Washington Heights Makes A Last Stand Against Gentrification

The signs of change are on the streets in Washington Heights—but the community is still holding firm.

By Jeff Vasishta December 6, 2016
4650 Broadway, rendering via Sherman Acadia Ave LLC/DCP

Bushwick may have flipped, Alphabet City has long gone and Spanish Harlem is on the way. Thank God there’s still Washington Heights for some authentic Latin culture, right? Well, yes, for the time being. As inevitable as subway fares going up, Washington Heights will one day change before our eyes. The signs are already there. Bodegas are on the decline and the opening of the revamped Washington Bridge Plaza and mall with mainstream tenants such as the Gap, Marshalls, Time Warner and many more will increase foot traffic but decrease the authentic, neighborhood feel of the area.

Let’s not fool ourselves, the Heights could have done with a revamp. The old Washington Bridge Plaza looked like it had been lifted straight out of a ’70’s Scorsese movie and some of mom-and-pop businesses needed a makeover. As enjoyable as it is to hear salsa and merengue blasting out of tiny store fronts, restaurants serving Dominican staples of fried pork chops, fried plantains, beans and rice may face stiff competition from the hordes making it over the Hudson, counting calories and going vegan.

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“If we don’t evolve with the times, someone is going to come in and steal bread out of our mouths. We have to evolve to maintain our identity,” Francis Pereira-Billini, owner of Pocion, a vegan restaurant and bar on 177 Street between Broadway and Fort Washington told NY Metro. “We are not a vegan vegetarian people,” he added. “We are catering to more health-conscious customers, because it is the reality.”

The influence of NY Presbyterian hospital and its thousands of employees, along with the expanded GWB, are huge drivers in the community. Why cross the Hudson to Fort Lee and deal with bridge traffic when the you could either live within walking distance to your job at the hospital? With real estate prices still relatively affordable (the median price for a rental is $2,100 well below the $3,508 average for the rest of the island, according to Agorafy data), Washington Heights is currently in the perfect storm of accessibility, affordability and underdevelopment to experience a gentrification tsunami. All that’s stopping it are the large numbers of rent stabilized apartments—nine out of 10 units are rentals—are rent stabilized or rent controlled. Only seven percent are market rate, according to city data.

Agorafy data shows that one-bedroom apartments in the area are available for $300,000, way less than the median $815,000 price of a one-bedroom across Manhattan as a whole. Though gentrification is generally thought of as whites moving in to a neighborhood while the ethnic populous is priced out, Pereira-Billini believes that it’s Dominicans themselves who are accelerating the change.

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“A lot of what is happening is internal,” he told Metro. “It’s indigenous people from the neighborhood who grew up here, not outsiders taking over.”

Metro cited the the case of The Associated Supermarket (a neighborhood owned and run supermarket) on 187 Street, which was about to be replaced by a Walgreens—until the community and legislators rallied to keep it open.

If Dominican family members are moving back into the buildings in which they were raised, then gentrification will be limited to the commercial strips where a bar and restaurant boom has been occurring. If they are looking for luxury apartments to buy their choices, for the moment, are limited.

Part of the reason for slow change in the neighborhood has been the density of apartment buildings already there. Towering old brick and limestone fronted apartments with rusted zig zagging fire escapes and stoops painted multiple times are long standing characteristics. Within them, teeming numbers of immigrant communities have called the Heights home for decades, through the crack years, when the area was a no go for other New Yorkers.

New York Yimby shows limited new construction, the most dramatic project being a 23-story apartment building at 4650 Broadway by Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters. It is being developed by Washington Square Partners and Acadia Realty Trust. The property would benefit from tax breaks and rezoning because of the mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH). The other main construction in the works is a 15-story Columbia medical building at 104 Haven Avenue.

There are, though, a series of smaller developments under construction.

Meanwhile, landlords are increasing rents as much as they can and offering buyouts for tenants as reported in the Guardian. Some are taking them and moving to Inwood, the West Bronx or out of town, and others are staying put. Sooner or later though, the buyouts will increase, as they did in Harlem and Brooklyn, and the damn will burst. And when it does, it will be time to say goodbye to the Heights we once knew.


Jeff Vasishta



Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

    Stefano Boeri, the architect mastermind behind the famous plant-covered skyscrapers, is now designing Forest Cities in Liuzhou, China. #ForestCity #China
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