By: Avi Mendelson  | 

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Take a stroll down any given street in Washington Heights and you will observe two very distinct, culturally rich communal experiences.  Most likely, you will find yourself immersed in the Dominican Republic community and culture.  By the busier streets there are restaurants such as El Pollo Dorado and La Casa Del Mofongo, street vendors who have replaced the traditional hot dog with a Latin American dish, and store owners standing in front of their bodegas with piles of produce stacked on street corners.  Passersby will haggle in Spanish with vendors standing behind tables with watches, jewelry, and various trinkets.  Rows of clothing racks can be found intermittently and make sidewalk shopping a common activity.  In the residential areas, there is a strong stoop culture.  Friends and families will gather on the front steps of their apartments, and an excess of company will sit on chairs across from the steps, leaving room for walkers to shuffle in between.  Locals can be seen playing dominoes, listening to Latin American music, smoking hookah, and enjoying the company of their neighbors.

Within this “little Dominican Republic” are two pockets of Jewish communities: Yeshiva University, and a neighborhood of young Jewish adults in “the other side of the Heights.”  Within Yeshiva University there is obviously a very strong sidewalk culture.  The entire campus exists basically within three geographic points that make up dormitories, classes, and restaurants, and there is hardly a time when you can walk from one point to another without seeing a friend or fellow Jew.  Students gathering at the crosswalk on their way to class may say hi to one another or get a brief update from a friend on how the day is going.  In between classes they will congregate on a section of 185th street blocked off specifically for that purpose, between two school buildings. After class one might wait around before spotting a friend with whom to grab dinner.  A stranger walking through this campus would see a mass of young, white, Jewish males dressed in slacks and button-down shirts.  The number of skullcaps per capita would be notable, as would be flowing fringes and the occasional Rabbi crossing the street.  On the other side of the Heights, the Jewish presence is certainly not as pronounced as that of the Dominicans during the week.  On Saturdays, however, streams of Jews will be seen walking to synagogue, dressed in suits and dresses in honor of the Sabbath.  Many wishes of a good Sabbath will inevitably be exchanged, to the point where it becomes less a sincere wish and more a curt acknowledgement.  But the presence of so many young, fellow Jews makes the spirit of a day of rest much more tangible and real.

Even more notable than the presence of these two communities is that they seem to be unaware of each other.  Despite the strong sense of community and culture that exists within both worlds, there is little communal interaction between them.  Walking outside of the limits of Yeshiva University on the way to the subway feels like leaving one planet and entering another. There is no bridge, just a jump.  Some may look at this reality and think nothing of it; Washington Heights is simply comprised of two communities that happen to live next to each other—there’s no reason to expect any sense of integration.  The fact that the two communities do not share a sense of general community is harmless, if not expected.  But Jane Jacob’s seminal book on urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, complicates this attitude of benign neglect and places it in a much more troubling light.

The third chapter of her work, entitled “The uses of sidewalks: contact,” analyzes the communal function of sidewalks.  Sidewalks, Jacobs argues, are much more than utilitarian. They are crucial to the overall atmosphere of a neighborhood in that they help foster community and create a sense of public trust.  This sense of community and trust “is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts.”[1] Jacobs illustrates why sidewalks are so crucial to this natural development to public trust by discussing the quandary of privacy.  On the one hand, people want meaningful interaction with the greater community.  On the other hand, privacy is of the utmost importance to people, so it is seemingly impossible to have both.  Enter sidewalks:  “A good city street neighborhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around.  This balance is largely made up of small, sensitively managed details, practiced and accepted so casually that they are normally taken for granted” (59).  The sidewalk is the venue by which these “sensitively managed details” are introduced to a city, allowing for crucial “casual” contacts.  These contacts seem “utterly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all,” the sum being “a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need” (56).

Given this insight into the social productivity of sidewalks, the communal distance between the Jews and Dominicans of Washington Heights becomes seriously troubling.  If sidewalks are meant to foster communal cohesion, then how do we explain the stark divide between Jew and Hispanic? After all, there are plenty of these “little public sidewalk contacts,” so why does it not result in a common public identity? Is there something fundamentally dysfunctional about the Washington Heights community, or are there more factors involved in creating community than a simple sidewalk?

Let’s take a stroll through Washington Heights and try to get a better sense of the variables at play that may impede communal cohesion.  The most prominent variable is the language barrier.  This could possibly be the crux of the entire issue.  An inability to communicate makes it nearly impossible to reach out to one another.  But that might not even be the issue.  If we are talking about the small sidewalk interactions that supposedly make up a community, a como estas can easily be replaced with a friendly smile and be just as effective.  The problem is not the inability to acknowledge the other, because we hardly interact like that with people within our own community.  Rather, the inability to understand language is communally debilitating in that we cannot listen in on conversations.  This is really what the sidewalk experience is all about.  As Jacobs states, when we enter the sidewalk we are balancing public and private by unconsciously sharing ourselves with the public.  If I am walking with my roommate and telling him my plans for the weekend, pieces of that conversation will be picked up along the way by passersby, who then get a better sense of a Jewish student’s social life.  Eavesdropping on conversations is a crucial aspect of the sidewalk experience because it gives us a quick sneak peek into someone’s life.  Unfortunately, this does not happen when walking in the Heights because of the language barrier.

Yet, there is more to sidewalk encounters than verbal communication and overheard conversations.  If the entire purpose of a sidewalk experience is to get a better sense of the people in your community, this can be done without ever sharing a word.  Finding common ground between two people can be accomplished through observation.  One thing I noticed that struck me was a mother and son holding hands at a street corner, waiting to cross the street.  I personally felt very touched by this image of mother and son, and I am sure any mother of any race, ethnicity, or background would instantly feel a strong connection with this mother.  Experiences like this necessitate no active interaction.  They function by demonstrating that the people in your neighborhood are inherently the same as you.

Observation is just as much a part of the sidewalk experience as communication. So while a language barrier may be a reason for a sidewalk interaction not being as meaningful or informative about one’s neighbors as one would hope, it is no excuse for a lack in identifying with one’s neighbors.  Mere observation should foster a sense of common identity among neighbors who are all just trying to live peaceful lives and raise happy families.  So the problem is not that we can’t talk.  The problem is that we don’t look.  And we don’t look because we don’t care to.  Our ambivalence, or even express desire to ignore our neighbors, is the root of the problem.  To assume that sidewalks have the ability to bring together two populations that are unwilling to do so is unreasonable. Sidewalks only work effectively for populations that want to mix and mingle and get to know their community.  But we don’t.  Why?

Jewish communal leaders, when discussing the concept of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish identity, will use the buzzwords “shared fate” and “shared destiny.”  The sense that the individuals around you are connected to you, that you have a stake in each other, makes people into a people.  I think the same idea can be applied to community building.  When we feel that we have a shared destiny with our neighbors, even if that destiny is simply to live in harmony together for decades to come, then we wish to get to know the other and share feelings of mutual love and care.

It seems that this sense of a shared destiny is not felt between the Jews and the Dominicans of Washington Heights.  Whether it be a function of socio-economic inequality, stark contrast in culture, or a difference in religion is not clear.

To be fair, I don’t know if the Dominican community doesn’t want to have anything to do with us.  I just get the feeling that the Jewish community doesn’t feel the need to branch out into the greater Dominican community.  This apathy is no doubt projected to the other community and probably results in similar sentiments.  How do we communicate this apathy?

Whether consciously or not, the Jews of the Heights seem to put up walls between themselves and their Dominican neighbors.  Kosher restaurants I can understand, but why replace the Washington Heights bodegas with our Israeli-reminiscent makolets?  Why do we have our own barbershop?  The experiences of buying a snack at a bodega and getting a Washington Heights haircut are both easy and accessible ways to have meaningful contact with our neighbors.  We don’t seem to want that.

More importantly, what type of message does it send when we have security booths surrounding the perimeter of our campus?  —When we have barriers that say “Do Not Cross?”  They are not exactly the most welcoming of decorations. I do not deny that security is important; I just wonder if we ever consider the rhetoric these things express to the greater community.

And those black YU emblazoned vans.  Why are the windows tinted black as well?  It seems that the people travelling in them wish to do so “under cover of night.”  It’s as if we wish to go unnoticed when we travel around the greater community.  Maybe it gives us an excuse to not notice them in return. The vans themselves are intimidating—is that their implicit purpose?  I am sure people notice those vans picking Jews up from the A train to bring them back to YU so they don’t have to make the trek alone. How does it feel to know people don’t feel comfortable walking in your neighborhood?  Jacobs in her book says that the cornerstone to building sidewalk trust is sidewalk safety.  On the one hand, I understand that if people do not feel safe in a neighborhood, there is nothing to do about that.  But we have to realize that that fear may be felt by our neighbors.  And the one thing that likely destroys sidewalk trust more than fear is knowing that you are feared.

For the YU student specifically, maybe it has nothing to do with fear or a common sense of destiny, but everything to do with destination.  In the few years that we spend in the Heights, I don’t think we ever view it as a permanent home.  First year students have just returned from Jerusalem of Gold and now have to deal with the reality of living in Washington Heights of Dog Doo. Their bodies are in the Heights but their souls are in Zion.  And already people are planning on how to cut down their stay from four years to three to two and a half.  Honors thesis?  Forget that.  In the meantime, we look for any excuse to escape to anywhere else in the city that is more clean and comfortable.  And for the in-towners, the question of where their true community lies is answered with another question: do they pack clothing for the week or the weekend?  We’re not grounded enough in our own community to even begin to think about the other community that surrounds us.

Are these messages sent consciously or not?  If not, we must assess how we convey ourselves. If yes, we must ask ourselves why.  Surely there is much to be gained from a shared sense of community with the people we live next to.  Most importantly, we all need to ask ourselves: when we stroll down the sidewalk, are we walking past strangers or neighbors?  Sidewalks, after all, are only as effective as the people who use them.


[1] Jane Jacobs. "The Uses of Sidewalks: Contact." The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (Random House, 1961) 56.