Cultural Aspects of Washington Heights

Many areas of New York City are hotbeds of cultural exchange and diffusion, and Washington Heights is no exception. This neighborhood has transformed drastically over the years as the majority ethnic group in the area changes. Today, the large majority of residents are hispanic, and thus, the neighborhood is sometimes referred to as “Quisqeya Heights,” referring to a municipality in the Dominican Republic. While traces of previous cultures remain such as the Jewish population and the Irish and Germans, the area is extremely rich in Latino food, religion, events, and languages.


Walking around the streets of Washington Heights, numerous food carts selling anything from sweets to barbecued meat is not an uncommon sight. Many residents of the area earn their living through street vending of fruits and vegetables, shaved ice, and barbecue. In addition, countless restaurants with colorful awnings line the streets serving foods from numerous Latin countries.


The most common type of food one may expect to find in the area is Dominican, due to the majority population. Dominican food consists of lots of meat and starches (e.g. corn and potatoes) and has strong Spanish and African influences in its cuisine. Most meals include a combination of rice, beans, meat, and salad, or all of the above. In addition, many restaurants in the area have become fusion Latino restaurants, so to speak, and serve not only Dominican food, but classic dishes from other countries like Mexico, Puerto Rico, and many more. To get a taste of some authentic Dominican food at a reasonable price, check out El Malecon Restaurant at 4141 Broadway between 175th and 176th street. 


Washington Heights is home to a wide variety of religions, but the two most practiced are Catholicism and Judaism. There are hundreds of religious institutions in the area, from churches to congregations, to youth groups and schools. Located at 510 W 165th St, is the Saint Rose of Lima Catholic Church, which stands out among the many similar-looking apartment buildings, as a picturesque, intricately designed structure. Founded by Archbishop Michael J. Corrigan in 1901, the church was named after Saint Rose of Lima, Peru. The actual building that stands today was not actually built until December of 1905, soon followed by the founding and development of a parish school. The St. Rose of Lima School is on 164th St, and is geared towards providing children with an education in a religious setting.

Home to Yeshiva University, a private Jewish university, there is a significant Jewish population in Washington Heights as well, and thus, a large number of synagogues and congregations. Some of the more prominent institutions are Kahal Adath Jeshurun, Congregation Beth Hillel, and Congregation Emez Wozedek. Many congregations were forced to close over the years due to lack of attendance and funding, but in recent years there has been a slight rebirth of the Jewish faith in the area due to young Jewish students and professionals moving into the area.

Festivals and Cultural Events

During the spring and summer, many of the busy avenues of Washington Heights are lined with street vendors selling prepared foods, groceries, clothing, and more. Over the years, annual festivals and traditions in the neighborhood have developed and help define the area’s ethnic identity. One of the most recent events that just began this year is the New York Dominican Film Festival. Held at Coliseum Cinemas on 181st street, this event provided the Dominican community to share their culture and history with their neighbors and with the public. Another annual festival is the Medieval Festival which takes place in Fort Tyron Park, surrounding the Cloisters. This festival has been going on for twenty seven years and draws in approximately 45,000 people each year. Everyone is dressed in medieval costume and enjoys music, dance and other performances representative of the time. 

Significant Landmarks

The Cloisters

Part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters is a museum in Fort Tyron Park, which houses works from the medieval time period in Europe. The building was constructed in the 1930’s, and contains parts of five different French cloistered abbeys, which had been disassembled prior to being shipped to New York.

The Cloisters in Fort Tyron Park

Morris Jumel Mansion

Built in 1765, this mansion was home to George Washington during part of the Revolutionary war against Britain. Its hilltop location provided a clear view of all of the nearby bodies of water, and thus proved to be a strategic military position. In 1810, ownership of the mansion was passed on to Stephen Jumel and his wife. When they died, a great number of court cases and disputes passed over the ownership of the property, but it was eventually purchased by the city of New York and preserved as a national monument. Today, it operates as a museum and is maintained by the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Inc. 

Audubon Ballroom

This theatre and ballroom was built in Washington Heights in 1912 by William Fox, who later founded Fox Film Corporation. The building was used for a number of events, including movies, vaudeville performances, and meetings. When Malcolm-X founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, they held their meetings in the Audubon Ballroom. On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated at one of these meetings in the building. It later became a research and business park owned by Columbia University. In 2005, a section of the building was dedicated as a museum in honor of Malcolm-X. 


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