Washington Heights: Finding La Cultura in New York City’s Little Dominican RepublicBy Oneika Raymond
Host Oneika Raymond takes the A-line up to Washington Heights — a loud, vibrant Dominican neighborhood in New York City — to join local Hector Espinal for a walking tour of his hometown. Hector is the co-founder of We Run Uptown, the first-ever running group in uptown Manhattan, and the perfect guide to get to know the streets of Washington Heights.
Oneika joins Hector at Locksmith Bar, a popular local watering hole and the meeting point for We Run Uptown’s weekly Monday runs, before heading out to visit some of Hector’s favorite sights, restaurants and running routes in the area.
To kick off the tour, Hector shows Oneika a local shortcut to avoid walking some of the steepest hills in all of Manhattan as they make their way to St. Nicholas Avenue, a bustling thoroughfare in the heart of Washington Heights. They stroll down the busy avenue toward 182nd Street to check out its famed street vendors, including Nidia Rivera, who’s been selling the Dominican dessert habichuelas con dulce for more than 30 years.
Then Hector and Oneika stop for a traditional Dominican breakfast at La Casa del Mofongo. Over the meal, Hector and Oneika connect over their shared Caribbean roots, as Hector talks about what it was like for him growing up in Washington Heights. We learn about la cultura (the culture) of the neighborhood and its people and the welcoming running culture that Hector’s helped create here.
Hector and Oneika end the day at J. Hood Wright Park, a quiet pocket of Washington Heights with one of the best views of the George Washington Bridge, before taking off for a victory run to close out the tour.
To read full episode transcripts from About the Journey and see photos of each feature destination, head to About the Journey on Marriott Bonvoy Traveler. Starting this season, you can also watch videos from select episodes on our Marriott Bonvoy YouTube channel.
Washington Heights – Local 1: I’m born and raised in Washington Heights. There’s so much culture up here. There’s so much beauty up here. People are amazing. The food is amazing. The fruits are amazing. Whoever hasn’t been here needs to be here, needs to come visit, at least once ever in their life.
Oneika Raymond: Welcome to About the Journey. I’m your host, Oneika Raymond, a travel journalist and member of Marriott Bonvoy.
This season, I’m uncovering the lesser-known sides of six iconic cities. In my years of travel, I’ve found there is no better way to see a city than through its neighborhoods and the people who call them home. So I’ll be meeting up with in-the-know locals to show me what makes their homes one-of-a-kind: from the sights, sounds and flavors to the hidden gems and so much more.
This week, we’re in New York City’s Washington Heights, a true crown jewel of upper Manhattan.
Washington Heights – Local 2: [laughs] Washington Heights is loud. If you’re hungry, we’re gonna feed you. If you need somewhere to stay, we’re gonna have a place to stay for you. We like to take care of our own. So if you’re here, you’re one of ours.
Washington Heights – Local 3: It’s very lively, and I would say it’s one of the last communities in New York City. And there’s a sense of, like, protecting your own and protecting what we have here.
Washington Heights – Local 4: That’s what Washington Heights is. We just loud. We’re energetic. This is what we do. So if you’re gonna come up here, you gotta be part of the same culture.
Oneika Raymond: Washington Heights is a culturally rich, and unapologetically Dominican, neighborhood just two miles north of Central Park that somehow feels a world away. It stretches north from 155th Street to Dyckman Street and spans Manhattan from the Hudson River to the Harlem River.
Home to the largest Dominican population in the city, you’ll hear predominantly Spanish spoken on its bustling, vendor-filled streets. The sounds and smells transport you back to the DR. And Caribbean hospitality can be found in just about every barbershop, bodega and food cart that lines its sidewalks.
And for me, that Caribbean warmth is what Washington Heights is all about. The people, la cultura — it’s what sets this neighborhood apart from anywhere else in the world. And that is precisely why I’m visiting it today.
So I took the A-line all the way uptown to meet up with Washington Heights local Hector Espinal for a walking tour of his home, offered by one Caribbean islander to another.
Hector Espinal: How’s it going?
Oneika Raymond: Hi! Oh, my God.
Hector Espinal: How are you doing?
Oneika Raymond: It is so good to meet you.
Hector Espinal: Welcome uptown.
Oneika Raymond: Thank you so much.
Oneika Raymond: Hector is the co-founder of We Run Uptown, the first running group in uptown Manhattan. He knows the streets of Washington Heights like the soles of his favorite running shoes. We meet in front of Locksmith Bar, a local watering hole and We Run Uptown’s official meeting point, before starting our walking tour of some of Hector’s favorite spots in the neighborhood.
Hector Espinal: Yeah, let’s cross the street. Alright, so instead of us … we have to get to 184th Street and Broadway.
Oneika Raymond: OK.
Hector Espinal: [car horn honks] We can either take this huge hill, which we’re not going to do, or we can do what all the locals do and cross through the tunnel and take the elevator and take St. Nicholas down.
Oneika Raymond: I am here for it. I love these, like, local secrets. I don’t come uptown very often.
Hector Espinal: We’ll take a shortcut, we’ll do the shortcut. 191st Street tunnel …
Oneika Raymond: Hector leads us into the 191st Street subway station, to the deepest underground passageway in all of New York City. As we walk down a flight of stairs, the air becomes cooler, and stiller, and our voices bounce off of the tunnel’s curved walls.
Hector Espinal: The reason why we’re doing this, the alternative is a hill; it’s two hills. We’re about 15 to 20 stories down.
Oneika Raymond: Oh, wow.
Hector Espinal: There’s no other way to get up there. It’s either you take the hill or you take the elevator.
Oneika Raymond: We pile into the elevator, and in no time we step out of its sliding doors and straight into the beating heart of Washington Heights.
Hector Espinal: So we are now on St. Nicholas Avenue. This is like, this is the sweet spot. This is where, like, uptown feels like uptown. This is where we’re gonna see street vendors. We’re gonna see some local food spots. You know, it’s where I grew up coming.
Hector Espinal: So, Washington Heights, it’s like a human; it’s like a person, you know. When you wake up before you have your coffee, you’re a little groggy, but once 12 p.m. hits — that you’re up and you’re moving, you’re energized. The streets are bustling.
Oneika Raymond: Hector and I weave our way down St. Nicholas Avenue, cutting through Washington Heights’ busy sidewalk markets. Everywhere you look, there are overflowing cartons of fresh fruit and crisp produce.
We watch shoppers test each piece of fruit for peak ripeness, using all of their senses. And delivery trucks idle nearby with more product. All around us, people on the go speak rapid Spanish. The words mix with beats of reggaeton and salsa coming out of shop doors and passing cars.
It’s the symphony of Washington Heights that authors and filmmakers have based entire books and films upon.
Hector Espinal: I feel like Washington Heights is relentless. I can only think about why my parents immigrated here and not, like, somewhere in the Midwest, you know?
Oneika Raymond: Mm-hmm. Facts.
Hector Espinal: This is where they were connected to the island. This is where the person at the bodega spoke Spanish. That if my mom was $3, $4 short, like, don’t worry about it, give it to me on Friday. And that’s the beauty of that immigration story.
Oneika Raymond: Oh, I know it, I know it. I’ve lived it.
Hector Espinal: … the same way Dominicans have that here.
Oneika Raymond: Jamaicans got it in Flatbush.
Hector Espinal: … the Chinese have it in Chinatown, and you go to these places.
Oneika Raymond: We make our way down to 182nd Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue where the majority of the neighborhood’s street vendors set up shop. They’re situated on all corners of this cross street.
Here, options are plenty. You can get everything from fresh fruit smoothies and juices to heftier dishes like La Bandera, the Dominican take on rice and beans. But the one dish you’re not to miss is the habichuelas con dulce from Nidia Rivera, who’s been selling the Dominican dessert on this corner for over 30 years.
Hector Espinal: So there’s, habichuelas con dulce, is like beans. It sounds crazy, but it’s like sweet beans. It’s amazing, and it is a staple during Semana Santa.
Oneika Raymond: Yes.
Hector Espinal: Then they have maiz caquiao, which is almost like a corn pudding. They have majarete, which is also made out of corn. These are all struggle meals that have become desserts.
Oneika Raymond: Hector hands me a small paper cup filled to the brim with a light, caramel-colored liquid with flecks of spices, like cardamom, ginger and nutmeg. Small white crackers float on the surface, ready to be pushed down with a spoon. The dessert is a treat of the Dominican Republic that’s enjoyed all year round, but especially during Semana Santa, or Holy Week.
Hector Espinal: You know, you eat it with a spoon.
Oneika Raymond: Mm-hmm.
Hector Espinal: That’s a Maria cracker on the top. Grab the cracker. You gotta grab the cracker.
Oneika Raymond: Oh, sorry! Hmm, that’s tasty.
Hector Espinal: Yeah, this is …
Oneika Raymond: Mmm, the cracker.
Hector Espinal: … a Dominican love language. Every neighbor that’s making this is gonna want to share this with their neighbors. Any person in the building. I don’t eat everybody’s habichuelas con dulce because everyone doesn’t know how to make it correctly.
Oneika Raymond: Oh, interesting. OK.
Hector Espinal: Yeah, but you gotta label them. This one came from 4A, this one came from 2B, because you wanna make sure you’re eating the good one, you know?
Oneika Raymond: Right, right.
Oneika Raymond: From Nidia Rivera’s, we can already eye our next stop on the tour: La Casa del Mofongo, a neighborhood staple and one of Hector’s go-to restaurants in Washington Heights.
Hector Espinal: So this is what I grew up eating …
Oneika Raymond: As the name suggests, La Casa del Mofongo boasts over 20 different types of mofongo. Now, mofongo is a traditional dish with cross-cultural roots in Puerto Rico and the DR. It’s made by frying and mashing plantains with crispy pork skin called chicharrón.
Today though, we’ve arrived a little early for mofongo so Hector orders us a late breakfast instead. Soon, we’re brought out heaping plates of boiled and mashed plantains, called mangu; fried eggs; cheese; Dominican sausage; and …
Hector Espinal: … morir soñando, which translates to, like, “die dreaming.” Think of it like a creamsicle in a cup.
Oneika Raymond: Between bites we connect over our shared love of running, Hector’s journey to start We Run Uptown, and how he’s rallied Washington Heights around getting up and out.
Oneika Raymond: What makes Washington Heights, or what makes Uptown, so great to run? People run in, like, Central Park and all these other things. What makes Washington Heights a great place to run?
Hector Espinal: It’s the people; it’s the culture, la cultura that you have uptown.
Oneika Raymond: Mm.
Hector Espinal: You’re not gonna find it on the Upper West Side. You’re not gonna find it on the Lower East side. People aren’t gonna stop and honk the horn, and we have people stopping traffic for us so we don’t get hurt, you know? They’re motivating us, and they’re clapping for us. And I feel like — and I’ve ran through, all over, the city; I’ve run all around the world — that I don’t feel that energy that I feel uptown.
Oneika Raymond: And let’s run it back a little bit because you said that there was nothing like this group for “us.” Who is “us”?
Hector Espinal: “Us” — it’s people of color, specifically Dominicans, you know. So I never felt like I had a place when it came to running. I remember vividly seeing runners on Riverside Drive, and I didn’t see myself there. I didn’t even, I couldn’t fathom, you know, like: Oh, I’m gonna be a runner. And in 2013 I was like, let’s do this. Let’s try this. And at first it was very selfish. It was me trying to lose weight. And through social media, I started to get people to come join me. I did a lot of begging, a lot of groveling on the ground.
Oneika Raymond: Why begging and groveling, you think?
Hector Espinal: Because no one wanted to join me.
Oneika Raymond: Why? Why?
Hector Espinal: Because this wasn’t something that our people did.
Oneika Raymond: It wasn’t something that “our” people did. And you know what? When you say that, that hits for me.
Oneika Raymond: It’s so important for there to be a fuller representation in athletics.
Hector Espinal: Yeah. Yeah. We’ve created a platform where people of color, Latinos and African Americans can come and feel seen.
Oneika Raymond: Yeah.
Hector Espinal: This is our space.
Oneika Raymond: So what was it like for you to grow up within this environment?
Hector Espinal: I gotta finish chewing.
Oneika Raymond: [laughs] Wash it down; wash it down.
Hector Espinal: I couldn’t pick a better place to grow up. Growing up in Washington Heights is, it’s molding, it’s a very unique neighborhood. I wish I could find who the first Dominican was that came to Washington Heights and made that rally cry like, “Yo guys, pull up! We found a new home.” But that’s how it starts. You know, someone that my mom knew moved to Washington Heights, and told her like, “Hey, you gotta go there. Land of opportunity.” And the person at the bodega speaks Spanish.
Oneika Raymond: Yep.
Hector Espinal: And, growing up in Washington Heights, I couldn’t get away with anything because everyone knew each other. It was a sense of community; you can still feel that in Washington Heights.
Oneika Raymond: I think what I really love about what you just said is the fact that when I asked you what makes uptown such a great place to run, you didn’t give me a landmark. You didn’t say, “Oh, it’s the view of the river,” right? It wasn’t, “Oh, the, the beautiful park.” It was la cultura.
Hector Espinal: Mm-hmm.
Oneika Raymond: It was the people, the sights, the sounds. It was the people who are giving you a drink because they see that you’re parched.
Oneika Raymond: Now I’m curious: What are some of the best running routes here in Washington Heights?
Hector Espinal: Specifically, the tunnel that I took you through.
Oneika Raymond: Mhmm.
Hector Espinal: The George Washington Bridge. It’s beautiful. I love running over the GWB because when you’re in the middle of the George Washington Bridge, you could look straight down the Hudson River.
Oneika Raymond: Yeah.
Hector Espinal: And you see this beautiful view of Manhattan.
Oneika Raymond: The runner’s high.
Hector Espinal: Yeah. I’m like, “Yo, this is mine, bro. Like, I’ve ran all up and down these streets.” But that’s one of my favorite views. And just really honestly, if I want someone to see Washington Heights for what it is, we’re gonna run on St. Nicholas Avenue.
Oneika Raymond: Okay.
Hector Espinal: And the reason we’re gonna do that is because it’s the best way to see the food vendors, the street vendors, to really capture what Washington Heights is.
Hector Espinal: You know, I think of Washington Heights in the summer and all the cars blaring with the music and the people playing dominoes and the street vendors and the noises, and the smells and the sounds.
Oneika Raymond: Obviously there’s a lot of energy, like, in the group. You all meet on Monday nights?
Hector Espinal: Every single Monday night.
Oneika Raymond: Every single Monday night! Since when?
Hector Espinal: Since 2013. Rain, sleet, hail or snow.
Oneika Raymond: You have not missed a Monday night?
Hector Espinal: Never. And one thing that’s beautiful that I love to do is, I like to embarrass the people that show up for the first time. And that’s just to break the ice.
Oneika Raymond: Mm-hmm.
Hector Espinal: So I’ll be like …
Hector Espinal: Who’s in for the first time today? Raise your hand, first time.
Hector Espinal: We want everyone to feel the same way that we felt when we came into the running community: invited and welcomed. After we go, we head on the 5K run, three miles.
Hector Espinal: Josh wants to make y’all run five miles today! [cheering]
Hector Espinal: When we come back, uh, we do a quick stretch and then we invite everybody back into Locksmith. Shared struggle, common experience — it’s what builds community.
Oneika Raymond: For us, by us.
Hector Espinal: Exactly.
Oneika Raymond: Did you ever imagine that running would take you to these places?
Hector Espinal: No, because I stopped half a mile in. I went out on a three mile run and got 10 blocks.
Oneika Raymond: Wait, let me tell you something. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. So there you go.
Hector Espinal: Yeah, it is the most selfless thing I’ve ever done in my life. And as a child of immigrant parents — and you would know better than anybody — you just wanna make them proud, you know? I remember sitting with my mom and she told me the saying. It’s called, ponte pa’ lo tuyo, get on your grind. And I wrote it on a Post-it note And the Post-it note fell once it lost its adhesiveness. And I called my tattoo artist that day, and I was like, “Hey, I have an idea. I want to get this tattooed,” and I got these tattoos on my leg, above my knee, like, ponte pa’ lo tuyo, get on your grind.
Oneika Raymond: With Hector’s mom’s words fresh in our mind, we leave La Casa del Mofongo and make our way 10 minutes south towards J. Hood Wright Park.
Hector Espinal: This is the more quiet part of the neighborhood. You know, when you want to decompress, you want to chill out, you wanna be away from some of the commotion, you come to J. Hood Wright Park.
Oneika Raymond: From where we are, we get an absolutely clear view of the George Washington Bridge cutting gracefully across the Hudson River.
Hector Espinal: I wanted to show you the most beautiful view of the George Washington Bridge. It’s right behind me.
Oneika Raymond: Just seeing it gets us pumped up for the final activity on our walking tour — a victory run. After all, a visit to Hector’s Washington Heights wouldn’t be complete without one.
Hector Espinal: We are going to make a left on 173rd Street and venture off into Broadway, St. Nicholas, and see the loud parts of the neighborhood.
Oneika Raymond: You know what, I’m ready. I’m ready to run.
Hector Espinal: How long are we going? 10 miles?
Oneika Raymond: 15 miles.
Hector Espinal: Three miles. Three miles. Meet in the middle.
Oneika Raymond: [laughs]. OK, OK.
Hector Espinal: Let’s get it.
Oneika Raymond: You know, we often have a tendency to stay in our neighborhoods. We don’t get out of our boroughs, or we don’t explore as much as we should. And that was absolutely the case for me in terms of New York City. I can count the number of times on both hands that I’ve made it up to Washington Heights, and coming on this day and spending time with Hector makes me realize not only that I need to explore more, but I really need to come up to Washington Heights because it is such a vibrant area with so many things to do. The people that you will encounter in Washington Heights, not only are they very vocal, but they’re also very kind, and they encourage you through their liveliness to come out of your shell and to become part of the community. And I think that is a cornerstone of travel. This idea of being able to go and take part, the ability to learn about one another and connect. And you really feel that spirit in a place like Washington Heights, and I definitely will be back.
Oneika Raymond: That’s all for this episode of About the Journey. Thank you to our Washington Heights guide, Hector Espinal. Next week, we’re headed to South London’s bustling Peckham neighborhood to steep ourselves in the culture of one of the city’s most eclectic districts.
About the Journey is produced by Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, At Will Media, and me, Oneika Raymond. Our Marriott producers are Robin Bennefield, Valerie Connors and Jess Moss. Our At Will Media producers are Kait Walsh, Kristy Westgard, Gale Straub and Elliot Davis. Editing and theme music composed by Andrew Holzberger.
You can learn more about visiting Washington Heights — and how to travel more meaningfully — from Marriott Bonvoy Traveler at traveler.marriottbonvoy.com.
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I’m your host, Oneika Raymond. See you next time.