Cross­ing Broad­way: Wash­ing­ton Heights and the Promise of New York City

  • Review
By – May 19, 2015

Wash­ing­ton Heights, a Man­hat­tan neigh­bor­hood just north of Harlem, is now pre­dom­i­nate­ly black and Lati­no, with the largest con­cen­tra­tion of Domini­cans out­side of the Domini­can Repub­lic. But 75 years ago, Wash­ing­ton Heights had many Irish, Ital­ian, Greek and Jew­ish res­i­dents, and its nick­name, Frank­furt on the Hud­son,” stemmed from the many Jew­ish refugees from Cen­tral Europe who set­tled there pri­or to and after World War II. George Wash­ing­ton High School, the local high school, was then con­sid­ered one of the best pub­lic sec­ondary schools in the city, and its grad­u­ates includ­ed Hen­ry Kissinger, the rad­i­cal nov­el­ist Howard Fast, and Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor Jacob Javits.

The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Wash­ing­ton Heights is a shell of what it once was. Jews, as well as oth­er white res­i­dents, began desert­ing the area in the 1950s, although Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty, the flag­ship insti­tu­tion of Mod­ern Ortho­doxy, has remained, a reminder of the neighborhood’s pre­vi­ous Jew­ish glo­ries. Dur­ing the 1980s, Wash­ing­ton Heights became noto­ri­ous as a mar­ket for crack cocaine, and George Wash­ing­ton High School was rife with gang war­fare, low aca­d­e­m­ic stan­dards, stu­dent absen­teeism, and a high dropout rate. By the ear­ly twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er, con­di­tions in Wash­ing­ton Heights had notice­ably improved, and it attract­ed artists and musi­cians enticed by its rel­a­tive­ly low rents when com­pared to that of oth­er Man­hat­tan neigh­bor­hoods. These trans­for­ma­tions com­prise the engross­ing leit­mo­tif of Cross­ing Broad­way, Broad­way being the major north-south thor­ough­fare sep­a­rat­ing the area’s more afflu­ent pop­u­la­tion liv­ing to the west near the Hud­son Riv­er from the rest of its residents.

Robert W. Snyder’s deeply-researched and well-writ­ten book exhibits reflects some of the prob­lems of jour­nal­ism when applied to the analy­sis of his­tor­i­cal data. The most impor­tant of these is its empha­sis on indi­vid­u­als rather than on broad social and eco­nom­ic forces in explain­ing the Wash­ing­ton Heights’ sto­ry. It is cer­tain­ly inter­est­ing to read the var­ied respons­es of left-wing activists to the neighborhood’s decline, but even more reveal­ing would have been an in-depth dis­cus­sion of the rea­sons for the decline in the first place, includ­ing whether the con­di­tions in Wash­ing­ton Heights were sui gener­is. How dif­fer­ent was Wash­ing­ton Heights from oth­er New York City neigh­bor­hoods like Brownsville-East New York in Brook­lyn and the South Bronx, which also expe­ri­enced social and eco­nom­ic dete­ri­o­ra­tion and white flight after World War II? On also won­ders, among oth­er things, why Domini­cans chose to set­tle in Wash­ing­ton Heights in the first place, and why Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty decid­ed to stay in Wash­ing­ton Heights rather than relo­cat­ing to the suburbs?

Snyder’s pen­chant for mak­ing judg­ments about the choic­es made by those in pow­er with­out con­sid­er­ing the his­tor­i­cal con­text in which these took place or the many pres­sures which these deci­sion-mak­ers faced too eas­i­ly con­demns those politi­cians, police, and school admin­is­tra­tors who did not share his left-wing pol­i­tics and were con­cerned, jus­ti­fi­ably or not, about the impact of demo­graph­ic change on prop­er­ty val­ues and the qual­i­ty of life in Wash­ing­ton Heights. Cross­ing Broad­way is an inter­est­ing and valu­able vol­ume, but it is marred by a propen­si­ty to see the his­to­ry of Wash­ing­ton Heights as a strug­gle between the forces of light and darkness.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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