Doing tours of not-so-touristy neighborhoods, like Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, trying to track down information about neighborhood institutions, quirky stories and sugar-coating the down-and-out history isn’t easy. But when it comes to it, bringing a busload of kids to discover the genuine character of a rarely visited section of NYC is a true joy. Washington Heights gained brief fame as the focus of the Tony award winning musical In The Heights, but not many outsiders make their way to the top of Manhattan. It’s a shame, because this immigrant community of Dominicans has lots to see and do. (In fact, we’re hosting a Tasting Tour with Google Community Places called #GoogleUniqueEats. Check out how you can score a FREE seat on the partybus!)
Washington Heights is a surprisingly textured neighborhood with history dating back to the American Revolution; however our tour group, the Spanish Club of Shaker Heights Junior High School outside of Albany, wanted to explore the Dominican culture. Starting at the Church of the Good Shepherd we admired the beautiful interior of the 1930’s-era structure and spoke about the role Catholicism plays in the Hispanic community. We even had the opportunity to pay our respects at a memorial on the church grounds dedicated to heroes from the community who lost their lives in the attacks on the World Trade Center.
We strolled down to George Washington High School, discussing the Dominican immigration that occurred in the 1950’s and 60’s and the newly arrived students’ remarkable thirst for education. A funny story regarding these young strivers is that when disbelieving, skeptical teachers put up flyers for clubs that didn’t exist at the school, (Rowing, Fishing, etc.) the Dominican students had enthusiastically signed up for each activity.
You see, having escaped Trujillo-era despotism, the Dominican community was not a stranger to blood-thirsty politics. Young Dominican immigrants called llevados would march up Broadway every April dressed in military pants, black shorts and bands of ammunition over their shoulders. There are huge, apolitical celebrations as well, like “La Dia de la Raza”, which happens on Columbus Day. (After all, the day the Europeans met the Native Americans was the day the Hispanic Race was born!) Washington Heights is abuzz with Latin-flavor on the second Monday in October, with traditional music, food and dress.
After a short walking tour to check out a few neighborhood murals, we broke out our secret weapon: we found time in the busy schedule of State Assemblyman Guillermo Linares. Linares arrived from the Dominican Republic in 1966 and worked late, dangerous nights as a taxi driver while attending school. In 1991 he was elected to City Council, the first Dominican-born American to be hold a government post. In 1995 he was personally tapped by President Clinton and soon found himself riding around in Air Force One, discussing immigrant rights and public education all around the country. He spoke to the kids about his proud heritage.
Finally we headed to 27 de Febrero, the hottest spot for tostones and bachata music in the Heights. With enriched spirit, educated minds and full bellies, the Spanish Club of Shaker Heights said goodbye as they set off to their tour of the United Nations. And they thought they were just going to practice their Spanish!
By Jonah Levy