A Century Of Ethnic Tensions

It could easily be argued that ethnic tensions in Washington Heights started as early the 1890’s and 1900’s, when Armenian immigrants began moving to the region and displacing wealthy White Americans. However, the tensions were never a major problem until the late 1910’s and early 1920’s, when a wave of diverse immigrants began settling in Washington Heights. As the more established Irish immigrants of the neighborhood met German and Eastern European Jews in this narrow strip of Manhattan, Washington Heights became an area of muted tensions.

Though the 1920’s escaped with little outer conflict between the two groups, the 1930’s introduced a period of anti-Semitic actions by the Irish of the area. Groups like the Christian Front and Christian Mobilizers, which started in 1939, harassed the Jews of Washington Heights and focused on disrupting their daily lives. As Irish immigrants came to dominate the police force, little was done to eradicate the conflict, and the problems continued through the 1940’s and early 1950’s.

Ralph Blumenthal, a journalist for the New York Times for forty-five years, lived his childhood in the neighborhood known as Inwood during this tumultuous time. Though the location differed by just a few blocks, the anti-Semitic sentiment was the same. During a visit to our class, Blumenthal painted a picture of school days spent running from Irish kids with stones, accusing him and his Jewish friends of “killing Jesus”. Halloweens in the neighborhood were holidays to be dreaded; ominous socks filled with powdered chalk lined the hands of Irish children, intending on playing practical jokes meant to harm and disgrace young Jews. Luckily for the generation after Blumenthal, the political and religious debates between the two groups were mostly subdued as the Jewish population moved away and other immigrant groups began settling in Washington Heights.

Toward the end of the 1940’s, African Americans began leaving the crowded streets of Harlem to occupy the ample, park-filled space of Washington Heights. Historically speaking, African Americans and Irish immigrants have always a shared animosity toward one another; African Americans were willing to work the same jobs for less money, essentially robbing Irish laborers of their meager wages. Draft riots arose in the years during and after the Civil War, and the tensions continued into the twentieth century. Feeling more or less suffocated by the newest residents of Washington Heights, the Irish slowly abandoned the neighborhood for first- or second-generation enclaves in Brooklyn throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. A growing number of Latino immigrants filled the vacant apartments of Washington Heights.

As immigrants from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic began moving in through the 1950’s and 1960’s, the majority of White Americans and immigrants left the neighborhood for Inwood or the many outer boroughs of New York City. Tensions were minimal between the Hispanic immigrants and African Americans. The most violent, ethnically charged event of 1960’s and 1970’s Washington Heights did not even occur between the two groups. The assassination of Malcolm X in the Audubon Ballroom was based out of tensions between the Nation of Islam and Black nationalists. This period of two coexisting ethnic groups did not last long, however, and the early 1980’s ushered in the most violent period of Washington Heights.

Articles on Jose "Kiko" Garcia's death

As the crack epidemic of the 1980’s and 1990’s took hold, Dominican drug dealers found themselves pitted against the largely white police force of Washington Heights. On July 3 of 1992, riots erupted after an Irish police officer, Michael O’Keefe, shot and killed a Dominican immigrant, Jose “Kiko” Garcia, on the claim that he was carrying a concealed weapon. The officer was cleared of the charges by a grand jury, but not before dragging the current mayor into the line of fire and exposing a hidden conflict between the Hispanic immigrants and remaining White population of the area.

As the drug problem of Washington Heights eased, so did its ethnic tensions. Throughout the past ten years, the largely Latino population has settled into its own, and the area has calmed down significantly. With the migration of White Americans to Washington Heights, however, it can only be anticipated that further racial conflicts will arise in the next few years. For now, the population of this Upper Manhattan neighborhood can focus on more pressing matters, like the social issues currently haunting Washington Heights.


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