On Location: What It Took to Build the Perfect New York Bodega for ‘In the Heights’

Settling on a central filming location for the movie adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights wasn’t too hard for production designer Nelson Coates. Washington Heights is in the title, after all. But picking out the parts of Washington Heights that made the movie feel like a true love letter to the neighborhood and its residents, from the sweeping views of the George Washington Bridge and the local public pool, to the sun-bleached bodegas awnings and the wares stocked inside, was the real challenge. Coates spent time walking up and down the streets of the Heights, as it’s known, and most of the surrounding neighborhoods in upper Manhattan and the Bronx, sometimes alongside Miranda and the movie’s director Jon M. Chu as part of his research. What he and the location team found—from the local public pool to the perfect corner for main character Usnavi’s Dominican Republic–inspired bodega store—is an amalgamation of the best of the Heights. “You just hope that people will see the neighborhood for the joy there, and the wonderful, incredible depth of culture,” Coates says. 

Most of the film’s interiors, including the inside of the aforementioned bodega, were filmed on a soundstage—but the street scenes take place all over Washington Heights (and even Brooklyn’s New Utrecht Ave. subway station). We sat down with Coates ahead of the film’s June 10 premiere in theaters and streaming on HBO Max to chat about his favorite In the Heights filming locations, how they restored parts of the 191st subway station’s art tunnel, and the joys of the classic Cuban and Dominican restaurant, El Floridita. 

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When you first joined the project, what were the Washington Heights spots you knew, without a doubt, had to make it into the ‘In the Heights’ movie?

Obviously you have to have the George Washington Bridge. It’s the bridge. It’s iconic from the poster from the stage musical and it towers over the neighborhood. J. Hood Wright Park has an incredible visual of the bridge, and it created a wonderful environment [for filming] the song “Home.” We created a basketball court, we brought in fencing, we brought in fire hydrants, all the elements to make it work for what we needed cinematically. And when I think of parks in New York, no matter where, there are always the chess/checkers tables, and in Washington Heights particularly, people are playing dominoes. So we brought in those, too. Then ultimately, you get to the last bit of the song and you’re looking out over the bridge, and Jon needed [Benny and Nina] to be higher than the other dancers. And you know how there are rock outcroppings in the parks in New York in weird places? So I said, I’ll make a rock. And I added my own rock to the [existing] terrace—and the rock happens to be in the shape of the Dominican Republic.

Another location in where the attention to detail was obvious was inside Usnavi’s bodega. What did bodega research look like?

The first thing we knew we had to nail down was an intersection [for the bodega’s location]. There were lots of areas I would have loved to have [set the bodega on] on, St. Nicholas being one of them, but they were just streets we never would have been able to close. Lin [Manuel Miranda] and Quiara [Alegría Hudes] felt very strongly that we needed to be east of Broadway because the community is very different on the west side, which is more Irish, Russian, and Jewish, while the east side is more D.R., Puerto Rico, and Cuba. So we settled on Audubon and 175th Street. [After we decided on the location], I walked every street of Washington Heights, Inwood, half the Bronx, and about 20 blocks of Harlem, looking at every salon, every bodega, and every shop to see what made the ones in Washington Heights different. 

I was looking for the little details throughout: the crazy floors in the bodegas that put cardboard on the ground to mop up water after the rain, or the bug strip that’s always hanging at the counter, or the homemade shelves. Our bodega was on a soundstage, but we even stained the shelves so it looked like the products had been placed there forever and ever. As for the bodega facade, what existed [of the Santo Domingo Grocery Inc.] bodega’s awning was too small, so I made ours incorporate the nail and hair salon that is right next door, too.

The “Paciencia y Fe” scenes celebrate two other New York icons: the subway and the 191st Street station. How did you film that sequence?

Our production offices were in Brooklyn Heights, and during some time off I had gone to the Transit Museum. And I was like, Oh, my gosh, this would be amazing for that scene. But you [we] could only get in there for the one day that they’re closed and they didn’t have a place to move their other artifacts for us to film the dancers. But it inspired us. We found out that we could rent some 1940s subway cars, and we reached out to the MTA to find a space that we could own during filming. We landed on a maintenance facility that had been a station years ago that they now use to run trash trains through. And then we loved the 191st station, and yet, you can’t just shoot the graffiti. This was an arts project with the city in the ‘90s and there are copyright problems, so we had to connect with the artists’ estates or the original artists to restore their work. For places where we weren’t allowed to restore something, or it had some language we didn’t want to see, we used this material called frisket. It’s a clear, lightly tacky wallpaper and we used it to temporarily cover sections and do our own graffiti just for filming.

The pool sequence seemed like the most intricate to pull off. How did it come about—and where did you film it?

When Jon saw the pools at Highbridge Park with Lin, he was like, “This has to be in the movie.” If it’s the hottest day of the summer and you’re in a blackout [like they are in the film], you would be in the pool. No one has ever filmed in Highbridge Park pool before and the city is very insistent on making sure that the date that the pools [were scheduled to] open for the summer remained the date they open, because it’s a public asset that they’re not going to shut down for filming. So we started the talks in January ahead of filming in May and were standing in these empty pools that were in need of repair. We had to get [the city] to totally rehab both the shallow and deep pools. They let me work on the color that they were going to paint the pools, and we added our own banners and colorful things throughout to make it even more amazing to film there.

What do you really hope New Yorkers—and, more importantly, longtime Washington Heights residents—notice about the sets and locations that you used?

I would love people to say, ‘This is what I remember my own neighborhood to be.’ You just hope that people will see the neighborhood for the joy there, and the wonderful, incredible depth of culture. Like El Floridita [restaurant]—how cool is that, in Inwood? There’s a Washington Heights location, too, but we wanted to have the elevated train because Vanessa sings about it [in “It Won’t Be Long Now”]. Actually, Lin is always laughing about the fact that she talks about the elevated train by her window in the song. There’s no elevated train, actually, in Washington Heights. So we picked the Floridita in Inwood nearby, which has phenomenal food from the D.R. and Cuba—as well as an elevated train right outside.

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