by Laura Kusnyer , 05/26/2009
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Named for George Washington, who led troops into battle here against the British in 1776, Washington Heights is simultaneously emblematic of New York City's rich history and its constantly evolving cityscape. Although our first president didn't fare too well in the Battle of Fort Washington, the neighborhood still stands tall on Manhattan's highest ground, where it's now an ode to contemporary American diversity. Just ask Tom Pappas, who's manned the blooms at Anthony Flower Shop since 1974: "In the '70s, it was a Greek and Cuban neighborhood; then it was mainly Puerto Rican; now it's a Dominican neighborhood."
Spanning from 155th Street up into Inwood (Manhattan's northernmost neighborhood, commonly considered part of Washington Heights), the area has in many ways become a little Dominican Republic—from its joyerías (jewelry shops) and chimichurri vendors to the bachata and reggaetón beats that add life to its buzzing streets. Music is so much a part of the lifestyle here, you'd be hard-pressed to spend a dance-less evening in Washington Heights. "¡El que no baila bachata no es dominicano! [Anyone who doesn't dance bachata isn't Dominican!]," exclaims Elízabeth de la Cruz, a bartender at popular restaurant and nightlife spot La Casa Del Mofongo. Whether you want a dose of culture, authentic Latin American eats or just feel like moving your feet, take time for a visit to the Heights. (And if you don't know bachata, don't worry—Elízabeth assures it's simply "all in the hips.")
The Heights, at a Glance
One way to get a sense of what Washington Heights is all about is to see Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning show In the Heights; another is to head uptown on the A train (or the 1) and experience it for yourself—even if you only have a few hours. Hop off at 181st Street and go for lunch (which typically doesn't get going until 1:30pm) at the aforementioned Mofongo. The multilevel restaurant's namesake dish—mashed plantains mixed with pork, filled with your choice of meat or veggies and doused with broth—is reason enough for a visit. Once you're stuffed, go out for a western-bound walk on 181st Street, taking in the Latin beats that blare from salons and browsing the trinket-packed tables on the sidewalks. If it's hot, be sure to pick up a frío-frío (snow cone) in your flavor of choice from a street vendor as you continue toward the Hudson River. Once you hit the corner of 181st Street and Cabrini Boulevard, duck into Hispaniola for a beverage, and try to snag a window seat for views of the George Washington Bridge. Then prepare yourself for a worthwhile climb up Cabrini Boulevard (they don't call it "the Heights" for nothing). The lively sounds of 181st Street fade away as you walk north with the Hudson River and forested New Jersey landscape on your left. Once you reach 187th Street, swing around to Fort Washington Avenue and kick back at Monkey Room with a Presidente beer. Your Washington Heights mini-tour is complete.
Trad & New
Although the Heights is primarily a Dominican neighborhood, it's still a haven of diversity. "In one night, I'll hear five different languages," says Tina Connell, a 23-year-old aspiring actress who bartends (and has been known to karaoke) at Coogan's Restaurant at Broadway and 169th Street. Coogan's, often referred to as the Cheers of the southern portion of Washington Heights, is an after-work favorite of staff from nearby New York–Presbyterian Hospital. Fortunately for med students, there are plenty of coffee-shop options in the area as well. Located in what was formerly the Audubon Ballroom, X Caffé—named for Malcolm X, who was assassinated at the ballroom in 1965—serves up new-school lattes and panini in a setting thick with history. And just a block away is Carrot Top Pastries, where coffee is still available at prices seemingly from a time capsule (80 cents for a small cup!). In addition to the tasty breakfast and lunch sandwiches, baked goods concocted in-house are the real allure here—we're talking cupcakes with two-inch coatings of frosting and, of course, to-die-for carrot cake. When asked if they've changed any recipes since the original Carrot Top (at Broadway and 215th Street) opened in 1980, one employee chuckled, "Yes, now we have turkey bacon."
Carrot Top's been holding down the fort around the 168th Street subway stop for more than 20 years. When it comes to dining, though, newcomers like Plum Pomidor are gathering steam. Residents still provide plenty of business for the nearby Dallas BBQ and various Latin American restaurants, but Plum's dimly lit, fancier setting and Italian-influenced cuisine have made it a favorite for date night. Keep your eyes and ears peeled if you get off the A train late on the weekend—every once in a while, experimental fusion bands have been known to play shows here post-midnight, setting scenes eerily similar to those in Brooklyn. If jazz is more up your alley, stop by Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.
Haciendo coro in Washington Heights
When it comes to going out (haciendo coro), the kids know how to live it up, uptown-style. If you feel like joining in, here are a few tips. Quisqueya Record—named after a slang term for Hispaniola—is a good place to brush up on your reggaetón, salsa and more before heading out (you don't want to be the only one not singing along). If you want to show off your rhythm, make a stop at Nostylgia to pick up some new kicks; the tiny shop is Washington Heights' answer to SoHo's high-end sneaker stores. And make sure you eat up before hitting the club—the skirt steak at El Conde Steakhouse is a neighborhood favorite. There's also Mamajuana Cafe, where tapas, paella and other Spanish cuisine are served amid Dominican- and Spanish-inspired decor.
Mamajuana is also a popular nightlife spot where you can chill on the back patio with a pitcher of sangria or—and this one's a must—a Mamajuana mojito or margarita (mamajuana, a combination of roots and herbs once used to cure ailments by the island's native Taino Indians, is commonly known as an aphrodisiac). From there, if you want to stay out late, Arka Lounge is your destination for dancing into the wee hours of the morning. It's not much to look at from the outside—but inside, this see-and-be-seen spot has a sleek bar, fish tanks and lots of fancy footwork from sexily dressed patrons.
In addition to the dining, shopping and nightlife options mentioned above, there are lots of other reasons to take the A train north. Admission is free at the Hispanic Society of America, where you can learn about Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American culture from the art and other historical items on display. For a bit of US history, head to the Morris-Jumel Mansion to see where General Washington bunked during the Revolutionary War. Or travel further back in time at the Cloisters, the gorgeous Metropolitan Museum of Art outpost that houses its Medieval European art collection and overlooks the Hudson River and Fort Tryon Park—one of Lin-Manuel Miranda's inspirations when writing In the Heights.
Strengthening the Washington Heights community through fitness, the Armory Track and Field Foundation is the biggest after-school center in the City (in addition to serving as the host of more than 100 track events annually). And just a few blocks north of the impressive track facility, the United Palace Theater’s incredibly ornate architecture looms over 175th Street. Doubling as a concert venue and home base of Christ Community United Church, the site has hosted rock acts like Björk and Sigur Rós and is open to the public every Sunday at 2:45pm for a religious service. Locals often hang out outside, and their sunny demeanor—much like the overall attitude of Washington Heights—is enough to make you smile. If it doesn't, just take a look at the United Palace Theater's marquee, which currently reads: "Come on in or smile as you pass."