Washington Heights Is Home

Joy Leftow


Someone found my online photo album and saw the photos I'd posted of One Sickles Street both inside and out of the building. She wrote and told me she also grew up in Washington Heights in the same area where I live. She wrote, “Things look different yet the same”. She recognized the building on One Sickles Street where she had grown up and which has now been renovated. She commented on its revived beauty and said she should visit. She told me she often thinks of visiting that building and surrounding area. She now lives in Queens.

“Yes,” I wrote her back, “you should before it's too late and you wont be able to. You know how life is, it passes by so fast; there's never enough time to count up our regrets.” Think of all the times we say we'll do something and that something never comes to pass.


I still live in the area where I was born in Washington Heights. I wonder if it's like at the end of the galaxy where the further away you live from where you were born, the more chaos you create in the universe. I literally live 2 blocks from where I was born, in Jewish Memorial Hospital, which is now JH 218. If that's true, why have I been through so much? It seems as though I've survived an unending mass of crises always waiting to be resolved.


It's strange to leave the neighborhood where you've always lived, especially when you only live in another section of the same neighborhood or even another borough of the same city. Then like the lady who wrote me, although you're still very close to where you grew up, you feel as though you're a million miles away. Sometimes nostalgia sets in and we desire what we perceive as lost. Even when what was lost was never that great - maybe even painful - when we had it back then.

I had a hard life as a youngster and feel like the female counterpart to Jim Carroll, who wrote Basketball Diaries - who also grew up in Washington Heights and also began writing from an early age. I began writing as a small child seeking love and approval. My life actually became a parody of looking for love in all the wrong places - obviously because I wasn't getting enough in the right place. This sure didn't make living any easier.

I never had a childhood because as a child I was forced to deal with adult concerns. The good part of this is that my past made me who I am; a social worker devoted to helping people move ahead and also to get benefits they're entitled to. I've devoted over twenty-two professional years helping people attain their goals, and spent many more years as a concerned citizen who helps others.

Now as an adult, I've been able to fulfill many desires I had as a child and I've been able to do this in my birthplace, right here in Washington Heights. I've gone from being a high school dropout to being an Ivy League drop-in; I'm a double alumna of Columbia University. My undergraduate BA is in Anthropology and my Master's is in Social Work. I'm living proof of someone who has pulled themselves up through the system by my bootstraps. It was very difficult. One of the major plusses was how I capitalized on being poor and undereducated and got my ivy league B.A. for free. You'll have to read my stories on how that came to be. Now I hold two Master's degrees, one in social work and the other in creative writing from CCNY. Now that I've made it into middle class life, I can't afford the best and Ivy League anymore. CCNY is affordable for a working person and Columbia is not. Now, I have to pay for everything, sometimes more than others. Like in our Mitchel-Lama Cooperative, I pay a 50% surcharge.

I have a clear message to anyone else who feels like they've been through it all and had enough. After all is said and done, I'll repeat what Irving Miller, my honored social work professor said, after he called me “a Mitzvah to humanity.” Mitzvah means gift. He said I have an inherent understanding of people's needs and how to help them move ahead, that my self-awareness and acceptance of my own eccentricities and flaws make it easier for me to accept others.


I agree with him; you must learn to accept who you are. The most important thing I learned from Irving Miller, is this, "Celebrate your problems, it means you're alive." The other important thing he taught me is that “Just because you're crazy doesn't mean you're stupid.” This is a very important message because there are a lot of crazy people out here. Crazy I don't mind- evil - is another story. We all carry our own craziness!

After all is said and done, my message to you remains the same, "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Attack your problems with vigor as new ones crop up to replace the ones that have been resolved. Most importantly, always have a goal in sight and make certain it is an attainable one."

To read more of Joy's writings or to contact her, visit her online blog at: