This article contains In the Heights spoilers.
For such a joyous fantasy of a movie, there’s a curious hint of melancholy which hangs over In the Heights. From the word go, the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is unapologetically a love letter to Washington Heights and the largely Latinx community who live there. Yet that’s not where the movie begins; we open on Anthony Ramos’ Usnavi and his megawatts smile seemingly living a million miles from home. He’s relocated to his parents’ homeland in the Dominican Republic to chase his dream of operating a bar on the beach.
His new home is certainly picturesque, if in a more touristy postcard sort of way, but when he passes tales of living in the Heights to his young daughter and her friends, the passion he conveys is heartbreaking; he obviously still loves the neighborhood he left—abandoning it for paradise. The movie is thus a flashback, a golden memory for a man who lost everything, and everyone, he ever knew.
This is of course why the real ending is so euphoric. Usnavi didn’t really leave the streets that raised him; he did not walk away from his friendship with Benny (Corey Hawkins); and he did not give up on Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) after just one kiss. He may never return to his parents’ Caribbean homeland, but he stayed in his own, the one his folks struggled to give him. The entire wrap-around narrative of Usnavi imparting memories of his youth is the actual fantasy within the story.
In truth, Usnavi still owns the family bodega, although he’s happier for it now. He’s even let his neighbors turn it into a street art installation, complete with a mural of the Dominican beach he can still dream about. And who knows maybe one day he’ll visit it yet. But when he does, it’ll be with his family, including Vanessa and their daughter, making the trip from the top of the world in Washington Heights.
This is what all occurs to audiences during the final number, as Usnavi puts his child on his shoulders and soaks up the rhythm and vitality of the street corner he remained faithful to. “I found my island,” he sings. “I’ve been on it this whole time.”
It’s a rapturous sendoff that’s left audiences floating out of preview screenings for the last several weeks. It’s also a testimonial that hits harder in 2021 than it would have when the film was originally intended to be released in 2020. Yes, it’s a love letter to Washington Heights and Latinx culture. However, it also honors New York City itself, albeit not the New York tourists and moviegoers usually know…
With its idyllic framing of bodega awnings, salon hairdryers, and even the perpetually late D-train, In the Heights is a celebration of a different side of NYC—one literally miles from Times Square, Wall Street, the Plaza Hotel, and everywhere else Hollywood usually points a camera at. But Washington Heights is New York for those living at the tip top point of Manhattan, just as the Bronx, Queens, and the untrendy parts of Brooklyn HBO ignores are also New York.
Also just like the city’s major commercial centers the media has spent a year worrying about, that side of New York has been bleeding out for more than a year. And yet… the fact that the In the Heights movie is now able to play on cinema screens in all those places, from Marble Hill to Bay Ridge, is something which gives added poignancy to Usnavi’s choice to stay in the Heights.
When the COVID-19 pandemic reached American shores in early 2020, it hit all communities hard, but New York City was the first epicenter in those scary days of conflicting information. Back before we better understood how the virus spread—or the then-federal leadership comprehended viruses don’t only hit blue states—the city saw approximately 203,000 confirmed cases of COVID in the span of three months, and with the mortality rate reaching about nine percent in the same timeframe, it seemed like the end of the world had come to the five boroughs.
New Yorkers abandoned the cities in droves, seeking the safety of communities with more outdoor space—or just more space, period. For the first time in decades, the city saw a net loss in the number of residents, with one report suggesting there were 70,000 fewer New Yorkers walking the streets by Christmas, costing the city $34 billion in income.
The exodus just wasn’t about individuals either. As was almost the fate of Usnavi’s beloved bodega, scores of stores, restaurants, and businesses closed their doors forever during the pandemic. Broadway has been dark for more than a year—something In the Heights’ stage home has never done in more than a century of existence—and, yes, Times Square really turned into a ghost town, with only the statue of George M. Cohan to keep the spirits company. Those beloved commercial shops on Fifth and Madison? Many of them still have “for rent” signs up.
But as you get further out of Midtown, the prognosis was just as grim in the early months for the Heights and neighborhoods like it. Small businesses, new restaurants, and beloved fixtures of the community went under just as surely as NYC institutions like 21 Club and Tenet Street Russian & Turkish Baths. As a Brooklyn resident, this nerdy writer was pretty grieved to see the relatively famous Doctor Who bar in his neighborhood, the Way Station, cordon off its TARDIS forevermore.
As the city closed down, a cottage industry of think-pieces sprang up. Some were wistful as they pondered whether New York City would bounce back. Others were downright gleeful as they pronounced last August that “New York City is dead forever.”
Trust me, dear reader, in the darkest moments of social distancing in tiny apartments last summer, it did feel dead. I personally did flee the city, if only temporarily, leaving for months after spending the first four of the pandemic trapped inside my apartment.
But all things really do pass, and the long dark winter which began in spring 2020 is showing signs of receding. Overnight, a city which once seemed gone and buried is rising from the grave. It’s not so much like a fever broke as the flood waters receded, and the foundations of the crazy overpriced thing we call New York were revealed to be firmly in place. Still, there’s much work left to do.
Millions of people left the city, for at least a time, in 2020. And almost as many have taken their place or returned. Then there are those who stayed. It’s why some neighborhood businesses, including restaurants, have endured in the new year. New Yorkers are cautiously rediscovering the charms of a local community when the subway seemed to be too much, and Midtown may as well have been a different country. Like Usnavi, many have recognized they’re still home.
In the Heights is a bright, sunny confection that’s as sugary as the icy sweets hawked by Miranda’s Piragua guy in the movie. It’s here to take the sting off the summer heat. If it had been released in a different summer, or in the 2020 that Warner Bros. imagined when they first slated the movie for last year, it would’ve been received exactly as such.
But for those who stay in the Heights and all the neighborhoods like it, this musical’s ending has an added resonance. As Usnavi raises his daughter up high, making sure she shares the same thrill he did as a child on a summer day on his island, it’s giddy, it’s jubilant, and it’s sweetly infectious. Usnavi is home, and seeing him on the big screen suggests New York is too.
In the Heights is playing in theaters and on HBO Max.