In the Heights from Lin Manuel-Miranda of Hamilton fame and Jon M. Chu, director of Crazy Rich Asians has just dropped in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. There’s singing, dance routines in the middle of intersections and subway tunnels, and tons of filming locations New Yorkers will recognize. It’s a musical based on the Broadway show of the same name that Manuel-Miranda wrote a decade before Hamilton. The story takes place in Washington Heights, where Manuel-Miranda was raised and is based on the book by Quiara Alegría Hudes.
The story follows Usnavi, a bodega owner in Washington Heights and the neighbors who live and work on his block, including a salon owner, a cab company owner, a Stanford dropout, and more, facing real-life scenarios that New Yorkers, especially immigrants and children of immigrants, battle. There’s even a very New York City blackout. There are dreams made, dreams broken, and plenty of uplifting moments framed within present-day questions like the fate of the DREAMERS.
Being able to do the principal photography for In the Heights in Washington Heights was essential to the production. Producer Anthony Bregman says, “Shooting ‘In the Heights’ in the actual Heights was key to us, because the stories being told in the screenplay are intrinsic to the community. The streets were busy all day and at night until the wee hours. Music was coming out of boomboxes on corners, the windows of apartments, radios in cars, underscored with car and motorcycle engines revving. It really felt like what’s said in the movie, that the streets are alive with music. That hum, that energy pervaded the production and the performances. It seemed to make everyone come alive, but also rooted them to this place in realistic and romantic ways.”
Director of photography Alice Brooks says “The Washington Heights community is the real star of the movie and informed every movement of the camera and every subtle lighting cue….There is something wonderful about the purity of filming in a real place. Capturing the texture of the neighborhood became part of the visual language.”
The movie stars Anthony Ramos (from the original cast of Hamilton) as Usnavi de la Vega, Leslie Grace as Nina Rosario, Corey Hawkins (from Walking Dead and Straight Outta Compton) as Benny, Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, Jimmy Smits (NYPD Blue) as Kevin Rosario and Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia. Marc Anthony and Manuel-Miranda also have roles. For the filming locations for In The Heights, here they are!
1. The Bodega
The exterior of the bodega, City Mart Tropical Products, featured in In the Heights is located at 196 Audubon Avenue at the corner of 175th Street in Washington Heights (also where the opening song, “In the Heights” was shot in the intersection). In real life, the corner store is the STO Domingo Grocery on the ground floor of a walk-up building constructed in 1927. The awning and facade have been altered for the film — STO Domingo has a more standard green awning. But in In the Heights, you see a classic old-school New York bodega awning in yellow. A street art mural, designed by production designer Nelson Coates, was added for the film showing a man in a boat dreaming about returning to the Dominican Republic. Locals rallied to keep the mural after the production ended.
If you’re curious about why the avenue is named “Audubon,” the naturalist John J. Audubon lived up here and his property became the cultural complex, Audubon Terrace. You’ll find many other references to Audubon in Washington Heights like Audubon Park and the Audubon Mural Project.
The interior of the bodega is actually a set created at the New York State Armory in Brooklyn for the film, as was the interior of Daniela’s nail salon. When a location is used frequently throughout the shooting of a film or television show, building a set is often easier than shooting on site. This helps for not only scheduling but also filming angles, something that was essential in another recent film, Woman in the Window, set entirely in a Harlem townhouse.
2. Abuela’s Apartment
This intersection also was the exterior filming locations for the nail salon and the car service company Rosario’s Car Service, with a lot of facades also undergoing a similar redesign like the bodega. In real life, Rosario’s Car Service is actually Reyno Car Service. The nail salon exterior was built into the front yard of the townhouse at the southeast corner of 175th Street and Audubon Avenue. Abuela’s apartment location is 532 175th Street, within a row of townhouses just down the block from this intersection. With chain stores moving in and generic signage of vinyl, plastic and LEDs becoming the norm, the set designers had to actively re-insert the indicators of the local community back in, which speaks to the larger question of profound neighborhood change happening in the area.
All design elements were created through a careful reference to the existing neighborhood fabric. Brooks “paid close attention to the color, depth and fine points of the neighborhood to ensure authenticity, a watchword for the entire production,” says Warner Bros. while Coates “spent several days walking every street of Washington Heights, Inwood and the Bronx, photographing bodegas, stores, car services and salons, examining the details that make the Heights unique. He also spent hours in the New York Public Library sifting through historical images of the neighborhood. Coates then assembled a room filled with fabrics, furniture and street art, with reference photos covering the walls, all of which began to shape the look of the main intersection and primary sets.”
3. J. Hood Wright Park
A lot of shooting takes place in and around J. Hood Wright Park, including scenes between Benny (played by Corey Hawkins) and Nina (played by Leslie Grace). From this park, which has exposed Manhattan schist, there are great views of the George Washington Bridge and the Hudson River. Just next to it, at the intersection of Haven Avenue and 176th Street (just next to the on ramps for the bridge) was where the the song “Carnaval Del Barrio” was filmed. And, Benny and Nina also stand on a fire escape at Nina’s apartment building on 176th Street and Haven Avenue. The 6.7 acre park on West 173rd Street between Haven Avenue and Fort Washington Avenue is named after a Gilded Age financier who lived in a mansion nearby. Today, Wright may be most known for a hospital, the J. Hood Wright Hospital which later became the Knickerbocker Hospital, the main inspiration for the hospital of the same name in the show The Knick.
The shooting of the scenes here sound like a real celebration, as described by Warner Bros: “Filming for the explosively joyful “Carnaval del Barrio” featured the stereotypical New York summer in all its glory. A total of 60 dancers plus cast worked through a 14-hour day of heat and humidity behind four apartment buildings blocks away from J. Hood Wright Park—making the onscreen situation (and the actual feel of the moment) all the more palpable. Once Chu called the final “Cut!”, the celebrating refused to end, with everyone continuing to sing, dance, wave flags and cheer. As Lin-Manuel Miranda observed from the fire escape overhead, the ensemble below then began to spontaneously chant his name: “Lin! Lin!”
4. Highbridge Pool
In In the Heights, when Usnavi’s bodega sells a lottery ticket a big musical number breaks out called “96,000.” This is filmed at Highbridge Pool inside Highbridge Park with High Bridge Water Tower looming behind. There is a coordinated swim performance in the pool, as well as scenes shot on the stairs surrounding the pool.
The pool is one of the many outdoor pools that are part of the NYC Parks system and the fifth of eleven built during the Great Depression using FDR‘s WPA funding. As such, many feature an Art Deco or Art Moderne design. At Highbridge, there are two Olympic size pools and when it opened in 1936, both Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Robert Moses who was a big advocate of public pools, were present.
5. 191st Street Subway Tunnel
Another well-known spot in Washington Heights is the street art covered tunnel at 191st Street (one of the deepest stations in the subway system), and In the Heights uses this tunnel to film the song “Paciencia y Fe” featuring Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia. The opening song “In the Heights” references how deep the subway goes under Washington Heights and Inwood, when Usnavi tells tourists to take the subway to 181st Street and “take the escalator.”
The scenes shot on the subway platforms are actually filmed in Brooklyn in an abandoned level of the D train, as there are only a few locations in the subway system where the MTA usually allows for large film shoots.
6. Cooper Triangle
In this scene shot, one of the few scenes outside of Washington Heights, Gregory Diaz IV as Sonny and Leslie Grace as Nina Rosario sit in Cooper Triangle, a small park next to the Cooper Union school in the East Village. In the background you can see the former Village Voice building and the newer building of the Grace Church School.
Cooper Union is also located adjacent to Astor Place, where Vanessa is looking to move to pursue her dreams of being a fashion designer. She comes out of the replica vintage subway entrance at Astor Place during her feature song.
Additional scenes are also filmed in Inwood, the neighborhood north of Washington Heights and at the northernmost tip of Manhattan. During Nina’s song, when she first returns back home from Stanford, she walks under an elevated train line along 10th Avenue to meet her father at Floridita restaurant, a real eatery. This is near the 207th Street A train subway stop.
Anthony Ramos reflects on the importance of place and for casting Latinx performers in the film: “I grew up in New York—Puerto Rican, ‘Nuyorican’—from Bushwick, Brooklyn. I didn’t grow up in Washington Heights, but in a neighborhood like it. I’ve never seen a film where somebody looks like my grandmother, like my tia, my cousins. I’ve never seen anything with 75 Latinos in the middle of the street dancing, singing with pride about where they came from. Everyone in this movie has a dream, a sueñito, a goal, and we see how each person goes after those individually. But when the obstacles present themselves, it isn’t just the one character, but all of them, the community, who persevere and find a way past them. It baffles my mind that some little Latin kid is going to see this. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen it, and I get emotional every time I think about this movie and what it means to me and the culture. That, to me, is a dream.”
Next, check out 20 must-visit locations in Washington Heights.