Uptown Hustle

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Uptown is in good hands with WRU Crew

Editor’s Note: Like so much of our world, the original vision for this feature was changed by COVID-19. What we realised though as we spoke more with our subjects, our writer, and our photographer, was that WRU doesn’t stop, and wouldn’t be stopped - we just had to get a little more creative about the way we shared their story. Throughout this feature you’ll see the amazing photographic work of Jason Suarez; and beside that you will see the subjects of the feature showing you Uptown through their eyes - shot on disposable cameras as they navigated this temporary reality.

On any given Monday night, a stroll along the streets of Washington Heights reveals bright bodega storefront signs, vendor's colorful fresh fruit, and passerby's lit cigar tips. The illuminations and instrumental bachata backdrop often turn the nightly stroll into a dance. However, tonight is different. The global coronavirus pandemic has dimmed the lights, silenced the music and slowed the pace of New York City from Downtown through Uptown. But even in the face of an ongoing pandemic, Hector Espinal and Josh Mock will not let their family drift apart. At 7:30 pm, the two fearless leaders of the New York-based running crew, We Run Uptown, take to the streets to continue its Monday night run streak, which has been active since the Crew's inception in 2013. Only this time, each is on a solo endeavor, united by a live Instagram stream which invites teammates and supporters to be part of the journey.

"The reason we felt the need to keep the streak alive and focused on having some digital presence during these trying times is that WE RUN UPTOWN is much more than running," WRU's leader and co-founder Hec asserts. "We are about the community. How can we turn our backs on the people who have supported us for six years?"

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WRU values strength in numbers. In a global pandemic, it takes more than one individual to persevere. It takes a family. The Uptown community is a family, and WRU helps to strengthen these familial bonds. As Crew member Jason Bautista describes, "WRU has created a space where people who recently moved to New York or Washington Heights can familiarise themselves with people from the community. It bridges the gap between native New Yorkers and recent newcomers to the city through the shared hobby of running. I believe this helps to strengthen the community."

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WRU Crew exists to make Uptown a healthier place – to give people access to fitness, to educate them on healthier lifestyles, and to form a real haven to help the youth. Thus, every action Hec and Josh take keeps these goals in mind and builds a community that has a tangible impact on residents' lives.

"We have a very Uptown mentality about everything we do. Our interactions with the non-runners walking the streets, the routes we take, the vocabulary we use when speaking to the group, and the family-style atmosphere, all of this is done with UPTOWN SAZÒN. Most, if not all, of the participants live within a 3-4-mile radius. A lot of them have lived Uptown their entire lives. They are now running down the same streets they ran as children playing games like tag and manhunt," Hec explains.

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Sarah Weise, an Uptown resident, and Crewmember, says WRU has brought locals closer together. "It's been amazing to see the way people bond that may not have ever spoken or even met, had it not been for the community WRU created. I think it shows that we're all a lot more alike than we think. It also forges positive relationships based on fitness. It keeps people running who may not have stuck with it had they been going it alone."

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It's easy to dismiss run crews, especially the ones that look good on social media, as all being similar, of being overly concerned with image, and of being generally self-serving. But WRU couldn't be more different; scratch the surface, and you'll quickly see a genuine love for Uptown and a desire to flood its streets and social feeds with positivity.

"Our goal is to inspire the youth, give them someone to look up to. Tap into potential they didn't know they possessed. Let's face it; there is nothing cool about long-distance running. Especially not to kids from the hood. It's our goal to make sure they see the benefits and the appeal we see. We've taken a stance to put our community first in all that we do." Hec states, matter of factly.

Last year, residents did not need to look far but would need to look up to see an example of WRU's commitment to the neighborhood. Perched high above the Uptown skyline, against a red backdrop read "WE RUN UPTOWN" in bold white and yellow type. For years Hec and Josh aspired to see advertisements for things other than merely alcohol in their neighborhood - so naturally, they set their sights on having their billboard instead.

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"We have been shifting our focus to the younger demographic because they are the ones who will be here long after we are gone. We are looking to leave a legacy, something that will continue. With that said, the "younger" people that do come out [to our runs], something as simple as running, allows them to rub shoulders with people from all walks of life. Therefore it has the power to broaden their knowledge, help with career choices, or even spark them to create their own thing," Josh says.

"Our goal is to inspire the youth, give them someone to look up to. Tap into potential they didn't know they possessed."

Hector Espinal

Sometimes all it takes to spread a message are small steps. A 5k can be as impactful as a marathon. Take WRU's Coco 5k, for example. The casual winter jaunt celebrates the only thing better than warming up with Dominican hot chocolate - warming up with Dominican hot chocolate made with oat milk. The event, which began in Hec's mother's living room six years ago, has outgrown her apartment quarters and now takes place on Uptown's city sidewalks. The vegan concoction uses oat milk in place of its more popular dairy-based counterpart, to educate the community on small lifestyle changes that can have a positive health impact. Change, like running, is a summation of steps taken from start to finish.

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But for quite some time, the catalyst for such change seemed a far-fetched American dream. Just several years ago, Hec, a man whose presence is immediately known when in the company of others, was alone and in need of company.

"I started running because I was sad. [In my early twenties], I went through a break-up, and during that relationship, I had gained a lot of weight. I lost myself."

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Fortunately, his family stood by his side. His sister encouraged him to take to the streets in a way he had never done before: by running. At the time, those running in the area were not doing so for fitness. But Hec is a trendsetter, and while downtown may overshadow its northern neighbor when it comes to running tradition, there's no denying that Hec prepared to let them know Uptown was on the rise.

"Running helped me gain my self-esteem back. Running helped give me a sense of identity."

Hec's peers quickly took notice; it was different, and being different attracts attention, no matter where in the city you are. One such friend who took notice introduced Hec to Josh, a natural leader, and athlete in the Uptown community.

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"When I first met Josh, he didn't run at all. But I knew he was athletic. He had a reputation. When he first started coming around [to my runs], he had a presence. He seemed very passionate about the things he said. And it seemed like he'd be beneficial to what I was trying to do."

Uptown's culture is arguably the birthplace of subcultures around the world if you look at things like hip hop, street culture, and the various other subcultures that those movements have birthed. And so, at a time when the traditional New York running club structure was ripe for disruption, Hec and Josh understood how to redefine it – of course, with Uptown's unique style and flair.

"Our community encourages 'hustle,' and it's that hustle which we live by in our group and which differentiates us," says Josh. But differentiation is a process, and Hec and Josh are tacticians. Says Espinal, "All of our decisions are made together. We decide together on everything — [we ask ourselves] whether or not it benefits the group?"

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Asked to choose one word to describe the essence of Uptown, Jason Bautista emphasized, "Embracing." Surprisingly, WRU's 2013 launch was not necessarily embraced by everyone, but that's what happens when you're creating change. "We were the young guys, and it's like we were always in the crosshairs like we had a target on our back," Hec explains.

Fast-forward several years later, and its peers remain fixated on the Crew. Only now, the stare is one of admiration rather than condemnation. They are eager to embrace We Run Uptown's proven model for success, a program worthy of emulation. The only embrace more herculean than the one bestowed by its peer-run groups across the five boroughs is the one shared by WRU's more immediate members.

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Even social distancing protocols the last several weeks could not break the bonds the Height's harriers have forged. Their love and affection - also when restricted to digital means - transcends the thriving, vibrant Latin neighborhood from 155th Street north to Dyckman Avenue and from the Hudson River to the Harlem River. After all, the pandemic necessitates a call to action front and center to We Run Uptown's mission - make not only Uptown but the entire world a healthier place.

"I think the main lesson learned is to be mindful of your personal health overall, mentally and physically," Josh reflects. "I've seen so many people over this time do their first workouts, start meditating, do yoga, make healthier food choices." People have rediscovered the value that is found when they acknowledge the present because the future is more fragile than our bullish imaginations foresee.

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But it is difficult to withhold ourselves from dreaming more happy days ahead, even when the timeline is unknown, like a finish line we collectively long for and are ready to break its tape together. "I'm looking forward to seeing everyone come together on that first Monday night back. I can picture everyone joking, smiling ear to ear, and [sharing] 'long time no see' hugs. That makes what we do, providing this space called We Run Uptown, worth doing."

We may all be six feet from one another for now, but six degrees of separation reminds us that in these trying times, we are never alone.

Editor's Note: This piece was commenced in late February, when movement and social interaction were unrestricted. During the period of completing this feature the rules and regulations in NYC changed several times. At all times our team put health and safety first, complying with all local guidelines.

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