New Seekers of the American Dream
Dominican immigrants are flocking to New York. All hope for a better life, but a few have turned to a drug trade that has made their neighborhood the city's homicide capital.
NEW YORK — IN Washington Heights, there is no middle ground.
On the crowded streets of a neighborhood that more than 80,000 Dominicans - New York's fastest-growing immigrant group - call home, immigrant grocery store owners, taxi drivers, and dishwashers share the sidewalk with immigrant drug dealers.
Future Dominican doctors, engineers, and teachers go to school with young men who expect to die in drug disputes before they're 25.
Two years after riots over alleged police brutality rocked the neighborhood for six days, Dominicans describe an America that offers more opportunity - and more danger - than ever. In dozens of interviews, they said, the inner cities in the ``land of opportunity'' have become unforgiving places that offer a long and sometimes cruel road to the American middle class or a short road to poverty and the drug trade.
Victor Acosta, an 18-year-old Dominican who began his freshman year at Mercy College in New Jersey last month and plans to study computer science, summed up his new country this way:
``Here, they give you the chance to study, to do everything,'' he says, sitting with a friend on the stoop of his crowded tenement. ``But if you don't take [that one] chance and make your move, you end up in the streets.''
Law-enforcement officials estimate that a thriving and extremely violent cocaine trade worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually has developed in Washington Heights over the last 10 years. A flood of drug-related killings has given the area the highest homicide rate in the city. Dominicans Struggle to Make It in New York
The neighborhood's proximity to the George Washington Bridge, which connects New York to New Jersey, has made it a prime spot for mostly white suburban residents to come and buy drugs. Dominicans say a lack of well-paying manufacturing jobs leads some to turn to the drug trade.
``There was a time when you could come here with your bare hands and a desire to work and achieve success,'' says Prof. Silvio Torres Saillant, director of the Dominican Study Institute at the City College of New York. ``There were factories and rail yards and warehouses. None of that exists now for the new immigrant.''
Ramon Vargas, a New York City public school teacher studying at night for his master's degree in anthropology, expressed the mixed emotions many Dominicans have about their adopted country:
``If you work hard, like my father, you can live better,'' Mr. Vargas says. ``And study can get you opportunity. But in this country, you have a lot of bad influences. Either you become addicted to buying drugs or addicted to buying clothes. We come here with the American dream that we're all going to make it here, but there's no dream anymore. The little money you make is to live in a poor neighborhood like this.''
Vargas, who arrived in the US when he was 12, says he is disillusioned with life here. He has bought land in the Dominican Republic and hopes to return there as soon as he has saved enough money. ``Even if I'm milking my cows,'' he says, ``I can get more satisfaction than I do at a school where the staff makes fun of my accent and thinks my brother-in-law is a drug dealer.''
Strong growth in 1980s
Dominicans first arrived in Washington Heights 30 years ago, but an explosion of Dominican immigration in the 1980s transformed the working-class neighborhood on the northern tip of Manhattan. An area that was predominantly Jewish and Irish in the early 1970s is now 70 percent Hispanic and the most densely populated neighborhood in the city.
The Dominican Republic, a Caribbean nation of 7.5 million, shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti and is one of the poorest nations in the Americas. Its economy, largely dependent on plummeting world sugar prices, has steadily worsened over the last decade.
Eighty-eight-year-old Joaquin Balaguer has been the nation's president for 20 of the last 28 years and is widely viewed as a dictator. International observers found so many discrepancies in presidential elections this May that new elections will be held in 1996.
Up to one-third of the Dominicans in New York are thought to be living here illegally. Many take dangerous boat trips from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, a US territory. There, they pose as Puerto Ricans and enter the US without visas. Most Dominicans see themselves as economic refugees, people forced to come to the United States by dire poverty, not immigrants who come here voluntarily.
Adam Newsum, a supervisor with the New York City Department of Employment who is half Dominican and half Puerto Rican, predicts the influx will continue.
``As many people as there are that want to get out of [Washington Heights],'' Mr. Newsum says, ``there are many more people who would gladly take their place. If this is called a ghetto, then there are far worse ghettos'' in the Dominican Republic.
A Caribbean feel saturates Washington Heights. Brightly colored cars blaring salsa music jam streets. Storefront tables and baskets brim with clothes and other goods. Sidewalk vendors sell fruit, barbecued corn, birthday cakes, and shaved ice known as frio-frio. The scent of roast chicken, plantains, and empanadas (deep-fried pastry turnovers) eases from restaurants, over the din of clipped, rapid-fire, heavily accented Dominican Spanish.
Roman Catholic churches, still led in many cases by Irish priests, dot neighborhoods. Pentecostal churches have sprung up with ``Christ Is Coming'' or ``Christ Loves You'' written in Spanish across doorways and storefronts.
Bunches of flowers and spray-painted tributes on street corners serve as memorials to young dealers killed in drug disputes. On some walls, the memorials have faded or are already painted over with the names of new victims.
Dominicans brag about their business skills and work ethic. Washington Heights's main streets teem with Dominican-owned, family-run businesses. Small grocery stores (bodegas), clothing stores, travel agencies, beauty salons, and restaurants crowd the ground floors and basements of apartment buildings. Sixty percent of the merchants here are Dominicans.
Dozens of ``Flat fixed'' tire-repair shops and mechanics use mobile jacks to fix cars in the street. Many Dominicans also work ``off the books'' at small factories, wash dishes at restaurants, or run informal child-care centers - all traditional immigrant lines of work.
Business owners complain that landlords are artificially inflating commercial rents. Demands for payoffs of up to $30,000 to renew a lease are reportedly common. But by far the largest threat to Dominican entrepreneurs is violent crime.
From April 1993 to April 1994, 51 bodega owners, many of them Dominican, were killed in robbery attempts, making it the most dangerous line of work in the city. Many bodegas have been turned into virtual fortresses, with thick, bullet-proof glass surrounding the cash registers.
``The situation is getting worse,'' says Dominican Chamber of Commerce president Augustin Garcia, who works in a cramped, windowless office with six-foot ceilings above his travel agency. ``Crimes go unsolved all the time.''
Mr. Garcia complains that police act more aggressively to solve crimes that involve white merchants. ``We have cases where all the pieces of the puzzle are there: Witnesses, daylight killings, you name it,'' which are not being followed up, Garcia says. ``When a crime is committed in this area, and the life of a Dominican merchant is at stake, we feel that due process is not being taken.''
Immigrants find racism
Dominicans, roughly 70 percent of whom are of mixed Hispanic and black ancestry, say racism is often a problem. ``There's a lot of discrimination against the Hispanic in all places,'' says Jose Susana-Gomez, a gypsy-cab driver who has been in the US for 10 years and refers to New York as ``the false paradise.''
``If you go to an office and you don't speak English, they make it very hard for you.''
Professor Torres says being nonwhite makes the Dominican experience more difficult than that of earlier, European immigrants. ``The comparison [to the Irish or the Italians] is not entirely perfect because of the color thing,'' Torres says. ``We have a lot more issues to deal with. Let's say you empower yourself economically: That will not change your color. We can't blend in, no matter what we do.''
Vargas, the schoolteacher, says racism gives Dominicans a sense they can never be fully accepted as Americans. ``You don't know who you are if you don't want to be Dominican,'' Vargas says. ``People won't let you be white.''
Housing in short supply
The influx of Dominicans has strained city services and led to a severe housing shortage in the area. It is not uncommon for families of six or more to live in a two-bedroom apartment.
Local schools have been overcrowded for years. Ten new schools are under construction and will open in the next three years, but they will still fall short of filling the demand.
The gravest problem is in 3,700-student George Washington High School.
Three-quarters of the students are Dominican, many of them immigrants who don't speak English. Dropout rates are among the highest in New York.
``Just regular kids drop out,'' says Acosta, the Mercy College freshman who graduated from George Washington this spring. ``They think, `Why do I need this? I'm just going to be working anyway.' They don't see the other possibilities they can get. Some of them think selling drugs is the easy way out.''
The school's first Dominican principal was appointed this winter, and hopes are high that a more stable atmosphere will develop at the school, which was troubled long before Dominicans arrived.
Change for the better
Many Dominicans are going on to college. They make up the largest ethnic group in the City University system freshman class and often graduate to become public school teachers.
``The opportunity is there,'' says Hildaliza Espinar, a Dominican beginning her freshman year at the City College of New York. She arrived in the US two years ago and is majoring in engineering. ``Someone just has to take advantage of it.''
Dominicans' politics are also evolving. After years of Puerto Rican domination of Latino politics in New York, political squabbles between the groups have lessened.
``Puerto Ricans have been here so long, and they've been able to adjust and represent themselves as a group,'' city employee Newsum says. ``The numbers are present [for Dominicans], but their organization needs to be tighter.''
Dominicans, who were often divided in the past, are now electing their own leaders. Guillermo Linares became New York's first Dominican City Councilman in 1993.
A Dominican businessman, Fernando Mateo, launched a toys-for-guns program last Christmas that took thousands of guns off the streets here, drawing national publicity to the community.
``When you look at how it was in 1992 with the disturbances compared to this past year, we continue to see an improvement. But we still have a long way to go,'' City Councilman Linares says. ``There is some feeling across the board of optimism and that we're at least heading in the right direction.''
Population growth has been so rapid that a long-delayed new police precinct with 200 officers will open in Washington Heights in January. The old precinct is being divided in half.
Drug sales in some areas have been slowed by the gradual expansion of the New York Police Department's community-based policing program, which began seven years ago. Thirty-five officers walk or patrol regular beats in Washington Heights.
``It's a little bit better, but it's not as good as it could be,'' says Helen Harper, an African-American who has operated her newsstand on Amsterdam Ave. and 159th Street since 1962. ``There's still drugs out there, but it's not as bad. They just move to another area.''
The number of homicides in the community has fallen, but the murder rate is still the highest in the city. After rising from 57 in 1987 to 122 in 1991, annual homicides in the area dropped to 98 in 1992.
Allegations of corruption and police brutality have continued to trouble the area. Dominicans, especially teenagers, complain that they are harassed or roughed up by police if they wear nice clothes or drive expensive cars, because police think they must be drug dealers.
Drug dealers feared
Dominicans see the drugs that have torn their community apart as an American plague, but many fear speaking out against dealers.
One supermarket worker was blunt. ``We try to stay inside, because you hear gunshots all the time. I'm not giving you my name. I don't want these people to come looking for me,'' she says. ``I want to live a long time. People complain, and afterward you don't see them anymore. These people are not afraid of the cops.''
Nothing better explains her fear than Luis.
A well-dressed, articulate Dominican in his early 20s, Luis smiled, joked, and made veiled offers to sell drugs as he stood on the spot where 18-year-old Claudia Diaz was shot and killed.
On Aug. 21, Diaz, holding her 10-month-old daughter, and her husband left their apartment building with a shopping cart of flowers to sell on the street. As they headed down the block of crowded tenements an argument broke out between two drug dealers.
Guns were drawn. One dealer hid behind Diaz, using her as a human shield. The other kept firing. Diaz was shot and died instantly, according to police. Her baby survived.
Two red-and-white signs declaring the worn stretch of sidewalk a homicide scene flap in the breeze in front of him. Luis shows little compassion about the killing.
``The [drug] problem is not as big as people think,'' he chillingly explains. ``If the people stay out of the way, they don't have a problem.''
The vast majority of Dominicans - many of whom work long hours at low-paying jobs - say drug dealers have destroyed the community's reputation. A hard-working community is being stereotyped as drug dealers, they say.
Looking to the future
Tony, who moved to Maryland from Washington Heights three years ago, is one of many Dominicans struggling for answers.
Visiting a small playground where he ran a summer basketball program to keep youths off the streets, he says that things seem to be getting worse. ``The kids that used to be playing around here are selling drugs now,'' he says. ``They see the jewelry and the cars, what they call the `good life.' ''
While many first-generation immigrant marriages have remained intact, divorce, teenage pregnancy, and other social ills are rising and taking a toll on Washington Heights's newest families, he says.
Many Dominicans say the destruction of the traditional family plays a crucial role in steering youths in the wrong direction. ``The family has been broken down so bad,'' Tony says. ``People don't have any values. They don't feel anything. They don't fear anything.''
Professor Torres says the importance of helping youths now can't be overemphasized.
``There is such a thing as a lost generation,'' Torres says. ``You pass by certain areas of Washington Heights, and you see the arms and brains of the future of the community are being shot at, drugged, or involved in illegal activity.''
Better-paying private-sector jobs that don't depend on government are the answer, Torres and other immigrants say.
``You don't want to solve problems for people,'' Torres says. ``You want to make it possible for people to solve their own problems.''