Old-school merengue is still going strong at El Deportivo, one of the last of the great Washington Heights social clubs. A report by Annie Correal for the New York Times.
Around midnight on a recent Saturday, behind a windowless facade on Amsterdam Avenue in Washington Heights, Radhamés López led his partner, Carmen Faña, onto the dance floor.
Dozens of couples danced beside a large painting of a flowering flamboyant tree, and as a five-man band — with a guitar, bass, drum, accordion, and a grooved wooden instrument called a güiro — struck up a merengue, he took her hands. Like the night, they were no longer young; he was 62 and wore orthopedic shoes. But they could dance.
“It’s in our blood,” said Mr. López.
El Deportivo is a social club, one of the neighborhood’s last. Its official name is Centro Cultural Deportivo Dominicano de Nueva York. It was created by domino players in 1966 and still serves mainly as a gathering spot for domino players — as well as fans of table tennis, pool, bingo, softball and bowling. “Deporte” means “sport.”
For a long time, the club was for members only. But as the old Dominican social scene began to be squeezed out by gentrification, about 15 years ago, club members voted to open its almost-hidden door to the public. The club began holding salsa nights on Fridays in its cavernous space on Amsterdam and 163rd Street (it was once a post office), live bands and karaoke on Saturdays, and traditional son dancing on Sundays.
“It’s the best place to relax and be in your culture,” said Mr. López, an assistant to Congressman Adriano Espaillat, who represents Upper Manhattan and part of the Bronx. And in what would have seemed like an impossibility not so long ago, El Deportivo has become one of the last places in Washington Heights for old-fashioned Dominican dancing.
Once, it would have been hard to find a louder place than Washington Heights on a Saturday night. As recently as the 1990s, there were endless domino matches on the sidewalks, boomboxes and parked cars blasting salsa and merengue on every corner, people pouring out of bars and restaurants that turned into dance clubs after hours. Now it’s quieter. On the avenues around Broadway a few men sat smoking hookah pipes that Saturday; there was a single domino match outside a bodega; a boutique was open late for a pop-up Wax ’N’ Sip, where women mixed pink Champagne with hair removal. Otherwise, the streets were calm.
Rising rents have pushed out the last of the raucous restaurants, and in their place are storefront churches, or nothing at all. Night life has moved further uptown, to the northern tip of Manhattan, where swanky clubs and lounges around Dyckman Street cater to a younger Latino crowd.
“It’s harder to find my music,” said Juan Moreno, an El Deportivo regular.
During the week, he works as a parking attendant in Midtown Manhattan. But on Saturday, Mr. Moreno, 51, wore a red suit, white leather shoes and a gold chain with a Che Guevara medallion. Though he lives nearby in Inwood he is still known as “El Cibaeño,” or the man from Cibao, a northern region in the Dominican Republic.
Dancing, he said, is “therapy.” “It’s how we get rid of the stress of the workweek.” That is, he said, real dancing. None of this reggaeton and urban Latin club-mix stuff. No “Despacito.” “Merengue,” he said, “bachata, son dominicano.”
More than 720,000 people in New York City identify as Dominican, according to the most recent figures from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey from 2015. There are more Dominicans in New York City than there are people in Seattle. Decades ago, Washington Heights was known as Santo Domingo Heights and Plátano Heights, home to the majority of the city’s Dominicans. But no longer. Only 23 percent of Dominicans live in Manhattan; 47 percent reside in the Bronx.
Yet when the weekend rolls around, some return to their first home in the city, reuniting at El Deportivo. The social club has about 300 members, or socios, most of them now middle-aged and middle-class. On the first Saturday of the month, there’s a live band, and members bring guests to dance; the cover charge typically goes to fund trips for the club’s sports teams.
That week, the $10 tickets sold at the door went to the table tennis team.
Cecilia Peña, who cleans houses during the week, handed out silver mixing bowls filled with ice and bottles of Corona and Dewar’s from behind a bar — the club’s version of bottle service. Above the bar, a big trophy case was filled with the spoils of bowling and softball tournaments past.
The remnants of a birthday party were spread across one table, and a mylar balloon was still tied to a chair. Men with close-shorn beards milled about in flat-billed caps and baggy suits of every hue.
In the women’s bathroom, women in flowing, off-the-shoulder blouses and skintight pants splashed water on their faces. They passed around a blue bottle of a Victoria’s Secret perfume called Very Sexy Now. They struggled with zippers.
“Less mangú,” or mashed plantains, said one, giving diet advice: “Less rice and beans.”
“Basically,” another woman said, “don’t eat anything Dominican.” Everyone laughed.
Around the dance floor, conversations were kept brief. “No drugs, no trouble,” said Enrique Acevedo, a labor organizer, shouting over the music, as he listed the club’s attributes. Had he had a little to drink? “A little? A lot! But I’m not driving!”
“A bailar! A bailar!” he said, herding a group onto the dance floor. Get dancing!
Dominicans first came to New York in large numbers in the 1960s, after the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the country as a dictator for three decades. After the Trujillo years, social clubs sprouted up everywhere in the Dominican Republic, and newly arrived Dominicans started creating social clubs in New York, too.
El Deportivo was founded 51 years ago by a group of men who played dominoes in their Washington Heights apartments, and as the population exploded over the next decades, the club became known as “La Embajada Dominicana” — the Dominican embassy — said its spokesman, Félix Grant. (Like a real embassy, the club has a formal structure, down to a designated spokesman.) It was a place to take English classes, meet with immigration lawyers to get papers in order, and even to meet future spouses, as Mr. Grant did, 30 years ago.
At El Deportivo, dancing was for a long time an unofficial activity, just as it was all over the neighborhood, where combos played merengue in parks or even on the median along Broadway, creating impromptu dance parties, or what was called a ven tú, or a come-on-over.
It was in the 1980s and early ’90s that the dancing moved indoors. Washington Heights sits at a nexus of highways — the New Jersey Turnpike, the New York State Thruway, the F.D.R. Drive, the Henry Hudson — and in those decades, it became a pick-up spot for dealers of crack cocaine region-wide. As drug gangs like the Wild Cowboys and the Jheri Curls waged a turf war, and violence engulfed the neighborhood, social clubs became safe havens, screening movies and boxing matches, welcoming the combos that once played on the streets.
Social clubs peppered the neighborhood, representing different hometowns in the Dominican Republic, named after national martyrs and heroes. Now few remain. “Clubs began to disappear because of Happy Land,” said Mr. Grant, referring to a fire at the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx in 1990 that killed 87 people, one of the deadliest fires in the city’s history. After the fire, Mayor David N. Dinkins ordered police to close down social clubs, which could reopen only if they were brought up to code.
Locked out of their club, members of El Deportivo staged a protest outside. “The members started playing dominoes day after day until they got permission from the city to go back inside,” said Mr. Grant.
“They said, ‘You can’t close our club.’”
Berkis Cruz-Eusebio, 51, is a career and employment specialist at Hostos Community College. On Saturday, she joined girlfriends at El Deportivo, where she is a guest, not a member. They sat at a table unofficially reserved for the club’s head of sports, a few rows from the pista de baile, the dance floor. The talk was of whether they would raise enough money to send the table tennis team on a trip to the island, and, as usual, about their families. “About why our husbands wouldn’t come, or the kids,” said Ms. Cruz-Eusebio, who had left her two adult children and husband of 30 years at home in Fordham Heights, in the Bronx.
She went around the table. “Carmen is a retired teacher, she was a teacher for 20 years, and Gladys is a housewife who watches her grandkids,” she said. One woman marketed medical insurance, another sold Avon cosmetics. She knew some from weekends at the club and others since high school. Like many people there that night, Ms. Cruz-Eusebio began her American life in Washington Heights, arriving from Santo Domingo as a teenager. Her first years, in the mid 1980s, were a “total cultural shock,” she said. “People were shot in bodegas, elevators,” Ms. Cruz-Eusebio recalled. “Witnesses were killed.”
Ms. Cruz-Eusebio’s father had been a major-league baseball player, and before long she was recruited by El Deportivo’s softball coach to pitch for the girls’ team. Pitching and playing second base beat dodging catcalling men on the street, and hiding out at home, she said. “For me, it was a relief to find a refuge, because Washington Heights was completely problematic.”
Ms. Cruz-Eusebio, who became the first in her family to go to college, recalled that in her teenage years she “didn’t have much of a night life,” but at El Deportivo she found something familiar: couples dancing to the lilting melodies of Dominican son, the old-fashioned dance her grandparents had taught her. “It was wholesome,” she said.
And so, although she had once worked hard to leave her troubled neighborhood behind, she kept coming back — to dance. “They say Dominicans are born with music inside,” she said. She stood up from the table and headed to the dance floor. Sparkling in a silver tunic, she lifted her arms and waved them from side to side.
“We don’t walk, we dance.”
On a weekday afternoon, the tiled floor, no longer a pista de baile, was covered with little tables. Men sat playing dominoes and talking, paper coffee cups in hand. It was quiet enough to hear a television, which was tuned to NY1 Noticias, and the fluorescent lights revealed things that had been half-hidden in the dim light of Saturday night: charts with members’ dominoes rankings on the walls, paintings of the scowling founding fathers of the Dominican Republic.
Luis Francisco Veras, a club member known as El Sonerito, sat in a fedora and a candy-striped shirt. He held a yellowed newspaper clipping that showed him dancing with a woman, in 2013, when he took the top prize in a son competition.
Son is African-infused music that evolved about a century ago in the Caribbean and was made famous by the Cuban group Buena Vista Social Club. It is considered the foundation of several genres, including salsa. “To be a good salsero,” Mr. Veras said, “you must first be a good sonero.”
Mr. Veras, 65, was one of 10 children. He learned to dance in Santiago, the birthplace of Dominican son. When he arrived in New York two decades ago, he said, there was just one bar in Harlem to dance son. Then the social clubs opened their doors. Today, he said, there are several places to go. “But El Deportivo is the heart.”
He lives near Yankee Stadium with his wife, a psychologist. He’s retired, but when he still worked at a barbershop near Columbia University, his clients, including professors and students, used to come watch him dance. “It’s very picturesque,” he said, explaining that the suit of a sonero is as important as his step. “A sonero who doesn’t dress like a sonero doesn’t shine.”
On Saturdays, he said, he arrives at El Deportivo early, and begins the night with a whiskey. He comes with his friend Manuel Cordero, a.k.a. Pachén, at 91 the elder statesman of the soneros. When they dance, the women gather around. “They flirt with us. A lot of women want to dance with us,” Mr. Veras said. Age doesn’t matter. “Everyone wants to dance with the best dancer.”
El Deportivo has moved many times over the years. About two decades ago, its members bought their current building, and from there, they have watched as their local competitors in dominoes and table tennis and softball have dwindled, displaced to the Bronx or disappearing altogether, said Mr. Grant, the club’s spokesman.
Robert W. Snyder, the author of “Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City,” said social clubs were among the forces that had helped stabilize the neighborhood, before police cracked down on drug-related crime. “It’s very ironic,” he said. “Having stayed and won back their neighborhood from poverty and crime, they now face losing it to economic inequality and gentrification.”
El Deportivo is in no immediate danger, but one of the topics that frequently comes up at the club is what will happen in a generation, when older residents of the neighborhood, and the soneros, are gone. It may depend on winning over a new generation to the old charms.
It was nearly 2 a.m. when Jonathan Jourdain pushed through the door of El Deportivo and, still half-dancing, stepped out onto Amsterdam Avenue. Except for a tobacco shop and a fried chicken joint across the street, the block was dark. Saturday night was winding down.
Mr. Jourdain, 43, wore slacks and a billowy black-and-white shirt, damp with sweat. The next day was Dominican Father’s Day, and he had spent the evening with his father, Bienvenido Jourdain. They had sat at a table in the corner with El Cibaeño and his group, and had cocktails.
“My dad reminisces when he hears these old classic songs, and it rubs off on you,” he said. He didn’t grow up listening to his father’s music, he didn’t know the words. As a second-generation kid in the South Bronx, he heard Spanish at home, but it never caught on, he said. “My Spanish is, as Celia Cruz would say, ‘Not very good-looking.’
“My Dominicanism kicked in later in life. I was brought up as a hip-hop kid.”
He was working as an Amtrak police officer in the early 2000s when he went to the Dominican Republic with the New York Dominican Officers Organization. At dance clubs in Santiago, he heard fast, exhilarating merengue and típico, and was hooked. “I don’t know how to explain it to you,” said Mr. Jourdain. “The music, it just clicked.”
After a friend invited him to El Deportivo, he started coming every weekend. “At bars, people don’t look at you, they don’t shake your hand,” he said. When the club members decided to allow in 50 new members, Mr. Jourdain was encouraged to join. He went up for a vote and paid about $200 (applicants must also submit fingerprints and a letter of good conduct from the police). Now he gets discounts on drinks, a key to the door, and more important, he said, “the prestige of being a socio.”
And, of course, all the dancing he could ever want. “I have learned to dance,” he said, “very, very well.”
People were beginning to trickle out, though the party was still going. A group had gathered at the curb, waiting for a soup vendor, who comes around to feed them at the end of the night, and for the cars that would take them to homes all over the city.
“Time to tuck dad in,” Mr. Jourdain said. “We try to get home early. I don’t want to hear mom’s mouth.”