NCAS Professor Robert Snyder Traces the History of NYC's Washington Heights

Lawrence Lerner

Since the early 1600s, when the explorer Henry Hudson first sailed past upper Manhattan, the story of New York City has been one of constant turnover and change, as the native Munsee Indians, and then countless immigrant groups after them, have settled in various parts of the city before moving on or being displaced by forces beyond their control.

Perhaps no neighborhood in Manhattan has experienced this more than Washington Heights, near the northern tip of the island, whose namesake—General George Washington, the first American president—was himself pushed out by invading British forces there in October 1776.

During the 20th century, many ethnic communities called the area home. Prior to World War II, Greeks, Irish, and German and Eastern European Jews settled there in droves. The post-war period saw an influx of Puerto Ricans, along with African-Americans from the south. In the 1960s and ’70s, people from Asia, the Caribbean and, most notably, the Dominican Republic flowed into the neighborhood. By the 1980s, Washington Heights was home to the largest Dominican community in the U.S.

As Washington Heights’ ethic mix churned, large-scale changes also altered the landscape: The fiscal crisis of the 1970s ushered in the spread of urban blight as federal-government policies turned away from cities. Racial tension and crime increased. The crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and early ’90s turned the southeast part of the neighborhood—the epicenter of the drug trade—into a war zone.

In fact, during these decades, Washington Heights was plagued by such deep structural problems that many observers left it for dead. But through the hard work of activists, business leaders, religious and cultural organizations, elected officials and others, Washington Heights rose from the ashes and gradually began experiencing a resurgence. The upward trend, which continues to this day, has marked one of the greatest turnarounds in recent memory of any neighborhood in New York City.

Rutgers University–Newark historian Robert Snyder, who has deep personal ties to Washington Heights, traces the decline and renewal of the area in his new book, Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City (Cornell University Press).

The book, which had been percolating within Snyder since the late ’80s, is based on historical research, reporting and oral histories (Snyder was a reporter before becoming a historian). It was a labor of love: Over the course of 30 years, prior to and while working on the book, he interviewed hundreds of people, did extensive archival research, went on police patrols, read newspapers, did social-justice work, and otherwise immersed himself in the life of Washington Heights.

The neighborhood’s near-miraculous recovery, made possible through the commitment of those invested in the area, is captured by the geographic reference in the book’s title: “Crossing Broadway.”

“The different ethnic groups in the neighborhood had to overcome their tribal instincts and work together to overcome enormous problems,” says Snyder. “My book examines the heroes who literally and figuratively ‘crossed Broadway’—the geographical dividing line between the affluent and poor, white and black, Dominican and America-born—to rescue Washington Heights and start its current resurgence.”

It didn’t come easily, according to Snyder. Getting residents to look beyond their parochial interests and venture out of their socio-linguistic enclaves was challenging enough. It was all the more difficult amid rampant crime, dilapidated housing, poor public schools, and parks too dangerous to step foot in.

Fear and distrust were endemic. Religious, racial and socio-economic divisions hardened. And it became more and more difficult for the various groups to recognize, let along discuss, their shared interests in creating a more livable, vibrant and prosperous neighborhood where middle-class dreams could be realized.

“Concerned residents who wanted to take back their neighborhood ended up turning the very things that had hindered them before—the area’s population density and diversity—into an asset,” says Snyder. “They looked around and found allies in the neighborhood and in City Hall. That’s what drove this recovery.”

Capitalizing on those elements required a certain mindset, however, one with roots in the New Deal. And the book’s narrative is framed in time accordingly: from the New Deal to the present. As Snyder tells it, the activists who forged alliances and found common purpose among the various religious and ethnic groups fought for a richer, more inclusive vision of urban life, one in which the neighborhood and city were to be shared by all its citizens.

While weaving this tale, Snyder manages to deftly connect Washington Heights’ problems with larger structural issues facing the nation during this timespan, such as racial and economic inequality, federal urban policy of the ’70s, the shift from an industrial to a service economy, along with the rising gap between rich and poor in the age of globalization.

He says that given the size of the problems they faced, the individuals and groups involved—as effective as they were—nevertheless needed city, state and national resources to dig the neighborhood out of crisis and make progress.

The same can be said for longtime residents today as they deal with the irony of their success: gentrification and soaring rents, plus a growing artistic and literary scene.

“The people who worked to save the neighborhood deserve more than a stiff rent increase,” says Snyder. “Income and economic inequality, combined with a spike in rents, are the real problems now. We’ll need larger city, state and national efforts to combat them.”



Photo Credits: (Top) Creative Commons/Cyan Skies/Nando Prudhomme; (Middle) Nick Romanenko