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.