The Perfect Embodiment of the Washington Heights Community
Washington Heights hosts numerous places of interest, but particularly, at the intersection of Amsterdam Avenue and 165th street, a jewel sits brightly, and it was too hard not to notice. It was a community book shop, or librería comunitaria in Spanish, called Word Up, and it stood out as a place that appeared worthwhile to visit. Word Up’s beguiling facade was eye-catching. The storefront awning identified the shop in both languages and depicted the Word Up’s logo, a halfway opened book that seemed to contain knowledge and surprises. Strangely, the juxtaposition of “community bookshop” and its Spanish translation on the awning evoked in me a sense of belonging and comfort.
Outside the community bookshop, there was a book cart that held very affordable books, ranging from 50 cents to a dollar. The book cart was so strategically placed that the books seemed to plead its viewers to buy them. All of these observation pointed to the conclusion that Word Up was determined to reach customers effectively by not being a typical bookstore, which often prioritizes appearance over price, deterring customers from buying books.
As soon as one enters the bookshop, one would instantly notice free local newspapers on the left, hallways of bookshelves on the right, as well as a few tables and an open floor at the back where people—adults and children alike—could interact. Word Up sold a wide degree of book genres, ranging from animated children’s to dense adults’ books. Also, there was one hallway dedicated to only Spanish texts. A purposeful decision, having numerous books written in Spanish greatly expanded reading options in the Washington Heights community, which comprises a great deal of Spanish-speaking people. The abundance of religious texts, dictionaries, and novels suggested that these kinds of readings were popular in the surrounding area.
Word Up’s primary objective is to educate the Washington Heights community with books, to make books more affordable, and to cultivate people’s creativity. It holds events, both in English and Spanish, that are designed to nurture the community at large in arts, music, and poetry. These events include storytelling, book launching, and open mic. The aim of this bookshop to diversify the arts and literary outlets in the neighborhood matches the needs of the population given its rate of educational attainment. While the percentage of people who hold a high school or bachelor’s degree has increased in most parts of Washington Heights over the past five years, some areas are experiencing the opposite trend. The interactive maps obtained from Social Explorer depict this analysis.
Besides educating the community through books and creative events, Word Up values the safety and well-being of everyone in the neighborhood. When asked to describe the impact of the organization on the community, Jennifer Ortiz and Haana Suero, volunteers at the bookshop, discussed the welcoming aspect of Word Up. (The entire interview can be accessed here.) “We are happy to provide the space, a piece of mind and the security,” Jennifer said. Then, Haana began to describe Word Up’s safe space policy. “You are free to be whoever you are,” she explained, “but you have to be respectful of everybody else’s boundaries at the same time.” This freedom of expression can be seen in Word Up’s events, which are created to encourage people to express themselves without feeling intimidated through various channels. Especially during the current political climate, many people are seeking protection within their communities. The volunteers said that Word Up is unlike any other place in that neighborhood because it is inclusive, tight-knit, and accessible (It closes at 9pm during weekdays).
Word Up perfectly embodies the spirit of Washington Heights, a diverse, energetic community that provides a safe space for all. “And that I think we pride above all else,” Haana remarked.
Uniting People through Pastimes
Energizing the Community Through Theatre, Music, and Spirituality
Upon visiting Washington Heights, one cannot help but take notice of the large structure in the center of the neighborhood. However, it may seem difficult to pinpoint exactly what the purpose of this structure is. A large cross stands at the top of this building, allowing one to believe at first glance that it is a church. Looking closer, advertisements can be found on the outside of the building for different movies. The building now appears to be a movie theatre. Lastly taking notice of the crowd entering the building, one can see people dress in a mix of average street clothes and formal outfits as they enter through security and metal detectors which only further complicates the idea of what may be held inside this enormous building.
It is upon learning about the true purpose of The United Palace and all its history that all these details can come together in a complete, cohesive picture.
A place of diversity in all senses: from past to present
The United Palace does not serve as a just one simple purpose and has not for some time. Opening in 1930, the United Palace began as a vaudeville house and movie theatre. Though initially thriving, the space faced hard times and the possibility of closing for good until Reverend Ike purchased the theatre in 1969. Reverend Ike allowed the space to remain preserved in all its glory and serve as a space to hold his congregation. In 2009, his son Xavier took over the legacy of his father. Through Xavier, the space became the diverse place it is today. It is described that, “in 2012 Xavier fulfilled his dream of creating an arts and cultural center by incorporating the United Palace of Cultural Arts (UPCA) as an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit.” 5
Today, the United Palace continues to thrive and remains this multi-purposed space. It is the fourth largest theatre in Manhattan. In an interview with Mike Fitelson, Executive Director of UPCA, he described how people come far and wide to see this theatre. Whether it be for the exciting events the theatre holds or simply the beauty of the space itself, people are willing to make long journeys to get here.
Cultures Coming Together
“UPCA recognizes the critical role the arts play in providing life-changing experiences and opening doors for both young and old. Washington Heights has traditionally been underserved in terms of access to art programs, in part due to a lack of dedicated space. UPCA creates new educational programs and hosts organizations that already have a track record of providing excellent arts instruction.” 7
This quotation embodies exactly what is needed in the community of Washington Heights and is fully met by all the United Palace works to do. Through all their activities, from uniting people through faith or through love of movies or music, peoples of various cultural backgrounds are brought together in a positive way. When asked who the typical attendees for these various events are, Mike Fitelson responded that, “we typically have between thirty and fifty percent of the house at least is local.” In this way, the United Palace successfully is able to mix local culture with cultures of other areas of New York City. They preserve the United Palace traditions of the past while working to bring helpful change to the community in the present. From various community programs for people of all ages to hosting performers such as Adele or Lin-Manuel Miranda, the United Palace brings people together in a fully positive, uplifting way.
The clip from Mike Fitelson’s interview below perfectly sums up how important the United Palace is for the community:
The full interview can be listened to by clicking below:
Hungry For Success & Chicharron
Elsa La Reina De Chicharron
1249 St. Nicholas Avenue, New York, NY
Walking down St. Nicholas Avenue, I was immediately captivated by the energetic vibes of the neighborhood; the lights, the vendors, the people, the music were all so full of life and gave the impression of a unified community. As people constantly stopped and greeted one another on the sidewalks I realized that this part of Manhattan did not possess the same ‘head down, headphones in’ mentality that I had begun to associate with New York City. The overall connectivity of the members of the community emulated an environment that I could only associate with my life in the suburbs. Everyone knows everyone. With this in mind, I began to pay attention to the stores and restaurants that appeared to be family-owned, hoping to gain a more insightful perspective from individuals who grew up in and with the neighborhood.
On West 172nd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, I was able to find the popular local restaurant, Elsa La Reina De Chicharron. I was fortunate enough to speak with one of the restaurant’s owners, Victor Rodriguez to learn more about the neighborhood and the restaurant itself. I was able to learn about a rather wholesome story of success that all stemmed from his older sister, Elsa Rodriguez’s initial desire to open up a grocery store thirteen years ago. Growing up, Elsa maintained a close tie to her roots by cooking traditional Dominican dishes such as chicharron, which is deep fried pork belly or pork rinds. To her delight and surprise, the days that she decided to cook chicharron in the grocery store were always the busiest; dozens of customers would be drawn in from the smell alone and taxi drivers would drive around the block waiting for the dish to be done. Elsa soon realized the great potential for success she could have in opening an actual restaurant and decided to teach her siblings, including Victor, the family recipe. Their family was fortunate enough to be able to open up a second location in Washington Heights and in the years to come, they would eventually be the proud owners of four very successful locations.
Victor explained that they were drawn to open up their second location in this neighborhood because they knew that their dishes and food quality would receive great recognition and appreciation in a community that was primarily Dominican. Being that he had been the primary owner of the Washington Heights location for the past 13 years, I decided to ask him about the things he recognized about the neighborhood including the way it has changed. To my surprise, he stated that for the most part, the neighborhood has remained the same and the only noticeable change he mentioned was that the grocery store across the street was closed and replaced with a discount 99 cent store. He was also able to tell me that one of their busiest days was Sunday since many families stop by after church and of course chicharron was the most popular dish served (hence the restaurant’s name). Victor and some of the other employees joked that as the weather gets nicer you can see all the people with no jobs outside grocery stores talking, reading the news, and playing dominoes. Through this interview, I was able to learn that religion, community, and food are some of the most important aspects to this neighborhood. Speaking to Victor not only enlightened me to yet another brilliant immigrant success story but provided me with the proper insight to better understand the pass times of this community.
- Burns Francesca, “TeachNYPL: ‘New York, Then & Now’ Immigration to Washington Heights/Inwood (Gr. 6-8),” NYPL. Published November 1, 2013, https://www.nypl.org/blog/2013/11/01/classroom-connections-immigration-washington-heights-inwood. ↩
- Digital image, Social Explorer, http://www.socialexplorer.com/explore/maps. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- https://www.google.com/search?as_st=y&tbm=isch&hl=en&as_q=united+palace&as_epq=&as_oq=&as_eq=&cr=&as_sitesearch=&safe=images&tbs=sur:f#imgrc=oSU9dCNS1Pdq9M:. ↩
- Fitelson, Mike. “About.” United Palace Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2017. <https://www.unitedpalace.org/about>. ↩
- By Beyond My Ken – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33122667 ↩
- Fitelson, Mike. “About.” United Palace Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2017. <https://www.unitedpalace.org/about>. ↩
- By Professorcornbread – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52446349 ↩