Developing a Sense of Place in Inwood

Inwood is home to some of Manhattan’s “last of” gems: The last remaining tract of old-growth forest, the last naturally formed salt marsh, and one of the last neighborhoods with a significant amount of housing for families making less than $30,000 a year. As a South American immigrant, I’ve lived there for 21 years, but it wasn’t until recently that I really began to get to know my community. 

It started when I heard of the Friends of Muscooner, a coalition of northern Manhattan residents who are descended from North, Central, and South American indigenous nations, including the Taino, Inca, Garífuna, and Cree. Muscooner is the name the Lenape, the native inhabitants of Manhattan before it was colonized by the Dutch in the 17th century, gave to what we call the North Cove. Together with James “Birdman” Cataldi, the Friends of Muscooner cleaned up an illegal dumping site and transformed it back into a refuge for aquatic and migrating birds. The first time I heard of the Sherman Plaza and InwoodNYC proposals to rezone the neighborhood was on a cleanup day, when other crew members told me about the luxury towers that might be built overlooking the cove and the Harlem River. 

Meeting these amazing people who were healing a very sick ecosystem in their neighborhood, strengthening their own indigenous roots by connecting to the land’s Lenape history, and combating gentrification, sparked in me the necessity to become an active member of the Inwood community, rather than the young spectator I was.

I am the Venezuelan-born child of a Colombian mother and Ecuadorian father, with roots in the Andean regions of those countries. My younger sister is the only person in my immediate family born in the U.S. In 1995, my mother convinced my father that we should move to New York City, and we settled in Inwood because they knew a Dominican couple who lived there. 

Inwood and Washington Heights always felt like a different world than most of Manhattan: dominoes being played on the street, merengue and bachata music sprinkled all around, a place where you can thrive only speaking Spanish, and one of the few places in the city you can enjoy a yoyo (a delicious Venezuelan dish). But now, many of my childhood friends can’t afford to move out of their parents’ apartments and into their own without having to leave the neighborhood. 

When families are torn apart due to excessive rent and retail hikes, some might call that the objective work of the market, but it’s displacement, plain and simple. I fear that the neighborhood is turning into the kind of place that would not have allowed my family to live here. Inwood provided all the elements for poor and working-class immigrants to succeed in New York City. I was able to get a free bilingual public education, starting with Shorac Kappock Elementary (aka P.S. 98), then the Mott Hall School and the Beacon School. Eventually, I got a full scholarship to Colby College, where I graduated with a major in anthropology and minor in environmental studies. I now work with the first Kichwa-language radio show in the U.S., Kichwa Hatari, and can assist my family financially. 

As I make my way into the 207th Street A train station, my eyes catch a story fragment written on the tile walls. It tells of how the name of this place was once Shorac Kappock, which means “salty shore.” I smile because I know that however much outsiders want to build over this neighborhood, those who have developed a sense of place will never cease to protect its identity and integrity.