Exploring the Latino Metropolis: A Brief Urban Cultural History of US Latinos

Washington Heights


Washington Heights is a neighborhood of Manhattan which “stretches north from 155th Street to Dyckman Street” and is bound by the Hudson and the Harlem River; refer to map above (Renner). Although one of the ‘youngest’ neighborhoods of Manhattan, it has been home to thousands of immigrants. For starters, in the early 1900’s a boost in construction of housing lead to migration of many Irish, Eastern Europeans, and Germans to this region (Burns) Later on, during World War II many Jewish people who were escaping the Nazi regime settled here. Soon after, the Jewish population became the majority and Washington Heights became know as “Frankfurt on the Hudson” (Burns, Renner). Later on, in the 80’s Russian-Jewish moved here again in search of protection. After WWII a very small number of Puerto Ricans, Blacks and Cubans, fleeing Castro’s Regime had already migrated to Washington Heights (Berger ).


Although, there have been Latinos in this neighborhood for quite sometime their history is rather short. It wasn’t until the mid 1960’s that the neighborhood experienced the largest influx of Latinos (Pessar 253). After the assassination of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961, political upheaval and violent uproar broke out in Dominican Republic, causing thousands of Dominicans to flee to the United States, with the majority settling in New York City (which used to be the center of Dominican and US Affairs) (Pessar 252 ). Most Dominicans in New York settled in Washington Heights because it provided relatively inexpensive housing and comfortable living (Berger). Although the Dominicans coming in were from the middle class, finding lucrative jobs was though. So, in the 1980’s as the drug epidemic began to take place, Colombian suppliers saw Washington Heights as an ideal Location for drug trafficking and partnered with Dominican dealers, whom they shared monetary interests with, already in the neighborhood (Berger) . Soon after, Washington Heights gained is reputation as “Crack City” or “the drug capital of New York City” (Burns, Berger). The drug trade which also brought violence and crime to East harlem, stained the reputation of not just the neighborhood but also the community of Dominicans it self.

Today, economic factors continue to appeal to foreign Dominicans; so much so that Dominicans are the largest immigrant group in New York City and are among the largest in the nation (Saillant 225). In fact, Upper Manhattan (which includes Washington heights) has the largest population of Dominicans outside their home (Foner 15); the neighborhood is so important to Dominicans that politicians from Dominican Republic hold extensive campaigns here (Renner). Washington heights is very much Hispanic “to the point that one can easily survive there without having to speak English;” the community is 74% Hispanic (dominicans make up 73% of Hispanics) and the streets are lined with Hispanic food restaurants and Spanish signs (Berger). In fact, a current issue that the community faces today are language barriers; about 45.7% of the community is not english proficient, but this is not surprising since education isn't catered to the Hispanic majority (Berger). What really makes Washington Heights different from any other community is that Dominicans, who originally had planned to return to their home country, have successfully appropriated the area. For instance, in the seminar The Peopleing of New York 2011, professor of social studies, Joseph Berger argues that the neighborhood, unlike many other neighborhoods in NYC, is not threatened significantly by gentrification; primarily because dominicans come from many different social classes and have a very strong presence in the neighborhood. While the neighborhood has a bad reputation it continues to be a popular place for newer immigrants to settle.

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