About three miles of northern Manhattan will soon honor a man who, until recently, was unknown to most of the people who live there.
Juan Rodriguez Way will be the name of Broadway from 159th to 218th Streets, after an early settler from Santo Domingo who reportedly arrived in New York in 1613. Rodriguez is believed to be the city’s first Dominican immigrant, as well as its first free black settler, its first Latino and its first non-Native American merchant.
“It completely re-conceptualizes the Dominican presence in NYC,” said Led Black, a local Dominican-American writer and editor of the Uptown Collective. “I think many Dominicans feel that even though we have been a part of this city for quite some time now, we have been left out of the city’s narrative and that is starting to change finally.”
Though many uptown residents are now learning about Rodriguez through efforts by the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, which uncovered his story, Rodriguez’s existence had been completely unknown by the uptown community, with its high Dominican population.
Anthony Stevens, an assistant director at the Dominican Studies Institute, worked to unravel Rodriguez’s history and pushed for the Broadway co-naming. From what Stevens and other researchers have gathered so far, Rodriguez appears to have landed somewhere in the Hudson Bay area while on board a Dutch expedition ship.
“After that, the documents say that he wanted to stay here and didn’t want to return to Holland,” Stevens said.
Rodriguez stayed in New York for a year, into 1614, when a new ship from Holland found him, Stevens said. “He knew they were after trading with the Native Americans, and he agreed to help this new Dutch crew,” Stevens said.
“A few weeks later, a second Dutch ship arrived. It happened that this crew included the same people that had brought him over when he first arrived. This created a conflict.”
After Rodriguez reportedly took part in a fight between ship crews, the records of him stop.
With further research, the Dominican Studies Institute found documents linking Rodriguez to Santo Domingo—and the ethnic background that makes him noteworthy.
“He’s sort of the first immigrant,” Stevens said. “Not just the first settler, because he came from afar — another culture, another place.”
Black noted the renewed sense of pride Rodriguez’ history offered Dominicans.
“People are generally happy to find out our history predates the last 50 years,” he said. “Most had no idea but once they knew, they were pretty proud of it.”
Many locals, though unfamiliar with Rodriguez, found the history interesting. Mary Kate Burke, a teacher born and raised in Inwood, was fascinated by the news.
“That is really amazing,” she said. “The thing about this area is, you always associate Dominican culture with the influx of immigrants in the ‘60s or ‘70s, not the 1600s.”
Emmanuel Abreu, lifetime local of Washington Heights, was one community member familiar with Juan Rodriguez and the upcoming street co-naming.
“I think it’s important to everyone, especially Dominicans in Washington Heights,” Abreu said. “Or at least it should be.”
The CUNY Dominican Studies Institute thought the same and approached District 10 Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez about co-naming 59 blocks of Broadway in Washington Heights and Inwood. Together with the Harlem & the Heights Historical Society, it wrote to the City Council for approval.
Next May, the 400th anniversary of Rodriguez’ arrival in New York will be marked with the first installment of the settler’s name on Broadway in a large-scale birthday celebration for the city.
Russ Murphy, communications director for Councilman Rodriguez, said that while surveying residents about the co-naming, he found a positive response once they knew the history. Now that the street naming is official and much of Rodriguez’ history has been collected by CUNY scholars, the Institute is planning panels and other events uptown to spread the word.
“It’s a big thing in the city – having somebody that was previously unknown to now be known as the first non-native person settled in New York,” Murphy said.