Posted on July 8, 2008

8 Million Stories: Gringa in the Heights

Kristen Bonardi Rapp, New York Press, July 8, 2008

The day I moved to Washington Heights, a kid stood on the sidewalk and stared at me. {snip}

{snip} Then it became clear: I was the white lady moving into this Dominican kid’s home. I made eye contact with him and smiled uncertainly, as if to say: Sorry, kid, it’s true. I live here now. The kid looked away.

Choosing Washington Heights had been easy: It was affordable, and it was in Manhattan. What else did I need to know? As I packed up my old apartment in Boston, I read Washington Heights’ Wikipedia page as if it were scripture. I learned the neighborhood had been a refuge for European Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s, who were then displaced by Greeks in the 1960s. By thata time, Washington Heights had become “the Astoria of Manhattan.” In the 1970s, the Greeks, in turn, were displaced by Dominicans, and now Washington Heights has the largest Dominican population outside the Dominican Republic.

The web page failed to mention I’d be welcomed to the neighborhood by a goggle-eyed kid. I felt like all my neighbors were staring at me. Did my neighbors see me, coconut-pale among chocolates and cinnamons, as just another neighbor? Or was I seen as the harbinger of gentrification, ready to wipe away another old neighborhood, bringing nothing but Starbucks and jacked-up rents?


One Saturday morning, I stepped out to get a newspaper and a coffee to find the neighborhood completely transformed for the annual Dominican Day Festival. Unable to go anywhere else, I stood and peered over the police barricades, craning to see the parade that was still just a distant din, until at last, the parade swaggered down St. Nicholas Avenue.

Masked red devils ran up and leered at small kids in the crowds. Girls in towering feathered headpieces wore sequined dresses and glinted in the sun like fresh fish. Behind a pair of gigantic fake boobs, a man in a dress and wig hid behind his parasol and shook his equally enormous fake behind at the delighted crowd.

It was like Mardi Gras and Christmas and the Fourth of July all at once, and this feeling of undaunted joy rose up from the sidewalks like the shimmering August heat. I started to cry. Everyone around me cheering, laughing, waving flags . . . and I would never genuinely be a part of that. I knew I would always be on one side of the barricade, my neighbors on the other.

I also began to understand something else: I was a complete idiot. Of course, I was never going to fit in. I accepted, at last, that there would be times where people would look twice and wonder what I was doing in that part of town; but I was in New York City, a city based largely on the premise that no one really gives a damn where you’re from. And whatever made me different from my neighbors, I began to understand there are things we could all agree on.