A non-native New Yorker looking at Washington Heights today may find it hard to believe that it was once the drug capital of New York City. Through the 1980’s and 1990’s, a veritable crack cocaine epidemic was making the streets dangerous to residents and passersby, so dangerous that Washington Heights had to create an additional police precinct in 1994. So, how did an area once characterized by the estates of the wealthy become the heart of New York City’s crack cocaine problem and an area largely avoided by tourists?
In the 1960s, the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the ruler of the Dominican Republic for a harsh thirty-one years, and the election of Joaquin Balaguer, a repressive president that limited Dominican freedom for twelve years, left the Dominican Republic in shambles. The political upheaval and resulting economic problems forced thousands from the Dominican Republic to seek the greener pastures of the United States. Though some of these Dominican immigrants found a home in Florida or New Jersey, the majority headed to New York City, where the inexpensive and safer New Law tenements found in Washington Heights allowed them to maintain a relatively comfortable and affordable lifestyle.
Unfortunately for this neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, the Dominican immigrants that now called Washington Heights home were willing to take up any lucrative occupation they could find. With easy access to the other four boroughs and even easier access to New Jersey and Upstate New York, Washington Heights became the breeding ground for wholesale drug trafficking, specifically of crack cocaine. Sharing a language and an interest in money, Colombian suppliers began associating with the Dominican drug dealers of Washington Heights; the pair quickly took the lion’s share of drug trade. The 34th Precinct, the sole police department of the area, was stretched too thin to adequately manage the issue. The drug problem got out of hand, and the Dominican drug dealers made a killing off of wholesale drug trafficking, often literally.
As drug dealers rose in prominence in Washington Heights, so did crime. In 1990, the 34th Precinct reported a total of 10,027 crimes in just over three square miles of land; 103 of those crimes were murders. The area became so crime ridden that in 1994, the 33rd Precinct was formed in the lower half of Washington Heights to help manage the lawlessness of the streets. Just a year after the second precinct was created, the number of crimes dropped to under 60 percent of what it had been five years prior, totaling to 5,954 instances. The amount nearly halved again in 1998, where 3,869 total crimes were reported between the two precincts.
A 1998 article from the New York Times describes the shift from an egregiously hostile environment to one that can host young children riding bicycles in the streets. In years prior, says David M. Halbfinger, children “could not even play in the lobby of their apartment building, where no fewer than four drug dealers would meet customers.” At the time of the article, entitled “In Washington Heights, Drug War Survivors Reclaim Their Stoops”, neighbors began “finally taking the plunge by striking up a conversation with a stranger next door”, something that could never occur in a neighborhood constructed mostly of drug dealers.
In 2010, the 33rd and 34th Precincts reported 2,090 total crimes, with just 8 murders compared to the 103 reported two decades prior. The drug wars are more or less over for Washington Heights, and the residents can enjoy a calmer environment than that of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Though the drug dealers have been essentially stamped out of the area, the influx of middle class New Yorkers are likely to encounter a more lasting problem than that of crack cocaine: ethnic conflicts.