The Immigrant History of the NYC Neighborhood Behind ‘In the Heights’

The film adaptation of Lin- Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” draws on the real history of Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood
known colloquially as “Little Dominican Republic,” comes alive on stage and on screen, imbuing every scene with an unmistakable, pulsating presence

Situated between 155th Street and 195th Street

The neighborhood’s story is one of hardship, prosperity and communal spirit—themes aptly mirrored in the Tony Award–winning musical

Locals call Washington Heights “Little Dominican Republic.” Pictured here is a scene from the film adaptation of In the Heights. Macall Polay

By the time Miranda was growing up, the neighborhood had long been considered a refuge for immigrants in search of the American dream

1800s: when first developed, it was where wealthy New Yorkers called home

Regal estates, like that of famed naturalist John James Audubon, took advantage of the area’s rolling hills and waterfront views

A 1910 photograph of the Riviera at 156th Street and Riverside Drive

In addition to the neighborhood’s physical beauty, it drew interest for its historical significance, having been the site of Fort Washington, a strategic point of defense in the Continental army’s efforts to protect NY from the British

1900: The face of Wash. Heights began to change and became an enclave for European immigrants
when affluent families moved to estates south, developing today’s Fifth Ave and Upper East Side

The Irish, escaping the Great Potato Famine, settled in the neighborhood after the Lower East Side proved inhospitable

View of George Washington Bridge from New York side of Hudson River

A few decades later, German Jews, fleeing anti- Semitism in the wake of the Nazi regime’s rise to power, arrived in such numbers that it became known as “Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson”

1960s: Immigrants from Greece settled there

As manufacturing jobs that had attracted immigrants to NYC began to disappear in the second half of the 20th century, the quality of life in Wash. Heights began to decline

1980s: Became known as a breeding ground for drug dealers during the crack epidemic

Barbershop in Washington Heights in 1961 © Winston Vargas / Smithsonian American Art Museum

1986: NYPD initiated “Operation Clean Heights,” designed to eradicate the drug trade vis-à-vis military-like tactics

1989: The efforts made little impact. NYPD deeming it the city’s homicide capital

2000s: Children of barbershop & salon owners said, “I love this community, let me do something for it…we made this neighborhood for what it is now.”
The beginning of this upward trajectory is when Miranda began to pen his adaptation. Although clearly part of American culture, these slices of life do not always get the recognition they deserve

For more, please click on the articles below.


Smithsonian Magazine Article – CLICK

NY Women Immigrants Article – CLICK

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