Several Washington Heights and Inwood locals have struck out as entrepreneurs, creating merchandise that signifies and celebrates the neighborhoods of Northern Manhattan.
One of the newest brands to break onto the scene is Em Aitch Collection, a line of hats by Mark Ghansam. A lifelong New Yorker raised in Washington Heights, Ghansam refashions iconic New York logos and adds uptown flair, creating designs that locals have been buying since the spring.
When he started his line, he said, “I wanted to do something that reflected the neighborhood.”
Not only are they meant to flash local pride, the hats capitalize on what Ghansam believes is a growing trend among young Dominican Washington Heights residents: Supporting their local community. Whereas in the past he saw friends flocking to downtown bars and clubs on weekends, in the last ten years, there has been a shift. Now, he says, younger generations are staying in northern Manhattan to do their weekend socializing.
“A lot of money is staying in the area these days,” Ghansam said. “People are going to places owned by other Dominicans or Latinos.”
Hip-hop artist Carlos Taveras Jr., another Washington Heights resident, has spotted the trend as well. Representing and supporting the area is a growing priority for those who grew up there and are now in their 20s and 30s, he said. “There’s a small net of Dominican Americans that are in solidarity,” he said.
In recent years, Taveras has racked up a small collection of clothes and accessories that come from, and represent, Washington Heights. Two vendors that have developed popular lines are Mike Jones, who creates hats and shirts under the name Da Mayor DP (for Dominican Power), and Alvin and Alfonso Garcia, the creators of Freedom City NYC. Taveras Jr. owns several pieces from each.
For Jones, who co-owns the hat store 4U House of Fitted Caps in Washington Heights and designs his own line of locally themed hats, branding the neighborhood is only natural. “Why wear somebody else’s hat when you can represent your ‘hood?” he said.
Jones distinguishes the area between 190th and 204th Streets, typically thought of as the top of Washington Heights, as its own sub-neighborhood: Dyckman. His most recent hat design is an embroidered depiction of the street sign for Dyckman Street, from which the area gets its name. Residents call the area “Little D.R.” he said, “Washington Heights is like the capital of Little D.R.”
He thinks that authenticity is a source of pride for neighborhood residents; branding the area is both a local connection and a cultural one.
Young Dominicans like Taveras have been Jones’s primary customer base, as they have been Ghansam’s. The newest addition to Taveras’s hat collection is one of Ghansam’s designs — the text “Mister Uptown” in the same font as the Mister Softee ice cream truck logo. When Ghansam came up with it earlier this year, he kept his local roots in mind. In the Dominican community, Ghansam has a street name, “Mark Henny”, and he built his brand around that name (“Em Aitch” is a phonetic spelling of his initials). He uses only social media to advertise and solicit orders and relies on word of mouth and his own community influence to make sales.
Ghansam designs and orders the merchandise in small batches online, selling caps to customers via Instagram for $30 each. He has partnered with Dyckman Bar in Inwood on two occasions to set up a pop-up shop. His efforts thus far have sold a total of about 1,300 hats in just four months, Ghansam said. It is not an unusual model. There are a handful of other local designers (like Jones) with the same strategy, using networks and social media to market and make sales. Success is partly a testament to how much support one has within the community. As Taveras said, “Mark is old school, well known. It’s about, ‘Who do you want to support? Whose product are you buying?’”
As for why this kind of local pride is gaining traction, Taveras has some insights. Born and raised in the Heights, he now uses the stage name Charlie Uptown for his music, a salute to his neighborhood.
“Uptown made me who I am,” he said “This neighborhood is beautiful. When people see Washington Heights logos, I don’t want them to think it’s a gang. It’s about the American dream, doing something with your life, finishing school.”
He wants to upend stereotypes.
“It’s serious for someone like me to put this neighborhood on the map,” he added. He typically wears the merchandise when he performs or any time he is promoting his music outside the community; the idea is to pay homage to his roots and also to build recognition for the Washington Heights area. Just as Harlem is known for producing famous artists, Taveras hopes Washington Heights will have the similarly positive associations for people someday.
Inwood’s Tread Bike Shop has a similar vision. Two years ago, founder and owner Ozzie Perez came up with the idea to represent the shop’s community with a line of hats.
“People here don’t say, ‘I’m from Manhattan,’” Perez said, “They say, ‘I’m from uptown.’”
He commissioned an employee to create the design: The text “Uptown” alongside a depiction of the George Washington Bridge. The caps, which sell for $18 apiece, are designed to fit underneath a bike helmet, so cyclists can be safe and represent their neighborhood. Tread employee Teiby Toribio said the design is distinctive — people see it and recognize the wearer goes to Tread.
To Toribio, a Dominican American who grew up in Washington Heights and still lives in the area, branding both the shop and the area it’s in makes sense: The two things go hand in hand.
“I would rather spend my money here because I believe you vote with the dollar,” he said, “When you spend money, you’re voting on what kind of world you want to be in.”