first day out

My RW1 class will be nearly entirely composed of reporting and writing about a particular neighborhood in New York. We’re given our choice of 16 beats which avoid the affluent sections of Manhattan and Brooklyn and the way-too-far-off sections of everywhere else.

One of the closest beats for me is the district which begins two blocks north of us: Washington Heights. It’s one of the few beats on Manhattan, it’s huge, and it’s got some interesting tensions, I think. Gentrification has hit some sections but not others, there’s a huge Dominican population and smaller enclaves of people from other parts of the world, there’s Columbia/Presbyterian Hospital buying up big swaths of property, there’s a thriving drug trade…

We’re to bring in 800 words to class on Monday on the neighborhood we’d like to cover. Professor Dinges called it a “neighborhood snapshot,” and beyond that, the assignment is a little vague. We’re to go out and familiarize ourselves with the streets and get some quotes from people who live there.

I’ve always felt comfortable striking up conversations with people I meet – hell, I’ve done it a lot since we moved here – but for whatever reason, the prospect of walking up to people, identifying myself specifically as a student and/or journalist and then asking them questions feels … more intrusive. I definitely felt some resistance to doing it, though I spoke to 4 or 5 people over the course of some hours biking around.

Exacerbating my strange hesitance to approach people is the language barrier. At one point, 14 years ago, my Spanish was conversant enough that I could have gotten by. In the intervening years, though, it’s rusted pretty thoroughly. I can order food pretty confidently in Spanish, but that’s about it. The rapid-fire Dominican Spanish I hear on the street is fast, fluid, and damn near incomprehensible to me. (I spoke briefly in pidgin Spanish with a Colombian man; that was a little easier.) So now I’m concerned that I’m setting myself up to have my professor assign me a different beat due to my lack of language ability or else allow me to take this neighborhood and struggle with getting interviews in the thickly Dominican section. Not getting interviews there is just not an option.

I’ve got notes from today and I’ll be talking with more people tomorrow, albeit distant family cousins who’ve lived in Washington Heights for 30+ years. I can’t decide if exercising family connections is cheating or laudable. We’ll see how it goes.