“ONCE UPON a time, in a faraway land called Nueva York, en un barrio called Washington Heights…” “In the Heights”, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical, recently adapted into a film, is a love letter to a neighbourhood in Upper Manhattan. The story is charming, at times dazzling and moving, but it is not a fairy-tale—not a typical one, at any rate. The material includes poverty, death, racism, the struggles of undocumented “Dreamers” (who were brought to America without papers as children), what it is to be an immigrant and to be Latino in America. Yet despite the serious themes, or perhaps because of them, the film captures the beauty of the neighbourhood and the sueñito (“little dream”) of Washington Heights’ residents.
“In the Heights” was filmed on location, using George Washington Bridge as a backdrop. In one scene, a homage to the films of Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams, locals will recognise the Highbridge swimming pool; later the graffiti-filled tunnel at the 191st Street subway stop makes an appearance. The film captures the way in which the bodega (corner shop) and the hair salon function as social hubs. Led Black, of Uptown Collective, a local blog, says one of his friends cried watching the movie as “he had never seen his neighbourhood in that way”. (Some disagreed, criticising the film’s lack of representation of Afro-Latinos. “In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short,” Mr Miranda tweeted.)
Its denizens are largely working-class Latinos: mostly Dominicans, some older Cubans, a sizable Puerto Rican contingent and a growing number from Central America. “It is the last ‘real’ neighbourhood in Manhattan,” says Mr Black. “Washington Heights is a Dominican Disneyland.” Dominican restaurants, social clubs and flags dominate the neighbourhood. The streets are named after national heroes.
People started to emigrate from the Dominican Republic in the 1960s but arrived in greater numbers in the 1980s and early 1990s. At that point the crack epidemic was at its height. The newcomers reclaimed the area. Robert Snyder, the author of “Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City”, says they “helped shepherd the neighbourhood through the hardest of times, but now face the fear of being priced out.” When Mr Miranda wrote his musical two decades ago, gentrification was already a worry. One of his characters raps: “The rent is escalating…The rich are penetrating.”
Nostalgia and wistfulness permeate “In the Heights”. Dreaming of going home is something most immigrants do but the residents of Washington Heights also dream of the Heights, fearing it is already lost. Locals learned from the hard lessons administered to their neighbours in Harlem, a case study in gentrification. They organise and stage protests against unwelcome modern developments; as a result, Washington Heights has maintained the look of pre-war New York. But as Usnavi, the film’s hero, says: “It’s the story of a block that was disappearing.” The RKO Coliseum, a century-old cinema, was demolished last year. Coogans, an Irish pub, has closed permanently because of covid.
The heart of the community has edged uptown, along St Nicholas Avenue toward Dyckman Street. “Many Dominicans don’t like raw fish,” says Mr Black, so a popular Japanese-Caribbean restaurant offers “fully cooked” rolls. Chinese restaurants serve plantain. One woman put her children through college by selling beans and rice on the same corner near St Nicholas for 30 years. There is much change, but the spirit of the place can be kept alive. As Usnavi urges his daughter and her friends: “Say it, so it doesn’t disappear.”
“In the Heights” is playing in cinemas in America and Britain now