It’s called Washington Heights. What heights, and why Washington? The Washington part refers to our first president, and heights to a section of Manhattan’s Upper West Side that indeed deserves the name because of its high elevation. Boarding the No. 1 Broadway Local subway, I took a ride there late one fall afternoon with the Morris-Jumel Mansion as my immediate destination. A Palladian-style building with a pillared front portico, it was built in 1765 by a loyalist English officer named Morris, who returned to England at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. George Washington briefly used it as his headquarters during the war; and it later served for several years as the home of Aaron Burr, who had married one of its subsequent owners, a rich widow named Jumel.
Though visiting hours were over, I walked around the mansion and its grounds, fenced in by handsome old iron railings, in admiration not only of the house itself, but also of the miles-wide view from one corner of the property. Such was the clarity of the day that it allowed me to see not only much of Manhattan, but also parts of New Jersey. Nearby streets are lined with rows of late 19th-century town houses with huge bay windows that project outward from the second floor.
A few blocks farther down the Heights, I walked through Trinity Cemetery to see the grave of an early inhabitant of the area, the naturalist John James Audubon (1780-1851). Normally the gates of the cemetery are locked, but that day a television crew was filming an episode of “Law and Order” (film and TV crews are a frequent sight in New York’s neighborhoods, and cemeteries are fair game for them), so the gates were open and a kindly crew member pointed out the grave with its 16-foot-high stone runic cross. Two sides are carved with birds and mammals of the kind Audubon painted during his travels around the country. The paintings eventually were reproduced in his renowned Birds of America and its companion volume on quadrupeds.
Roaming through other parts of the extensive cemetery grounds, I came across large mausoleums dating from the middle and late 1800’s—elaborate affairs in brownstone and granite. Now somewhat deteriorated, all of them suggest bygone families proud of their wealth and prestige. Audubon himself had his estate in the area, as did a number of other rich New Yorkers who wanted to build their homes on choice sites overlooking the Hudson River. From a nearby street, its broad expanse could be seen gleaming in the day’s late afternoon light.
Wealth and privilege, however, took a sharp downward turn in the second half of the last century. The neighborhood changed from well-to-do and white to middle class and then to low-income Hispanic and Afro-American. It is now mostly Hispanic, home to the largest community of Dominicans in the nation. Walking from the subway station to the mansion, in fact, it was Spanish I heard, not English. Sidewalk sellers of fruits and vegetables, their wares on folding tables, were doing a lively business in peeled oranges and pineapple chunks in clear plastic bags. Stores with signs like Envios, Pasajes y Llamadas (shipping, travel and long distance calls) and Farmacía are threaded along that section of Broadway, interspersed with newsstands displaying brightly colored Spanish-language publications.
Washington Heights has become a far different world from what it once was. A recent study found that Dominicans rank among the poorest of New Yorkers. The contrast with the area’s past—exemplified in the Morris-Jumel Mansion and the cemetery’s mausoleums and the elaborate Victorian row houses—is all the sharper. But if poorer, the area has gained in the vitality evident in the crowded sidewalks along Broadway—a hard-working, immigrant-based vitality that has brought new life to decayed communities not just in New York but around the country. This same vitality serves, moreover, as a useful reminder that ours is a nation built primarily on the work of immigrants both past and present.