Little Dominican Republic
Elected officials, community leaders and activist designated Washington Heights as “Little Dominican Republic.” They took a lot of photos.
Anytime I describe or explain Washington Heights and Inwood, I’m pretending I know what I’m talking about. On the surface this is what Washington Heights and Inwood looks like:
Some businesses are owned by Dominicans and Latinos. An art-scene with Dominicans and Latinos at the center. Some of these Dominicans and Latinos are black. You have pioneers from the midwest trying to see if they could make it here to prove that they could make it anywhere. These pioneers rent a renovated apartment with four roommates and pay three times what the last tenant paid. Air B&Bs have Norwegians looking half curious and half scared on St. Nicholas Ave.
Washington Heights and Inwood do not look like the neighborhood I grew up in because it’s not the same hood and I’m not the same person.
I used to loiter on the intersection of adolescence and manhood. I once belonged on the corner, but was aged out. My heart couldn’t take the jump scares. A fight or flight response took over when I saw a Dodge Impala out of the corner of my eye. Sometimes we ran up the stairs to the rooftop in flight. We then nosedived down fire-escape stairs to the basement exit on Audubon Ave.
Sometimes “fight” didn’t look like fighting. Sometimes “fight” was stillness. Sometimes “fight” was playing the role of deer in the headlights, pretending to camouflage with the graffiti on the brick wall. Sometimes “fight” was resisting the urge to walk away and disperse. Sometimes we fought the urge to fight because we weren’t doing anything wrong. Sometimes we fought the urge to run away because we weren’t doing anything wrong. Sometimes this “fighting” through stillness risked violence from the law.
Cops questioned and searched us whenever and however they wanted. It didn’t matter that we were barely teens. Our scrawny bodies bent over with our hands on parked cars and brick walls. The neighbors on the stoop, bodega staff and friends and family watched as officers molded our reputation with each stroke and frisk.
The sight of police cars and officers still make me jump like the sound of a starting gun. Race! I look for potential witnesses and any cameras to corroborate my innocence in a future trial with jurors from Inwood who look and talk nothing like me.
Passing by the 34th Precinct on Broadway feels like a suspense-thriller, like something is about to happen. Speaking up, saying the wrong words, could get you locked up, fucked up or both. Officers from the 34th probably listened to Nas at the police academy. He raps, “N*gg**” respect violence so I become it, I’m from it…” The cops knew all of us respected violence. And they made sure we respected them.
One day on the corner I realized hustling was a real job that required consistency and focus. It turned out that the corner only makes sense if you’re working. Getting high on the corner no longer gave me the giggles. It gave me paranoia. No matter how much I smoked or drank I could no longer see a kid get locked up or roughed up because he “resisted” arrest. I couldn’t see a junkie get beat to a bloody pulp because he owed a dealer. Near the end of my corner era I was pretending. I pretended to be the person who stands on the corner while my childhood friends seemed to be mastering it.
“The 191 Tunnel”
There was a Kurt Vonnegut quote on the 191 tunnel wall. It said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” It’s been painted over since. Now it’s something else.
The tunnel at the 191st train station connects the 1 train to Broadway Avenue. Its walls a canvas covered by layers of graffiti, paint, grime and mold. It’s periodically painted by the city only to be bombed with graffiti. The graffiti is then painted over by more graffiti before the city paints the tunnel again. Repeat.
One of most recent renovations had the tunnel’s lights fixed from a dim piss yellow to a cool blue glow. During the piss lighting era the Help Ruben campaign plastered gold framed pictures of the Dominican Republic. Ruben Henriquez’ pictures looked like paintings on canvas. The pictures were like airplane windows, you could see there was more on the other side, but you could only experience it from this side.
On the other side of the 191 tunnel is Broadway. This avenue divides the neighborhood. Before my pants got tighter, when I was a teen in oversized Akademic Jeans, I would hate walking on the other side of Broadway. When I crossed over Broadway to the other side I became the other. It’s as if Broadway Avenue and the 34th Precinct was a buffer for the other.
“Other Recognize Other”
The new young men on the corner on St. Nicholas Avenue try to figure me out when I walk by. They look at me up and down convinced I’m a gentrifier. Until they see me greet an older person I grew up with and suspect I’m a custie. Then I speak and they hear themselves.
My grandmother’s building is not the same building. The mini columns by the building entrance where tenants sat are gone. Nowhere for us to sit. There are cameras recording the entrance now. There are cameras in the lobby and on every floor. My building went through the same changes.
The new neighbors don’t recognize me. When we see each other in the lobby or, worse, in the elevator they give me a look as if I’m a visitor or trespasser. It’s the same in my boy’s building. I don’t expect a warm hug or even a good morning or a nod. I expect a look in my direction. I’m sharing the same space as you. I was in the elevator first and you’ve entered. Look in my direction. I’m a presence here. Again, we are sharing this space. Maybe this ignoring is no different than when we ignore a bee or another pestilence — not looking at it will make it go away. Eventually they always go away. You only need to be patience. Our new neighbors seem patient.
“Uncas & Chingachgook”
It’s a waiting game for those of us who still live in Harlem, Washington Heights, Inwood and the Bronx. Those of us who lived through the changes. Those of us who have resisted in whatever way we could. Those of us who pretended to resist, but were really just patient, waiting for this wave of explorers from afar to ebb and return where they came from.
Some of us will remain on the corner forever at the risk of being harassed by the powers that be. We’ll remain while the demographics and storefronts change.
Some of us will finally make it through the tunnel and get out the other side.
We will have saved enough for a house. We will have parties with other former uptown residents in the suburbs and tell stories about the horrors of falling asleep to car alarms and dembow.
Most of us will make use of the George Washington Bridge. We will leave and comeback. We will recreate the diaspora experience our parents and grandparents experienced. We will leave the inner-city the way they left the motherland only to return back “home” every chance we get.
I wonder what outsiders expect when they cross one of the bridges into the neighborhood. What do people from Riverdale see when they cross the 225th street bridge? What do people from the Bronx see when they cross the bridges on 207 or 181st? Last time I drove over the George Washington Bridge it didn’t feel like I was returning to the Heights or “Little Dominican Republic,” but like I was arriving in New York City.
John Paul “JP” Infante is a Dominican-American teacher and writer in New York City. He teaches high school and writing workshops throughout the city. He's taught creative writing at Lehman College of CUNY and holds an MFA in fiction from the New School for General Studies. His fiction, nonfiction and poetry can be found in Kweli Journal, The Poetry Project, Uptown Collective, Hip-Not Magazine and Manhattan Times.
His short story "Without a Big One" is a nominee for the O Henry Award and The Best American Short Stories 2019.
His writing has received the following accolades: The Bernard L. Einbond Memorial Prize and The Aaron Hochberg Family Award for fiction; Winner of DTM magazine’s “Latino Identity in the U.S.” essay contest; NY State Summer Writers Institute scholarship recipient; and 2013 Northern Manhattan Artists Alliance grantee for writing.
Follow him at https://www.instagram.com/infantejp/?hl=en