#TBT Washington Heights on MTV

This piece was initially featured on BrooklynBodega.com in January 2013. Enjoy this #TBT








Now the home of The Heights, MTV’s latest reality TV free-for-all, New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood continues to be one of America’s most intriguing and arguably controversial locales in not just the fabric of New York, but also U.S. and even international history. Allegedly where the fraudulent purchase of Manhattan took place, it’s also the home of George Washington’s Fort George, from whence he expanded America’s burgeoning nationalism at the turn of the 19th century. Moving forward – and of particular note to MTV today – Washington Heights was also the home of many Cuban & Puerto Rican liberation activists, writers and artists who were also part of the Harlem Renaissance. From being where legendary activist Malcolm X died to where legendary graffiti artist Taki 183 “got up” and progressed culture, to even being the home of ground-breaking athletes like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Manny Ramirez, it’s the crucible of literally all of the building blocks of Afro-Latino culture. MTV, the same cable channel and multimedia empire responsible for the Jersey Shore walking on these grounds? Possibly feeling like Manhattan being cheaply undersold yet again, a native land in evil foreign hands. Why then, is MTV there, and how, possibly does MTV’s influence in the community help? A historical overview is clearly required.

It was in the culturally depressed “cocaine 80s” where Washington Heights’ modern story develops.   The American capital of Dominican migration in that era, the economically depressed community saw many of the legendary drug  hustlers of the era finding their work in The Heights. The community was an unlikely financial hotbed for corporate America during the era, as some used the wealth acquired in drug trafficking to fund legitimate businesses in the neighborhood, while building homes and businesses back in the Dominican Republic. This reality became problematic for the image of Washington Heights’ Dominican youth, as the truth surrounding pervasive examples of Latino criminal activity (1 in every 6 Latino males go to prison in the U.S., according to the statistics Bureau of Justice in 1997) left any positive notions ascribed to the area in certain doubt.

Furthermore, high levels of unemployment and government corruption, plus the cutting of funds of varying during and after school programs led to youth fending for themselves, potentially increasing a criminalized outside world  view. I, myself benefited from Alianza Dominicana Inc., one of the few organizations that led youth into a brighter direction. So important was their work that (now deceased) councilor Luis M. Beltre has 184 Street & Saint Nicholas Avenue named after him. Clearly placing MTV into this context is a daunting measure at best.

In not being traditional high culture bastions like PBS or  “Santo Domingo Invita” (a popular Dominican show, showcasing artists, venues of interest and historical sites of the Dominican Republic for the New York audience), MTV’s “The Heights” has the odds stacked against it’s success. The program does not telling the traditional story of the  historical make up of Dominicans in NY or DR, or our national issues with our African roots/culture, its relationship with Haiti, its national attachment to baseball or anything of the sort. Rather, it’s about nine young people going against all odds for careers in music, art, sports, fashion and education. Possibly, it represents a future vision of New York’s Dominican heritage.

Amazingly enough, the show stays very true to the past, present and future of the community. Of the cast I’ve met Audubon, aka PJ,  the emcee trying to break into the game in a major way,  and Frankie, who once told me that she wants to be an English professor with the intent to bridge the gap between the urban arts and the classroom – that’s genius. My younger brother is personally cool with Ludwin, who states he wants to be a jack of all trades. Then there’s Reyna, who’s applying her efforts toward singing, while Jimmy is aiming at making it in baseball. Fred’s into the world of fashion and designing specifically, Eliza’s following suit in that same direction also. Rico’s lean is toward acting and modeling. Taylor’s not exactly too sure of what she wants to do, I’m assuming she’ll know by the end of the 1st season.

This is a real representation of Washington Heights’ youth today. The illusion of the access to success, had only increased in the past 12 years with the increase of Black/Latino faces in all media. Music, fashion, sports and entertainment dominate the directions of interest of today’s youth, especially in the capitol of the bright lights, being NYC.

Critics of the program claim “(embarrassment) at how they (speak)” on the show. Personally, I’d like to know how many kids went to public school in any urban community in this country and spoke the “king’s English”. Place a camera in any urban environment on this planet, and you’ll find what the common speeches, slang terms and languages of the people are. This critique boasts the arrogance in cultural illiteracy, classism and ageism as well. I guess these people never spoke in terms that didn’t exist in humanities class.

As well, many hope that the program “doesn’t make The Heights look bad.” Personally, as a 100% born and bred Heightster (I’ll take credit for that word, thanks), that was the first worry, when I first heard of an MTV produced reality show in The Heights, then it became the furthest concern mine. Why? Simply, because, the representation of The Heights, is only expressed through a specified lens. Meaning that no one can represent The Heights like anyone else. I don’t personally believe I can speak for anyone from The Heights and definitely not The Heights itself. I can only show you my reflection of this community. So this show can’t make me, anyone else or The Heights look bad, if that’s what the people decided it did for the community. I don’t think it’s possible. That would require a democratic process of being chosen to represent the community. What I do understand though, is that people on TV are viewed as leaders. If your image and thoughts are being broadcast, the brain of the viewer assumes that you are a figurehead leader, like presidents, mayors, governors, actors, athletes, musicians, etc. But this is entertainment first and foremost, with a specified story line. If a viewer were to reach a conclusive view of the people and heritage of a community of people based on an MTV show, that would say more about them, than it would ever say about the people behind the show.

Apparently, watching with an open mind is just the challenge that many people are having. Many judgments were reached based on 2 episodes to already being a stereotypical product that MTV made up, to be The Heights version of Jersey Shore, was purely unfair and lacking true merit. Many people reached that conclusion before the first episode ever aired. I noticed that some heads cooled off after the 3rd and 4th episode. But, was there a reason to be suspicious? Sure. I certainly understand the question between corporate interest and cultural integrity. But that suspicion alone, does not count as a true merit, based on the scientific ethics of investigation, to serve judgment, especially on the cast members. I would also love to know who didn’t care about gossip, friends, parties, their reputation and sex at 21? I’ll wait… But I suppose people don’t still care about those things well into their 30s and 40s? Sure they don’t.

This is the Hip-Hop generation and it’s still growing up. Patience should be granted, instead of older people always impeding in the process of growth and development. I should also mention, that we grew up not taking much of a liking at being looked at, so communication was always an issue. I’m sure that it took a while to get used to the cameras and mics always being there, and signing release forms everywhere the camera team went.

Ultimately, the fact that most of the cast members are from Washington Heights, most are from Dominican working class, immigrant families and had the audacity to come to MTV with an idea about broadcasting how they aim and hustle toward life altering goals, displays courage. The expression of the self is an act of vulnerability, that leaves one open to those strictly in a state of closed defensiveness. The critics need to just lean back and critique the show on its’ own premise, as a show, and not as a national ambassador to a whole people and community that has yet to receive any proper acknowledgment and representation to the world about its contribution to history. With a little bit of research you can run into what is new with Washington Heights today in regards to art, culture, nightlife, artists, music, dance, acting, filming, video production and independent organization. As always, it’s time to build.

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