Recent Social Issues

Upon research into Washington Heights, it is incredibly difficult to find any drastic problems of the area. Its reputation from the drug era of the 1980’s and 1990’s has carried into the twenty-first century, but on little factual grounds. The total crimes reported by the 33rd and 34th Precincts in 2010 was just 109 over the amount for the two precincts of the Upper West Side. New Law tenements still found in Washington Heights contain significant safety improvements over the cramped apartment buildings of Lower Manhattan, and the multitude of parks keep residents from feeling as cramped as those toward the Financial District. The death rates remain approximately 75 people per 100,000 lower than the rest of New York City, and the overall area has taken on an identity uncharacteristic of the rest of Manhattan. Even in this blooming neighborhood, however, there are still problems faced by the community as a whole.

With the recent deficit plaguing the New York State government, Washington Heights is trying to handle a beleaguered school system with an ineptitude that makes educating bilingual students difficult. According to the 2000 census, Washington Heights’ population was 53.3 percent foreign born, and a staggering 45.7 percent were not proficient in English; classrooms that teach in English can find it difficult to reach the other non-English speaking half. Catering to a populous that is 74.1 percent Hispanic creates a unique challenge that requires additional funding and government attention.

A chart describing potential layoffs for Washington Heights schools

Like the other neighborhoods of New York City, Washington Heights’ schools are facing teacher layoffs and budget cuts. In the chart to the right, the New York City Department of Education tallies the number and percent of layoffs in relation to the total number of teachers in several District 6 schools. Though the largest amount of pink slips tops at eleven teachers in the Community Health Academy of the Heights, smaller, specialty schools are experiencing cuts up to half the total number of teachers. This obscenely high amount of teacher layoffs creates yet another burden on an already encumbered system, which may decrease the quality of schools even farther than bilingual problems have.

Though the educational system is one of the most largely debated issues in New York politics, it is not the only problem facing the residents of Washington Heights. Medically speaking, Washington Heights as a whole struggles with a variety of illnesses and addictions. According to the New York City Community Health Survey from 2002 to 2004, 21 percent of adults living in the combined areas of Washington Heights and Inwood were obese, and 11 percent had diabetes. A fifth of the population was uninsured, and a whopping third of residents lacked a personal doctor. At 48 percent of the population, residents that never exercise come in at 16 percentage points higher than the overall average for Manhattan.

These health concerns are hard to overcome in other parts of the city, but Washington Heights has a single underlying factor that influences every social issue found with its residents: 31 percent of residents live below the poverty line. In terms of the 2000 census, 83,917 people of the total 270,700 that live in Washington Heights live in poverty. This fact alone gave birth to a crack epidemic that spanned the five boroughs of New York City, a crime rate rivaled only by East Harlem, and an atmosphere that minimized the amount of White Americans moving into the area.

As a result of the low income of the immigrants living there, Washington Heights has remained fairly unchanged over the past three or four decades. With the influx of middle-class Americans looking for cheaper apartments in a decent neighborhood, however, the almost gritty atmosphere will likely be smoothed over, and the rise in housing costs will drive many of the immigrants out of Washington Heights. It is hard to determine whether this change is in the best interests of residents, but the face-lift of Washington Heights will more than certainly turn it into the tourist spot its rich history deserves.

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