborhood remains strong despite the exodus to the Bronx. In the 2005 Democratic primary, for instance, the turnout among registered Democrats in the average election district citywide was 15 percent; in Washington Heights it was roughly 24 percent.
“Our voting power in the Heights is very strong compared to some of the other emerging communities,” Mr. Espaillat said.
In income, however, Washington Heights looks very different from how it once looked. In 2005, the median household income for non-Hispanic whites in Washington Heights was $56,300. For Dominicans, it was just $32,800. In that same year, 35 percent of non-Hispanic white households earned $75,000 to $200,000, compared with just 12 percent of Dominican households.
“The old question of class is still present,” Professor Bergad said, “and nothing highlights that better than this question of income distribution.”
Perhaps surprisingly, these disparities do not appear to be stirring tensions between Dominicans and whites. The sidewalk menu at L’Fonda restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue, for example, which used to be entirely in Spanish, now lists some items in Spanish (“salcocho”) on one side and in English on the other side (“Dominican-style soup”). At Coogan’s, a restaurant and bar on Broadway at 169th Street, Tuesday and Saturday nights feature bilingual karaoke.
Coogan’s, in fact, has become something of a bridge between the two sides. Owned by a pair of gregarious Irish-Americans, David Hunt and Peter Walsh, the bar is a gathering spot for politicians and even sponsors an annual race called the Salsa, Blues and Shamrocks 5K Run, which this year kicks off, rain or shine, at 9 this morning.
Battling the Landlords
But good will doesn’t extend to every corner of the neighborhood, especially when most of its 200,000 residents are renters and relations between tenants and landlords are increasingly strained.
Raysa Castillo, a lawyer who represents many Washington Heights tenants in housing court, says, as do many housing activists and community leaders, that some landlords make cosmetic improvements to their buildings to justify rent increases, then try to evict those unable to pay. The advocates also say some landlords falsely accuse tenants of violating leases, or drive out tenants by letting their apartments deteriorate. In response, Roberta Bernstein, president of the Small Property Owners of New York, an advocacy group, said that building owners who go to the trouble and expense of taking tenants to court often do so for legitimate reasons. “If they’re dragging tenants into court, it’s because they’re not paying rent,” said Mrs. Bernstein, whose group includes a number of Washington Heights landlords. “I won’t deny that there’s some bad owners, but there’s also some bad tenants.”
Nevertheless, Ms. Castillo finds the broad housing picture, typical of modern gentrification, to be disheartening. “We are experiencing something totally different than what was experienced by the Greeks, Irish, Cubans and Puerto Ricans who were here,” she said. “The majority of our folks are not leaving because they’re doing better. The majority are leaving because they cannot afford rent.”
In 2004, for instance, more than 15,000 eviction notices were filed in housing court for tenants in Washington Heights and its northern and southern neighbors, Inwood and Hamilton Heights, said Mr. Espaillat, the assemblyman. The next year, he said, the number climbed to more than 19,000.
Ms. Castillo, who lives on Cabrini Boulevard at 187th Street, has seen such economic struggles firsthand. The buildings in the few blocks around her home were once full of blue-collar Dominicans, she said, but many of those neighbors have left in search of cheaper housing. As for the Dominican families who remain, she said she knew precisely who they are and where they live.
How could she know all those names and locations? Because she can count those who remain on one hand. Five.
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Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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