Washington Heights in London

Been pushed into a deep well of nostalgia this past week for my formidable years growing up in Washington Heights, up on the tail end of the rodent-shaped island Manhattan, not only uptown but uphill, the city on a slant from North to South.

Two topical launches have hit London celebrating my old hood, Linda Mannheim's Above Sugar Hill, a series of short stories based in the neighbourhood, cutting across time, race, gender and class... something in itself distinctly American. The second is In The Heights, premiering in London for the first time, a musical that takes on the stories of struggle and survival in the ga-heh/toe.

For the first time since moving to London I sat and wondered what it would be like if I had never left the Heights.... I wasn't even living there when I left NY anyway, having ended up in Loisaida, another colourful place featured in the musical Rent.

Washington Heights was an incredible place, full of solid pre-war buildings with sunken living rooms, big parks, river views, hills, nestled comfortably between the FDR and the West Side Highway, with two bolts sticking out of its neck like Frankenstein, GWB (George Washington Bridge) on one side and Alexander Hamilton bridge right across the other. This meant this perpetual buzzing of traffic all around the area, non stop 24 hours a day, windows always covered in fine brake dust... And inside the Heights a cocoon of people mixing together, Boricua's & Quisqueyana's (The native names of Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic), Hasidic jews, left over Irish who hadn't yet moved up to the Bronx, and random other NYers like us the Chilean family taking refuge from Queens.

I remember being really proud because Dr. Ruth, the TV pop sex therapist lived in the hood! The area was rough no doubt but you knew which streets to go to and which not to. I really remember it as one giant playground, running along the river, cutting class and drinking 40's in the playground of Bennett park, the giant games of manhunt in Fort Tryon park, walking around with an MC jacket and a knife I would never really use. All part of the NY trade I guess...

I highly recommend both the book and the musical, I found both totally entertaining, especially for a London audience... of course, I'm a willing subject. What Mannheim achieves is to honour the other in her stories, the child, the mother, the awkward teen, the outcast. It's a relief for the main characters to not be populated by the standard fare. The language, the politics and the social struggle all made me feel serious empathy and reminded me of my own long road walked. The stories made me remember my first girlfriend who lived above me on the 5th floor with her coke-head father, sharing a bunk bed in a 1-bedroom, who said 'ated' instead of 'eaten', and thought going to the movie theater where your feet stuck to the floor was a step up from her usual dates to the park... This is the joy of reading Above Sugar Hill, the retelling of the stories that don't often get told, the desperation to 'get out' but the attachments that keep us where we are. If I didn't like Influx Press enough after reading Marshland, I'm now feeling pretty much represented in their choices of books to publish.

In The Heights, touched upon some of the same positive points as well. In full American razzmatazz force the cast sing, jump and sweat across the floor and in front of your face. Their energy is visceral, powerful, contagious and at times cheesy, but hell its an American musical, just go with it. I will fully admit I came into the Southwark Playhouse with pretty low expectations but instead left elated and proud of seeing my old hood on stage to a British public. Of course there are flaws in trying to be something you're not, recreating the Heights would be impossible, but I really didn't care, I still think they did a stellar job. Except for the soy milk prop in the bodega (deli), okay that made me chuckle! Course I was the insider often laughing by myself at things they said and no one really got. The Abuelita character reminded me of an old Cuban woman who lived in an apartment by the lobby entrance to my building. She never let go of missing Cuba, she feared the area and the other Latinos, always worried she would get clobbered in the head while walking the streets. And after 50 years of living in the Heights, never assimilating and never learning English she died as she feared but in that way can only happen in the Big City: the ceiling above her bed fell on her in her sleep and crushed her to death... Another story lost in the echo of a million voices in the urban jungle....

So get a full dose of some real New York grit in your teeth. Read the book and see the show, you'll be in for a treat, and then lets grab a pint and I'll tell you where the best pizza in the hood really is... If its still there.

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