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The Ladder Up

A Restless History of Washington Heights

ISSUE:  Winter 2019


I’ve wanted to evade geographic determinism, but we’re still on another island: all of you and all of us.

– Manuel Ramos Otero

For many years, my Puerto Rican homeland was not the island but the fried chicken and Chinese takeout joint on 156th and Broadway, merengue on the boombox where men played dominoes and women sold mangoes on sticks peeled and cut to look like roses. My grandmother has lived in the same apartment on this corner for sixty-four years now. It was the second place she rented in New York City after migrating from Puerto Rico in 1951, pregnant with her first and only child. My mother remembers her childhood neighborhood of Washington Heights as a lively nexus: Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Greeks, Jews. One block east, African Americans. Now the building sits at the epicenter of Dominican New York, the dope boys on the corner still hanging on, long past the heyday of the ’90s, but scarcer now, as white people leave the subway with us and then take a hard right for the bigger, better apartments on Riverside Drive, where my mother says she always wished she lived.

But my grandmother’s apartment—as it was and as it is—remains the home I’ve known longest, with my mother and father and I having scattered from each other and from place to place in search of more poetic plots. At the door I find myself digging through my pockets for the set of keys I’ve never had. Instead, I buzz up and wait for Danilda, my grandmother’s home health aide, to let me in. The stewy smell of the lobby is like a wrinkle in time. I know I can’t be invited to parties that happened before I was born, but I still hear the old soundtrack spinning inside me. I still toy, in my mind, with my mother’s 45 player that she says snapped closed into a baby-blue carrying case.

Now, even the objects I once handled with love—the drawers of leather gloves, the porcelain clowns, the telephone table in the hall—are just an inventory I make on the page. The apartment is almost empty after a series of plagues swept through the run-down rooms: mice, roaches, and a red sea of bedbugs ebbing and flowing at our heels. My mother never liked my grandmother’s material accretions, and the crawling things have furnished an excuse to strip the space bare. Right now it seems we’re holding the bugs at bay, though I’m careful, as counseled, to hang my bag from a doorknob rather than leave it in a corner.

There are some things that stay in place. When I visit I touch the two-foot Virgen Milagrosa, beatific in her blue mantilla, running my finger discreetly along the thin line of glue where her head broke off—as if it is a human scar, as if it is the kind of injury a real body could recover from. I know that I am never the one who fixes anything. I wonder where I was when my mother sorted through the other santos in her corner altar, consigned the Christ on the cross to the bin or handed him off to another Latin family. His face always frightened me, more so than the faces of other gods—not so much because of his suffering but because of the demand that we venerate it. In our house the men were not the ones who suffered.

My grandmother is ninety-two now, and she’s been mostly bedbound for almost a decade. The apartment is big, but her range of sensory perception is small. Her hospital bed is stationed next to the room’s one window, looking out on a long rectangle of space that’s more than an airshaft but less than a courtyard. I like to visit in the afternoon, when the sun slants through the two thin trees and warms our faces with a rumor of the open city we once traversed. The last time we left the house together we had dinner at the Olive Garden in Times Square. It’s less often, now, that she says, Let’s go somewhere, let’s leave. It’s no longer a fantasy we tend to.

At this point, the apartment itself has become a fantasy. After the long dark swallow of the hallway, the living room is high lemonade, the memory of French doors, and I’m almost floating above Broadway, the great wheel of the intersection, the Hispanic Society like a sentinel on the corner. Magnificent windows! When I stand before them I can feel the gentrifier inside me say so, the one who will replace me. Her body is indistinguishable from mine: It is the white body I have been in other neighborhoods where I am the desirable tenant, where I am the one police swarm to protect. I’m reading Nella Larsen’s Harlem novel, Quicksand, at the new café two blocks away where I choose from among nine varieties of herbal tea: “She was, she knew, in a queer indefinite way, a disturbing factor.” Who will recognize me as a double agent when there is no one left on this corner to call me kin?

The quiet consensus is that my mother and I can’t or won’t keep the apartment after my grandmother dies. Just this year, a unit one floor down was torn up, turned out, and handed over to a trio of twentysomethings for three thousand dollars a month—a steal, really, compared to Bed-Stuy. In-unit washer/dryer. Exposed brick. But in apartment 33, rent-controlled, the super tries to solve the pest problem by slapping plastic laminate over the pockmarked hardwood floors. My grandmother wakes up to spoiled groceries because the fridge went dark overnight. The elevator’s been out for three months; the tenants keep count of the days on a piece of paper taped to the elevator door. People are talking again about the rent strike of 2010. It’s only a matter of time, I know, before my grandmother dies, and the sixty-four years we’ve spent here, wishing to leave, never wishing to leave, are just a dusty feeling the next tenants will open the windows to air out.

In his treatise The Poetics of Space, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard claims “a house in a big city lacks cosmicity.” Only the rambling, breezy chateaus of the countryside provided the space necessary for his daydreaming to develop into something more substantial, like thought, where quiet corners the boy never had to clean became chapels consecrated to his own heroic becoming. In the urban apartment, “Home has become mere horizontality. The different rooms that compose living quarters jammed into one floor all lack” some essential humanizing feature from which literature might emerge. My mother shares his skepticism regarding the literary potential of our apartment. She suggests I consider the illustrious history of the neighborhood instead, a world Bachelard might have recognized as worthy if he’d ever been uptown.

Washington Heights became Washington Heights in the middle of the nineteenth century, when rich New Yorkers began to build estates on the dramatic high points of Manhattan far from the tumult of downtown docks and slums, the slave market on Wall Street. The naturalist John Audubon watched birds from his mansion on the once-wooded rise where my grandmother lives now. It must have been easy, in the quiet, to forget the brutal din of his father’s sugar plantation in Haiti, where he spent his earliest years pampered by enslaved women. Now, when I climb to catch the river’s blink and shine along the soaring ramparts of Fort Tryon Park—the old driveway of the gas baron C. K. G. Billings’s estate—it’s tempting to feel as if my love for the land absolves the circumstances of my access to it, an imperial illusion.

The illusion doesn’t last. My friend Pedro says he knew, growing up in the Heights, that the neighborhood’s grand architecture was not built with him or his people in mind. Now he’s an urban historian at Harvard. The cold gaze of history can’t kill the vibe of a blunt on High Bridge at moonrise, but it lays the psychic foundations for an inner city constructed over and against the fickle forms of brick and stone that house us without making us at home. The term “inner city” has never provided an accurate map of racialized urban poverty—what’s inner about a geography that drifts with the people it stigmatizes?—but I’ve always found it vaguely spiritual, as if the city carries a secret close to its heart, and only poor people are privy to it.

The precarious topography of Washington Heights—sharp ridges, hilltop streets—seems to mirror the precarity of our place in the built environment. From this vantage point it’s possible to glimpse the human city’s end, where the Hudson and the Harlem rivers meet, making a muddle of their colonial names. Is this what Bachelard means by “cosmicity”? I keep trying to make his terms work for me. He says that in memory people are “never real historians, but always near poets.” I’m not sure which I want to be—historian or poet—when I map my way through the uptown streets as I remember them, as my mother remembers them, as they stretch behind and before us beyond memory’s reach.

New York is not the Old Country, but saying so can’t cure us of nostalgia for it once we leave. By the time I was born, in 1987, my mother had already been gone a decade—California, Puerto Rico, with short spells back home in between. Growing up in California’s Bay Area at the popular height of gangster rap, I was confused when friends twisted up their fingers to rep the West Side, which in my mind still meant the West Side of Manhattan. Cue: the opening shot of West Side Story, spanning the city skyline, passing the Battery, the George Washington Bridge, and Columbia University before descending to the level of tenement rooftops. Being “from” California had not remade the midcentury ethnic mythology that mapped my unconscious sense of local loyalty. Now I sometimes say I’m Nuyorican, though I’ve only lived here full time for five years, forty blocks down from the old neighborhood between the same two avenues—just far enough to discourage walking. It sometimes seems like too much trouble to explain the nature of a family relation that has as much to do with distance as proximity.

Even after the old-growth forest had been logged and leveled, after the private estates passed into public hands, Washington Heights held out its perpetual promise of a bit of breeze, a more forgiving floor plan. Responding to the squalid conditions downtown, the progressive Tenement House Act of 1901 legislated running water, in-unit toilets, and a window in each room for all the new units constructed in the city. Buildings that aimed for more middle-class tenants (buildings like ours, before the rot set in) “boasted six stories and elevators.” When the train station first opened at 157th Street in 1904, Irish, Greeks, and German Jews tumbled out, free from the immigrant ghettos. Uptown meant ascending in the world, meant acting middle class before sociologists had the bad manners to call you poor. Then as now, class and race were tangled together, and if you couldn’t catch the end of one thread, you pulled the other. By midcentury, even the Jews identified as white when it counted—and it counted most in relation to the new arrivals, who were moving up too.

When my family settled on the southern side of the Heights, older white residents complained to reporters that “Puerto Ricans are coming in like cockroaches and breeding like bedbugs”—the metaphor is evidence, I feel the need to note, that the pests preceded us. Neither my grandmother nor mother are dark-skinned, but they still counted as two strikes against the whiteness of the neighborhood, which by then was almost one-third some kind of colored. The growing presence of Puerto Ricans wasn’t hard to explain. In 1953, the local pastor Reverend Pérez stated the obvious: “[T]his is one of the few nice places left in the city where relatively poor people can live.” The parks, stately churches, and decent schools distinguished it from the crowded conditions in Harlem and El Barrio. Historian Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof notes a striking pattern in how residents understood these postwar changes: “While white residents often saw the arrival of people of color as a shifting of neighborhood boundaries, Puerto Rican and black residents argued that the boundaries were the same and that they had crossed them.”

There had been many rivers to cross. At midcentury, Washington Heights marked the confluence of two great migrations: African Americans fleeing the South, spilling over from the streets of Harlem, and Puerto Ricans catching state-subsidized flights out of San Juan. New transportation technologies fueled the desperate exodus of country people from the hemisphere’s haunted plantations, unredeemed by the broken promises of Reconstruction and Puerto Rican independence.

Photo by Carlos Rivera Back on the island in the 1920s, my grandmother’s parents argued over the names for their three daughters. Her socialist father, who worked as a cigar roller, wanted to dedicate them to his political dreams—América, Libertad, Justicia. Her mother must have snorted when she said: “You get one.” And isn’t that so often how it is? My grandmother became Carmen, like every other “Spanish” girl. But she was her father’s favorite, the one he said he would’ve sent to school if there’d been the money for it. In the world as it was, rather than the world as it might have been, both of my grandmother’s parents died by the time she was thirteen, so she went to San Juan to find work, then to Manhattan—the first in her family to migrate. She sent for her sisters, but Justicia and Delia never really took to the city. They moved back and forth between the two islands, cruzando el charco, caught between the economic possibility of New York and the cultural pull of Puerto Rico. Stateside, Justicia tried to go by “Josie.” Her father’s dream of Justice sounded like an ugly, old-fashioned joke in English.

My grandmother didn’t see the city that way. She liked the electric solidarity of bodies surging down the sidewalk together—which was good, because it’s true that life here was a squeeze. If the apartments uptown were bigger, that mostly meant you could fit more people for less money: At my grandmother’s, where it was just her and my mother after my grandfather had to flee his gambling debts, single women and new arrivals rented the extra rooms. In the apartment upstairs, there was a couple with two girls who arrived from Cuba before the revolution with grandparents, then a sister with her husband and baby. Since my mother was an only child (at least in New York), the Cuban girls—Mayra, Elizabeth, and Yoli—became de facto sisters, so that when they grew up and had girls themselves I would come to call them my cousins. Mayra remembers sharing a twin bed with her aunt—Tía Tía, she called her, because she was the first and favorite—not as a sign of deprivation but as an intimate luxury, the vast pillow of the familiar body and soft voice holding nightmares at bay: “People who talk about the horror of having to share a bed haven’t done it.” Or maybe with Tía Tía, Mayra was just lucky.

Home, in its migrant meaning, is rarely a stable arrangement, even when a woman like my grandmother manages to stay put. Home is a place that must accommodate near strangers, and accommodate the self as stranger—always potentially displaceable. There was always the boyfriend of a cousin who needed a place to stay while he saved up to bring his brother over, or a neighbor’s great-aunt who could keep an eye on the kids for a few dollars off the rent. You never knew when you’d be the ones on the move, in need of temporary shelter. Belonging was not guaranteed, as landlords set about “cleaning up” immigrant barrios, as jobs dried up, as loved ones back on the island required care. Every apartment was prepared to become a boarding house as a matter of necessity.

But this arrangement had its pleasures: The doors were always swinging and slamming, the Cuban girls were always in the median playing hopscotch or jump rope, so being a latchkey kid was less lonely for my mother than it might have been. There were Velázquez paintings at the Hispanic Society and feather headdresses at the American Indian Museum and Mexican movies on TV. Singing contests were adjudicated by consensus in the sisters’ room, with the toy trunk as the stage and the police lock as the microphone, and if the songs they made up seemed tragic, blame it on boleros: Mayra would wrap the cord to the venetian blinds around her neck and sing “let me go, let me go,” and Elizabeth had a song called “Lost Pennies” that would bring her to tears when she sang it. Mostly, my mother won. The roof was covered with tar paper that bubbled and burped like frogs, and when the girls were older they slathered themselves in oil and lay out there to tan, and at night they slept in big rollers that hurt their necks, and my grandmother threw the best parties, where the boys came in suits and the girls in crinolines and there was always dancing, not like the white kids’ parties, where they made spaghetti and smoked grass and didn’t even always put a record on. But my mother and her friends were Americans, too, now, and danced to rock and roll unless it was a family party, in which case they danced merengue with their uncles till their uncles were too drunk to keep clave or just drunk enough to stay in the pocket.

If they were afraid, it was mostly of the men in the house, of wandering hands and secret families and drunken rages, of dollars disappearing. If there were gangs, they only had knives, and if the girl at the grocery store had a long scar on her cheek, she was also a great beauty. If there was smack in the streets, only Doña Emilia’s son died of it. If my mother shrank from the teenager on the corner, she also loved Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, who were from the Heights, and if West Side Story was a minstrel show they still cheered in the theater when the Sharks came onscreen. If the parents couldn’t read, the children would read Brontë, and if my mother didn’t speak English in first grade, in second grade she won the spelling bee. If in the end her father was a bad man, he was also bad on the dance floor (and she was his favorite partner), and if tequila was a problem, the song “Tequila” was a hit, and at seven years old she’d show off door-to-door performing like a whirling dervish in mambo time. If the neighborhood was in decline, the decline was slow.

No one local was famous yet, but fame was always proximate, imminent. Freddie Prinze lived in the building a block up, close enough for my mother to spend many evenings leaning out her kitchen window to chat with him across the alley, and when Fidel Castro was in the city, he came to the only Cuban restaurant in town, La Barraca, where Mayra’s father booked the entertainment. When Julia de Burgos (“La Señora Poeta”) died penniless on a street corner in Harlem, the restaurant took up a collection for her funeral, and when La Lupe was just “una negrita cualquiera” (in her sister’s words), she tore her dress half off singing there one night, and no one even covered the children’s eyes or ears as her voice abandoned the order of music as if she were coming—yiyiyi—or maybe a spirit was. “Some of our best friends were black,” Mayra says, using the familiar phrase—Dominicans mostly, or West Indians—but my grandmother still prohibited my mother’s dark-skinned crush from being the escort for her Sweet Sixteen, even though he had the sleekest suits and a car he bought with his own money. The “Spanish” kids of whatever color were not encouraged to spend time east of Amsterdam, up near Sugar Hill, where they had no idea that Paul Robeson and Lena Horne lived at the Triple Nickel, plotting how to get over in diametrically opposed high styles.

Tragedies did come to pass. The Cuban Revolution turned ruthless. Freddie Prinze took his own life when he was only twenty-two, months after signing a $6 million contract with NBC as the network’s first Latino comedic star. La Lupe was edged out by Celia Cruz, became born-again, and died, poor, from a heart attack in middle age. The US government seized Paul Robeson’s passport. At the Audubon Ballroom, which shared a building with the San Juan Theater on Broadway and 165th, Malcolm X was assassinated. I can’t help thinking of his mother, Louise Little, a light-skinned migrant from Grenada; like Audre Lorde’s mother, she sometimes passed as Puerto Rican to get better work. I mention this detail as a way to name the quotidian Caribbean context that produced what might get recognized—only in a flash of violence—as American history. Writing about Louise Little in The Women, Hilton Als wonders: “Does history believe in itself even as it happens?”

The assassination of Malcolm X was historic right away. So definitive it had to be believed. But everything else that happened in the neighborhood has suffered the slower death of strategic forgetting. For the American mainstream, it doesn’t matter even when it should. And for us—for the children of the neighborhood—we try to strike a delicate balance. What happened shares space in our psyches with what we hoped would happen. There are two kinds of belief: what we believe because we must, and what we believe because our hearts keep willing another world.

When she was a teenager, my mother hated taking the train back to boarding school on Long Island, where my grandmother sent her for safekeeping in junior high, even though the white girls there were fast and the nuns were cruel. It seemed like the simplest solution, the smoothest road to assimilation. On the ride out to the suburbs, the sounds of the city grew muddled and warm, like an old record, and the scenes of her friends streamed out behind her, and the neighborhood became a pleasure denied, so that when I touch this time as if from a great distance I am also touching the windows of that speeding train.

The last time my mother flew in from California for a New York visit, the two of us took the 1 up from my grandmother’s building to Mayra’s spot in Inwood for dinner with her daughter, Gaby. Before we left, my mother begged Gaby to sing in her sweet soprano, which she wouldn’t do unless Mayra joined in, and soon it was the three of them, all goin’ to the chapel, and we’re gonna get ma-a-arr-ied, goin’ to the chapel of love. As a child I was jealous of Mayra’s duets with Gaby, their easy harmonizing a home I felt I’d lost by having left the city before I was born, silent in the suitcase of my mother’s body. I can’t sing like the rest of them—Mayra, Gaby, my mother and grandmother. So I took out my phone and recorded the scene as they fell in line to snap and two-step. Later, watching the recording, my mother heard the high part I took at the tail end, when I couldn’t keep quiet anymore. “All it takes to sing,” she said, “is the desire to sing.”

It’s strange to think these tender teenage harmonies were once considered hood music, and treated that way—dismissively—by radio DJs. The telltale signs testing the limits of mainstream respectability were so much subtler back then: hair teased a touch too high, liquid liner flicked a lick too long. My favorite group from the Heights is The Ronettes, two sisters and a cousin who came up out of doo-wop through Amateur Night at the Apollo. Estelle and Ronnie’s mother was African American and Cherokee; their father was Irish. Nedra was Irish, too, and Puerto Rican: “Home for us was at our grandmother’s, entertaining each other on Saturday nights.” All the neighborhood stories start to sound the same. But at least, with the Ronettes, we can run the track back to catch the lower frequencies. Their biggest song was also their best—“Be My Baby” remains irresistible, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound a dramatic backdrop to Ronnie’s nasal, almost accented pleading: So won’t you say you love me / I’ll make you so proud of me / We’ll make ’em turn their heads / every place we go. All the Ronettes were born in New York, like my mother, but I still hear the good migrant in those lyrics, her unreciprocated promise to America. I hear her voice breaking on that promise. And I hear the whole world dancing in the break she made.

Photo by Carlos Rivera By the time I was born, Washington Heights had the highest murder rate in the city—between fifty and a hundred reported per year. The New York Times, meanwhile, called it “the crack capital of America.” Four blocks from our building, Rudy Giuliani pulled up to score some in an undercover sting—a publicity stunt for the brutal policing he promoted as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. It was bad when the whole city was bad, when the Bronx still smoldered and snatches of grass in the medians as far down as 91st Street were seeded with empty vials. Our corner was hot. Mayra says it started in the ’70s, but for a while there was still a spot on the block where the girls would stop by on the way home after dark to wait for the bartender to walk them up. Then the bar closed, and the girls were on their own. It must have been the early ’80s when dealers moved into the building itself—a unit on the fifth floor—and for years the neighbors hated the woman who moved out for letting the lease go like that, to them. The dealers themselves couldn’t have been older than nineteen. Just boys. They posted up in the hall that led to the roof, so there was no tar beach anymore, just the anxious scramble up and down the stairs, keys clutched like a switchblade between white knuckles.

Years passed before Mayra found out that they had killed the woman’s son to get the lease, an inner city nightmare in which a rent-controlled three bedroom in the Heights was still, somehow, an object of disastrous desire in the violent logic of property. Even up close, knowing better, it was easy to pretend that people moved when they wanted to move. To pretend that anything about this crisis could be attributed to the choices of this or that neighbor, this or that corner kid. To blame the bloodshed on Dominicans, the latest wave of migrant bodies on the block. In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, the Harlem native and queer flaneur Samuel Delany refers to these years as “that period of human atrocity,” and from inside the haze of disorienting danger there was little leisure time to consider the vast global dynamics that produced it.

Washington Heights became New York’s cocaine headquarters for geographic as much as demographic reasons: Just as cartels in Colombia saw the Dominican Republic’s porous borders with the US as a practical transfer point for big shipments, the George Washington Bridge and interstates of the Heights provided easy access to vast networks of dealers and users in the suburbs of New Jersey and Connecticut, and to the cultivated ghettos of Harlem and the South Bronx. Those who could get out did so—including “Yayo,” the dealer credited with making crack a mass market drug, who retired to the Dominican Republic, where he sent his daughters to private school and protected his family with a private security detail. My grandmother couldn’t leave. She’d just gotten her first good job after twenty-five years in New York—polishing and preparing the tools for doctors’ trays at Columbia-Presbyterian and running a one-woman hustle as their personal shopper on the side. Sometimes the hold home has on us is no more romantic than a matter of nickels and dimes.

As a child, was I afraid? When my mother and I visited once or twice a year, we came and left the building quickly. I was not trusted to operate the elaborate Jenga of locks on the door since my mother and grandmother did not believe I understood the threats they protected against. I did not desire violence, but I craved contact, and both the interior and exterior of my grandmother’s building teemed with forbidden excess. The apartment itself was as humid and densely decorated as the streets, and nearly as busy with strangers—cousins I couldn’t remember, boarders who were new since the previous summer and spoke Spanish in accents I couldn’t place. And if her apartment was a second home for me, the streets could be just as intimate, since she’d stayed in the same place for so long, since she knew the shop girls and was the number-one customer everywhere we went, with a prerogative to haggle viciously. Inside, my grandmother admired my swelling flesh with a satisfied pinch, and outside, men stared openly as if I’d already done what they wanted me to do, as if my public body belonged to their private domain.

Washington Heights was and remains a commercial center, not just for drugs, but for bodegas and beauty shops, for bootleg DVDs and sneakers and sew-ins and fishnets and bedsheets. This was not the inner city as desolation, but the inner city as Oyá’s marketplace at the gates of the cemetery. The neighborhood inscribed its history in me as a long caravan of commodities. My grandmother assumed the role of all Three Kings in paving my wayward path with gifts: I left and left again with an elegant Madame Alexander doll from the uptown factory, a red wool coat with an embroidered capelet, a crispy twenty. Later, a pair of leather gloves or cat-eye sunglasses fished from her bottomless drawer of midcentury glamour, frozen pasteles wrapped in paper, a pineapple peeled whole, gold hoops shaped like hearts, a box of black soaps from Spain.

Often we’d shop together: I was overwhelmed by the vast world of wares at El Mundo, the Dominican emporium on 133rd, and saved up my discernment for a store called Nancy’s where my grandmother would take me back-to-school shopping for discounted jeans, discounted again at the register against the weakening protests of Nancy herself. I’d return to California with bedazzled pairs from Pepe Jeans London, or a rare specimen from Nelly’s short-lived Apple Bottoms brand, the dense stretchy denim designed with my shape in mind, mapping an alternate geography that hugged my hips no matter how far I traveled with my hard-won inheritance of freedom.

When my mother insists the neighborhood was not like this when she was young, I don’t know what to do with my own memories, which I wear awkwardly like a dress that’s too tight for the family function. Nothing fits right. Now that the apartment is empty, illegible, estranged from the street, I find myself obliged to describe the life I lived there to the people who visit, and to my grandmother’s home health aides who live there now half the week in the room where the dining table used to be. In this way I revive my mother’s performance, the vanished world she conjured for me and projected on the screen of the present. I reinforce her narrative. And I allow myself the privilege of angling it in my direction.

Though my grandmother doesn’t speak much anymore, I sometimes ask her what she’s thinking while I stroke her hair. Since she’s always lying down, she’s also always looking up, into a dreamy space I imagine populated by the stories I didn’t solicit when I had the chance. Sometimes I say something open-ended, like “Can you believe you’ve lived here for sixty-four years?” even though I know measuring time might make her wince, turn away. “Is New York the place you love best?” Her “No” comes fast and strong, and when I ask “Where?” she says, “Puerto Rico” with a look like she doesn’t know me, like I’m just a random woman holding her hand without asking.

Danilda says my grandmother can be coaxed to eat more if someone says she’s headed for the island soon, and when I tell my grandmother I’ve just come back, she presses me to promise I’ll take her with me next time, and we stay quiet in the lie for as long as its light lingers. The other island. When she was younger, my mother offered to move her close to us to California, since there was no one to care for her in Puerto Rico. She refused—stubborn. Yes, New York was where trusted doctors were, her friends from the hospital and from AA. But this has never been enough to explain her attachment to a place she will not say she loves. There are forms of love without affection. There are forms of will that are fierce but not exactly free. In a world of few choices, she would not be made to move.

Should we have therefore fought harder to keep my grandmother’s apartment in the family? Her triumphant domain, her consolation prize? If she were still in possession of her formidable faculties—no possession is permanent, even the possession of our own minds—I am almost sure she would tell us how to stay. She would find a way. But I don’t know that I believe that property should be privately transmitted from parent to child, whether that property is rented or owned. I do know that I believe every human being should be guaranteed a place to live and I’d like mine to have a fire escape, for a bit of breeze and a drink in the summertime. I think my grandmother likes the posture of generosity having a home allows: In May, she was in good spirits. Danilda was urging her to talk to me and my mother, who was visiting, saying we’d come to see Mami, not Danilda. “También a ti.” Danilda demurred: “Pero no, Doña Carmen, es tu casa.” My grandmother continued to insist: “También es tuya.” Also to see you, also yours: The only words she managed while I was there.

Historians at the Dominican Studies Institute have conducted research that shows the first person from elsewhere to make a home on Manhattan came from the Caribbean. Juan Rodriguez was born in Santo Domingo to an African mother and Portuguese father and worked as a free man on a Dutch trading vessel that sailed up the Hudson in 1613 trading for furs with local tribes. The Dutch had not yet established a colony. When the crew prepared to turn toward Amsterdam, Rodriguez threatened to jump ship if the captain wouldn’t let him stay. He did stay—uptown, near Inwood. In Counternarratives, the fabulist John Keene imagines Rodriguez plotting his marronage by inscribing his presence on the foreign shore, “hatching the tree and tightly knotting several lengths of string about the branches, creating signs…that would be visible right up to sunset.” He was and was not alone, considering “the possibility that one of the first people…would untie the markers, erase the hatchings, thereby erasing this spot’s specificity, for him, returning it to the anonymity that every step here…once held.” Lenape territory was not home, but was there ever such a thing for Rodriguez?

These days it’s not the Lenape who might erase this specificity, but new settler developers whitewashing graffiti, flushing out los viejitos from the old buildings. In this phase of economic development no one was ever here—not my grandmother, not Rodriguez, and not the Lenape. Like the pink sign in the new wine bar in Brooklyn says: it was all a dream, including the poet who said so. Still, we resume the migrant efforts to make a mark that might spell out safe harbor, that might map a return. The Dominican Studies Institute persuaded the city to remember Rodriguez by naming the stretch of Broadway between 159th and 218th in his honor. An ambitious bilingual public education campaign has made a retroactive claim to belonging—we were here—without deciding, definitively, who we were or are. To me, this enduring ambiguity is beautiful.

But it’s hard to make history stick. For many people—for me, just months ago—the name Juan Rodriguez must not seem especially suggestive, since the Spanish empire has left its language as a flat film on every American tongue. We each know a hundred Juans. Uptown, we still call the street Broadway, but underneath, like a family secret, runs the natural path through Manhattan’s deepest valley, beaten clear by the island’s first people. When Rodriguez chose to walk this way, maybe it wasn’t as much for where it was but where it wasn’t. It was not the site of his mother’s enslavement, it was not the ship he could never captain, it was not a place where his social position was foretold or his name given.

In my favorite photograph of my grandmother, she’s the same age I am now, though I know this moment of correspondence can’t last. She’s shot from below, balanced sideways in stilettos on the top rung of the ladder up to the building’s rooftop. She has one hand hooked on the rail and the other fanned across her hip like an ornament. She’s wearing a striped jumpsuit with long sleeves and shorts so short I can make out the curve of her ass cresting the hem; she turns a bit to look down at us through dark glasses, as if to say, No es nada, as if the impossible glamour of her precarious perch were natural, necessary, all in a day’s work. As if to say, And you, aren’t you coming? At this angle her legs seem stories tall; the rest is sky. She seems to depend so little on the ladder for balance that I half-expect her to keep climbing up through the clouds. We could be anywhere. When the writer Manuel Ramos Otero migrated from Manatí, Puerto Rico, to uptown Manhattan, he cautioned: “There are many who don’t know where it is, that other island.” I’ve tried to tell you. Not so much where it is, but how, when the social architecture of the colonized world gives way, leaving a hole in the sky your ancestors hold open an extra second to make sure you see it. I’ve seen it. 


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