Juntos con Vecinos Concert on Friday
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The neighborhood of Washington Heights has evolved a lot since the Continental Army unsuccessfully defended it against the British in 1776. For a time it was Irish, then Jewish, then Greek, then Cuban, and today, nearly three in four residents are from the Dominican Republic. Everywhere you look, Spanish signs advertise bodegas, restaurants, pool halls, check cashing offices, juice bars, lottery stands, and real estate offices. The neighborhood has recently attracted young non-Hispanic musicians and professionals looking for cheap rent, so a Starbucks now anchors the block north of the mammoth Columbia University hospital complex.
I have lived in Washington Heights since September 2006 and traveled around the world talking about cultural dialogue since June 2005. Until December 2008, I did not know the name of a single Dominican resident of the Heights. Why?
Even now that this is no longer true, I reflect on the question during my walks in the neighborhood. On warm days, dozens of women gather in a large square, spread blankets on the vast baseball diamond in Highbridge Park near the Harlem River, and play bingo for hours. Just a few blocks away, the men sit in clumps on the Heights' many broad sidewalks. They play dominos, toss quarters, and stare at checkerboards. Sometimes they get into passionate arguments over a coin toss. By noon, many of them are drunk, lovingly holding bottles in small paper bags.
At night, the neighborhood throbs with energy. The door of an SUV opens, and someone cranks the volume of the car's sound system up past Eardrum-Shattering to Cement-Pulverizingly Loud. (The stereos are only slightly softer in the daytime.) Gangsters mill around the streets. I have been offered drugs numerous times, one time someone threatened to fight me, and another time, someone threatened to pull a gun on me. A gangster was shot and killed in front of my building this year. Dawn brings an unearthly quiet. The streets, so spotless in Midtown, are covered with trash: straws, bags, broken glass.
This never felt like my neighborhood. Since I moved three years ago from the Juilliard dormitory to the Heights, it felt more foreign than the locales thousands of miles away where I have friends, where I don't really see the trash because I know that in a few weeks, a plane will carry me away.
Given my appearances on Tunisian talk shows or interviews on Filipino radio in which I extolled the virtues of cultural understanding, none of this made me feel good. I tried to excuse myself: I'm shy. Yet that doesn't stop me abroad. Different people respond differently to different cultures: maybe I genuinely was more comfortable in the Philippines than I would be in the Dominican Republic. Yet I hadn't tried.
When the chance came to substitute with the National Symphony of the Dominican Republic for a few days in February 2008, I went eagerly. I had just enough time to rush through the Zona Colonial, and appreciate that this was the first place Europeans built permanent settlements in the Western Hemisphere. Returning, I flattered myself that I had street cred. Yet I didn't try to use it.
In December 2008, I walked north on Audubon on a blustery winter day, trudging across snow blackened by exhaust fumes. An unassuming sign caught my eye: Fundacion Dominican Culturarte de Nueva York. Here was my chance to show some integrity. Here was my chance to live—during the year, and a couple blocks from my apartment—the creed I preach in those idyllic summer jaunts.
I arranged a meeting with Dr. Jorge Piña, the director. He understood immediately why I walked in, and together we started Juntos con Vecinos—Together With Neighbors. The premise was simple. Every Saturday, we would offer music and dance classes as part of a program to keep kids off the street. Every month, we would present a cultural exchange concert, involving both Dominican and non-Dominican musicians.
The first semester brought many joys and small frustrations. We lost some volunteers. The audience at each concert diminished, and at some concerts, there were no Dominican audience members at all. Of course, that could have had something to do with the lack of Dominican music on the program, though we tried to make sure repertoire selections emanated from Latin America.
Yet the children grew to love Caroline, who taught dance, and Irene, who taught piano. When the time came to substitute with the National Symphony of the Dominican Republic for a second time, in March 2009, Dr. Piña gave me a few contacts, and before I knew it, I had supplemented my orchestra concerts with an outreach concert in an orphanage, an appearance on the most popular national TV show, and an article on page 34 of a major national magazine. We also shared the excitement as Culturarte benefited from the funding increase it richly deserved. A new internal design, new paint, computers, and big, bold signs suddenly made it look like the neighborhood center it has always been.
After coming back from Pakistan and realizing it would be six months before I moved to Afghanistan, I wondered how to make the concerts a true cultural exchange of equals. Fittingly, the same tableau I'd once disdained provided the answer.
Coming back to the apartment after a weekday morning cappucino, I found a large group of middle-aged men, already holding their bag-encased bottles, from which they took long chugs. Yet this time, a man with a guitar was singing in a powerful voice. As usual, I walked past, and up in my apartment, my diffidence threatened to overwhelm me until I thought: why not?
So I headed back downstairs with my violin and joined in.
The change could not be more dramatic. Now, whenever I leave the building, a whole group of men shake my hand and wish me a good day. One older man, Fernando, has grown particularly fond of me, and said recently, "You are so good for Washington Heights." All a friend needed to do when looking for me recently was mention that I am a violinist, and everyone knew who he meant. I frequently stop at the juice bar that just opened across the street, order a creamy batida de zapote, and chat in Spanish with the owner.
Our first Juntos con Vecinos concert this season is this Friday, September 25, at 7:30 p.m., at Culturarte, 260 Audubon Avenue At 178th Street, New York City. The program veers from Bach to Paganini to Luciano Berio. The special guest? Juan Batista, the guitarist I met on the street outside my apartment. I'll be adding some violin improvisations to his performance of bachata music, the sentimental but vibrantly rhythmic love ballads that emerged in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s. Juan and I have a hard time understanding each other, even when I speak Spanish, but when the music starts, no words are necessary.
Since Cultures in Harmony is now in the midst of a major fundraising campaign, it might seem counterintuitive for me to write with the message that you don't need to travel thousands of miles to build cultural understanding. I want Cultures in Harmony to succeed, but more importantly: I want cultures to be in harmony.
Tomorrow when I leave my building, I'll say hello to my friend Fernando as he sits on his usual chair outside the building, and then I'll walk with a spring in my step past SUVs with their stereos blaring, as the street provides a soundtrack I am finally beginning to understand.