The day I moved to Washington Heights, a kid stood on the sidewalk and stared at me. It was sweltering that day, and even though it wasn’t the most practical choice for moving day, I wore one of those tank tops with the built-in bras, so I immediately feared the worst: I must have popped out of my top while picking up a box. Why else would an 8-year-old boy stare at me like that?
I looked down. I was decent, but he was still staring. 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?
I could have just moved—my things were still in boxes—but I was already in love with this loud, strange neighborhood. After night fell and the city cooled off, I would give myself some small errand as an excuse to walk along St. Nicholas Avenue and be out in the streets among my neighbors. Tall, tough-looking teenage boys would stoop to greet tiny grandmothers with a kiss. Old men set up their domino tables on the sidewalks, wearing their Cuban-style shirts and smoking cigars, their laughter heard half a block away. Every couple of blocks, the frío frío man stood with his huge block of ice, rasping it into shavings to be soaked with sugary syrups.
As the weeks passed, I started collecting moments I felt I was being accepted, turning them over and over in my mind, until the details blurred to a warm glow. The day the Mister Softee woman handed over my cone saying, “Here you go, mami.” The elderly neighbor who thanked me (I presume) in Spanish for taking her garbage out after I asked through a series of gestures: Me? Bag? Take over there?
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.
I stood at the barricade, laughing and wiping my teary face now and then, until the parade finally strutted away. I walked home again, entering the small concrete courtyard in front of my building. A pair of boys tossed a baseball between them. As I passed them, I heard it. One of the boys speaking to the other: something something gringa something estúpida something, finishing with a snort.
My heart sank. As I jabbed my key into the lock, I looked over my shoulder and saw the same kid who stared at me the day I moved in. We looked at each other for a minute and then he looked back at his friend. He sucked his teeth in disgust.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked the name-calling kid. “Why you gotta be so fucking racist all the time?”
I swung open the front door and went home.
Kristen Bonardi Rapp is a freelance writer who still lives in Washington Heights. She blogs about food and other things at gezellig-girl.com.