Washington Heights, the working-class Dominican neighborhood in the upper reaches of Manhattan, is the kind of place where dudes sell gym whistles on the street. During a walk down St. Nicholas Avenue on a recent unseasonably warm winter weekday, the sidewalks were choked with street-business scratch: buckets of fruit and vegetables, stands of carnes fritas, combo perfume/leopard-print-lingerie/toothbrush spots. One woman was serving up fresh-squeezed orange juice out of a makeshift supermarket cart; one guy was bumping finger-picked guitar tunes while pushing books on meditation. And then there was my dude with the whistles: He just had himself a little coat-rack thing, and a whole bunch of whistles.
That concept of "hustle" has long been ingrained in Washington Heights. In the mid-'80s, this neighborhood was the largest wholesale drug market in the country. The crack boom, a shared language with Colombian suppliers, plus the optimized geography of their neighborhood — equally accessible to New Jersey and downtown Manhattan — meant that a lucrative life as a middleman was readily accessible for those in the Heights. "Operating independently," the New York Times reported of the era, "four or five drug crews might share a single block, their street peddlers swarming over cars with out-of-state plates, vying for market share literally side by side." By the end of the '90s, though, NYPD and community action (some residents banded together to buy their apartment buildings, then booted out known dealers) had transformed the neighborhood into the boisterous, multigenerational scene it is today.