WASHINGTON HEIGHTS – Uptown native Leopold Vasquez, 42, said he remembers the unique culture Uptown long before gentrification moved in.
Back in the 1970s and the decades that followed, the neighborhood was a mix of block parties, Dominican Parade festivals, bodegas, violence and different communities thriving together. Now he wants to preserve that vibrancy of life in the “Long Before You Got Here” art installment.
The exhibit project, Vasquez said, will begin with a submission party, where residents are invited to submit personal pictures of Washington Heights and Inwood from 1970 to 1996, depicting their favorite locations, events and memories. The pictures, he then added, will be saved in a database — with some being printed — to serve as an art exhibit in an undisclosed location in New York City.
“The goal is to amass the largest collection of visual memories of the people that lived in Washington Heights pre-gentrification,” said Vasquez, who founded the art-curating organization, Sound of Art in 2002, and works for the largest art auction houses in the world.
Vasquez, whose family had a bodega on 188th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, said the community at the time was a “hub” with families from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Greece and the Dominican Republic, and that some of his fondest memories growing up were when he came into contact with those pieces of the community.
“We had Jewish community right there at 187th Street, with the Greeks down the block and Dominicans all throughout,” Vasquez said. “All these generations coming together from one neighborhood, and we were right across the street from that. It was such a beautiful era for me to grow up in.”
That era, Vasquez said, is slowly disappearing through the process of gentrification, which he concludes began shortly after the riots in the early '90s, “where you had the culmination of drugs, corruption in police departments, deaths and racial struggle reach a breaking point.”
“After all that happened and the dust settled,” Vasquez said, adding that people started looking around and rebuilding, although this came at a high cost for those already living in Uptown.
The “Long Before You Got Here” project, he said, is a response to that cleansing and hoping to bring a voice to members of this community who are slowly being displaced.
“I’m taking the poor and the impoverished, and using them as the muse to create their own art for themselves,” he said. “It’s about the people. It’s always about the people. It’s about educating and inspiring and engaging the people that are outside of the art world.”
Vasquez said because this is a "community-curated art project," it needs the support of the community for it to work.
“It will not turn out well if the community doesn’t come out for it,” he said. “I want everyone, who has photos of growing up in that era to be a part of this. It’s not about me. It’s about the neighborhood.”
Vasquez said already he’s received support from residents in other communities, including several in The Bronx, Washington D.C., the Dominican Republic and Miami.
The "Long Before You Got Here" photo submission parties launched on Sunday, Nov. 20 at the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center on 3940 Broadway and 165th St., and will continue in the coming months at select small businesses in Washington Heights and Inwood, Vasquez said.
Residents can also contact the organizers and check for event updates on the "Long Before You Got Here" Facebook page.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure — the writer submitted a photograph of herself growing up in Washington Heights and Inwood to the exhibit.