In the Heights: An interview with Robert W. Snyder


Today on Gotham, historian Mason B. Williams speaks with Robert W. Snyder about his new book Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City
(also the subject of
The Gotham Center's forthcoming
December 10th event.


The great social historian Richard Cobb, a fellow scholar once quipped, seemed to know everyone in 18th century Paris. Robert Snyder appears to know everyone in 20th century Washington Heights. Tracing neighborhood life from the arrival of the subway through the present, Snyder’s Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City looks in fine detail at how Heights residents have lived, how different groups have related to each other, and how they have tried — apart and together — to take control over the broader forces that structure life in the neighborhood. In Snyder’s hands, these on-the-ground neighborhood stories illuminate some of the key questions of postwar New York: struggles for racial integration; the social consequences of disinvestment, crime, and the drug trade; and contemporary concerns about displacement.

Snyder, a professor of journalism and American Studies in the Department of Arts, Culture, and Media at Rutgers University-Newark, is the author of four books and the editor of nine more. He served as the research director for Ric Burns’s acclaimed New York, among a great many public-history contributions. Our conversation touches upon Snyder’s methodological approach to writing history (particularly his use of oral history interviews) as well as the obligations New York owes to the people who brought Washington Heights through the 1970s and 1980s. Not least, it takes up Snyder’s own personal history with the neighborhood and the role this history played in his historical scholarship. Like many outstanding works of New York history, Crossing Broadway is a deeply personal book. I found it fascinating to hear how Snyder wrestled with, and transcended, the limitations of his inherited vantage point on the Heights’s history, even as his personal connection to the neighborhood continues to inform his understanding of the neighborhood’s importance to the future of the city.
— Mason Williams

Let’s start with the title of the first chapter: “An ordinary neighborhood in an extraordinary city.” This is a book about Washington Heights; it’s also a book about New York, seen from the vantage point of Washington Heights. What kind of vantage point does Washington Heights afford? What makes this a valuable lens on New York’s history, and what does the story of Washington Heights tell us about New York as a whole?

Washington Heights is a great vantage point for understanding New York City as a whole for several reasons. One, it was always a neighborhood of securely working-class and modestly middle-class people. So from the 1920s down to the 1970s, it was really economically at the center of New York City, and the modest but healthy prosperity that working-class and middle-class people could enjoy. I wanted to understand what became of that prosperity as the city’s economy changed in profound ways from the 1970s on. It was also a neighborhood of immigrants, and one where an older generation of immigrants from Europe — particularly Irish and Jewish and Greek Americans -- were succeeded by the largest single immigrant group that had come to New York City since the 1960s, which is Dominicans. And lastly, it’s a neighborhood where crime, while initially really modest in its impact on the neighborhood compared to other places, rose to very frightening levels when murders climbed in the 80s and early 90s during the years of the crack epidemic. I wanted to see what happened to a neighborhood when fear and danger loomed large in people’s lives.

So: for the economic factor, the ethnic factor, and the significance of crime, I thought Washington Heights was a great place to write about. I was also well aware that it was not a famous neighborhood -- like Harlem, the Lower East Side, or Times Square -- and that I might learn some new things there, but that I also had to work extra hard to bring it to people’s attention.

To my reading, the first half of this book is about the costs of segregation, and the ways in which segregation compromised, both the New Deal as a whole, as well as some of the most hopeful democratic institutions in the Heights and in the city more generally. A great example of this in your book is Highbridge Pool: a New Deal project meant to make recreation accessible to people on the basis of citizenship rather than purchasing power, which becomes another site on which to draw and enforce social boundaries.

For me, the most wrenching, painful, and difficult part of the book was coming to grips with the strain of racism that undermined the greatest promises of the New Deal in Washington Heights and New York City. I still believe that the New Deal and its works are really the model that we need to look back to if we want to understand how American society can be made more just and equal. But we have to look back with open eyes. I have to confess that in the stories my parents told about the neighborhood -- and in some ways some of my own understandings about New York and its political history in the 30s and 40s and 50s -- I simply didn’t devote enough attention to the significance of racial discrimination and racially-based inequalities. In looking at Washington Heights, I had to understand how those undermined institutions like Highbridge Pool, how places that preceded the New Deal like George Washington High School, were a great inheritance that themselves were shaken badly, I think, in the 60s and 70s in all sorts of ways, but that also how, in ways that I found quite hopeful, a lot of the Democrats who came out of Washington Heights, who helped steer the neighborhood through its toughest years, from the 70s to the 90s, were themselves in some ways deeply shaped by a New Deal Democratic ethos. So the weaknesses and the strengths of New Deal New York loom very large in my mind while I was doing the book and certainly in the first few chapters.

The following chapter, in a similar vein, takes up the costs of racial segregation in the public schools, and the role this played in the crisis of the school system --this great democratic treasure that the postwar city had inherited -- looking in detail at just how difficult it was to make a system that could work for everyone given this deep and entrenched commitment to segregation.

Absolutely. I mean, I grew up in a household where both my parents had great things to say about New York City public schools. My father went to a vocational high school where he learned to speak French so well that he could direct French mechanics when he was in the U.S. Army in World War II. My mom got a free education at Hunter College at a time when college education was almost unknown among people of her social class. In looking at Washington Heights, I saw that the immense inequality and the immense tragedy of what happens when the newest New Yorkers are deprived for complicated reasons of the same social benefits — and cultural benefits — of a really great public school education. And I saw, also, how school wars over neighborhood schools were really the front lines of battles over maintaining ethnic enclaves in ways that still go on in New York City today.

The second half of the book, fundamentally, is about breaking through these boundaries -- about crossing Broadway. This is especially striking given all you’ve shown us about the entrenched nature of these ethnic enclaves. I guess the logical question is, How did this happen? How did people manage to break through the parochial quality of neighborhood life to forge the kinds of collaborations that were necessary to “save” Washington Heights in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s?

Deborah Katznelson, who has done great work at the YM-YWHA in Washington Heights and Inwood over the years, once said to me on a memorable subway ride that the neighborhood was in desperate trouble, crime was high and population was declining, people were still living in their silos, and yet they looked around and they just saw that if they’re going to make any kind of progress, they had to find a way to work with each other. And Dominicans have said the same thing to me as well. It’s not that the neighborhood was suddenly suffused by a sense of common purpose and warm feelings toward people on the other side of Broadway. It was people in very desperate circumstances; they had to figure out what they could do together, and they figured out that they could achieve their interests by working with other people — they had to look for common interests. And these were hard to find in a neighborhood where people defined their interests so differently, and often on geographic lines. But by working together, by achieving a kind of collective efficacy, as the sociologist Robert Sampson puts it, they could achieve important goals. They could get more schools built. They could bring down crime. What they could not address was the rising tide of economic inequality, which raised a huge problem, because Washington Heights remained a disproportionately poor neighborhood, even as new schools got built, even as crime went down, even as public space became safer and more open to public enjoyment. It’s that economic factor, which is hard enough for a city to address, that is very difficult to address even by the most determined local efforts in Washington Heights.

I’d like to ask you about the implications for this history about how we ought to think about social obligations in the city. You write in the epilogue that “the people who saved Washington Heights in the days of crime and crack deserve more for their pains than a stiff rent increase.”

That line got a cheer when I read it out loud at the book launch at Coogan’s Bar and Restaurant in Washington Heights, and I kind of expected that it would. Because people who brought the neighborhood back in those years are well aware that the reward for their efforts is not what they had expected. They are more economically insecure in the neighborhood than they used to be. Many of them would be happy to see their children or grandchildren move into Washington Heights. But that’s just economically harder and harder to do.

I think that social obligations have to be seen at a very local level, but also at a very large macro level. People learned how to cross Broadway, but they need to keep learning how to cross Broadway. The sense of common interests and working together in Washington Heights, in other neighborhoods, has to be won again and again, almost issue by issue sometimes. It’s a habit that has to be inculcated. But it has to be reinforced by some encouragement from the top, but also reinforced economically and structurally in ways that are way beyond the capacities of an individual neighborhood. And it’s exactly the weakening of social bonds and the weakening of the social contract since the 1970s, that left people in Washington Heights in a vulnerable place, and I believe leaves Americans as a whole in a much more vulnerable situation.

Throughout the book, you lace the historical narrative with your own family’s history. How do you think your personal connection to Washington Heights shaped your approach to its history?

It gave me a feeling that I had a stake in the history of the neighborhood. I really felt the story of Washington Heights much more vividly than I felt the story of other neighborhoods. I lived in Greenwich Village for ten years —it was my teenage dream growing up in New Jersey. Yet I somehow felt a greater stake in the future of Washington Heights. That’s probably because I thought the Village was pretty much taken care of by the time I moved there in 1980. I felt a tremendous stake in what would happen in Washington Heights. And I also had to work to overcome some of the blinders that my parents had. I mean, they loved the neighborhood; they had good lives there. And I had to sort of understand the limits of their vision. And one of the ways that first became clear to me was in an interview that I did with my mother, where she explained to me that her Washington Heights was basically from 181st Street north on Fort Washington Avenue to Fort Tryon Park, with an occasional trip over to Broadway to go shopping. That’s a fairly small piece of turf. But the neighborhood was much larger than that. And she said that she was at best dimly aware of what was happening outside of her area. The second thing that she talked about -- my mom was well aware of anti-Semitism, my dad was well aware of anti-Semitism, but racial discrimination did not figure large in the way they understood the city or their neighborhood. It was in my interview with my mom about moving to Washington Heights, and the life she lived before the Heights and after the Heights, that she talked a lot about not just religious discrimination — because she was aware of anti-Semitism on the job in New York City — but even more profound racial discrimination. And to put those things together with a larger understanding of the city was both challenging for me, painful for me, and ultimately rewarding.

An important part of this book involves your own interviews with community members, and even personal observations from walking on foot patrol with officers from the 34th precinct. These are perhaps at least somewhat unusual sources for a historian, and they really add a lot to the book. What do you feel these kinds of sources — oral history and first-hand observation — added to your understanding of the neighborhood? Is this something you would like to see more of in historical writing on the city?

I’ve always worked in oral history, I’ve always seen it as having tremendous value, most of all for understanding the relationship between the past and the present. I’m aware of the fallibility of memory in all sorts of ways, but I think for understanding how people think and feel about the past and the present, and the relationship between the two, oral history is invaluable. In Washington Heights, it was vital to the book in two ways. One, this is a neighborhood that was not on the radar screen for most people. You could look in New York Times stories, you could look in local papers, but I had to do a lot of interviews just to get a general narrative for the neighborhood and how it changed from the 30s to the present. Second, I had to do a lot of interviews to find the people that I wanted to write about. I’m very wary of a technique that’s often used by literary journalists where you tell the story of a huge event through the lives of three people, or three families, because if you choose those families or people too quickly, you can wind up with people who are extremely unrepresentative, or idiosyncratic. And you’re not going to know the big picture. So I did one wave of interviews really just to get the big picture. And then I often doubled back and asked myself, “Well, what was it like to work through this problem? What was it like to live through this question?” And I would interview people to understand how they did that, and often those people became voices in the book, characters in the book if you will.

The research that I did on the police was actually for a much more narrowly focused study on crime and crime reporting during the years of the crack epidemic. So then I was writing really about the present and the recent past; and for me it was invaluable, because it helped me understand the geography of Washington Heights, the social geography of Washington Heights, and just the deeply entrenched nature of the crack trade. There’s nothing like walking down the street with a police officer and having him point out all the different dimensions of the trade, and how it’s embedded in the fabric of one corner of the community. Through that experience, I could understand police-community relations much better, in much more complexity, but I could also see how big a problem the crack trade was in Washington Heights.

What is the future of Washington Heights? What do you see as its greatest points of promise, and what are its greatest challenges? And for the city as a whole?

I think Washington Heights faces the future with all the infrastructure of the neighborhood that my parents loved, which was a great home for working people and working families. It has modest but comfortable apartment buildings, great transit connections, beautiful parks, and an adequate supply of public schools. The huge question mark over the future of Washington Heights is economic: Will the economy of New York City provide the same kind of broad-based prosperity for working-class people in Washington Heights that it provided for my parents’ generation? It hasn’t yet; the neighborhood has been disproportionately poor since the 1980s. Second: Will housing costs and economic inequality drive from the neighborhood the very people who sustained it through its hardest times? It is very easy to find people in Washington Heights who are frightened of a big rent increase, or who are frightened of having their rent stabilization challenged and pulled away. The combination of those two is a big concern.

Muggings were not as common in Washington Heights in the 1970s as they were in other neighborhoods. Harlem, to the south, was a much more dangerous neighborhood. But people in Washington Heights were nonetheless really scared of crime by the 1970s. The threat of a rent increase, the threat of losing your rent stabilization, today looms large in people’s minds in much the way that crime did thirty or forty years ago. Unless we get a handle on this problem, Washington Heights will not be the foundation for a good life for the average person. And if that’s lost, something tremendous will be lost in New York City.