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The Ever-changing Spanish Harlem

Gabrielle Velasquez

Molloy College


Snuggled into the northeastern shoulder of Manhattan, where the Harlem River meets the
East River at Randall's Island, East Harlem was once home to the borough's first Little Italy.
After the First World War, a new wave of immigrants from Puerto Rico settled here, and during
the subsequent century Italian Harlem, bordered to the west by Fifth Avenue and to the south by
96th Street, became East Harlem or, El Barrio. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the
neighborhood's first and second-generation sons and daughters, seeking to forge an identity in
their adopted homeland, bonded together as the Nuyorican school of poets, playwrights and
musicians, and, as their neighbors to the northwest had done in the 1920s, launched an artistic
renaissance. This is a neighborhood famously bursting with culture, where musicians as varied
and accomplished as Tito Puente, Frankie Cutlass and Cam'ron came up. Let me take you into a
world where all you will feel is warmth and love coming from every end of the streets. Although,
this community is very comfortable in the way it lives, it has a lot more coming for it.
East Harlem is one of the largest predominantly Latino communities in New York City,
with about half (49.8%) of its residents identifying as Hispanic, Hispanic blacks (including
people of African American, West Indian and continental African backgrounds) also make up a
significant portion of East Harlems population. (Dwyer, 2009) Growing up in suburban Long
Island all my life, I always had in itch inside me that I did not belong there. I have always
traveled back and forth to Ecuador where both my parents are from and the culture stuck with me
ever since. Lets face it, Long Island is boring. All you see is, house, house, house, house, mall,
McDonalds, house, house and house. My experience visiting El Barrio has transformed me. I
need to get out of my house more! I found a place where I feel welcomed by everyone, and
everyone has their own identity without having a say in what one does. The people are just
people, but they are warm people. They were so accepting and inviting. People from Long Island

are cold and want you to move out of the way. Why is it so hard to just slow down and enjoy the
roses? Spanish Harlem, like so many other New York City neighborhoods, is dealing with
gentrification, but in each community, a slightly different dynamic is at work. (Dwyer, 2009)
Several elements in Spanish Harlem seem to be fostering its growing cosmopolitanism without
sacrificing its Puerto Rican character. According to the 2002 New York Times article, A Puerto
Rican Rebirth in El Barrio, they are buying apartments and fixing up town houses, while
opening shops, cafes, and galleries. (Dwyer, 2009) This is gentrification, but it is being done by
the Latinos of the community. They not only respect the culture, but they also want to preserve it
as a part of their own heritage. But, there are some families in the community that just make ends
meet. What stuck out to me a lot was the projects and how people live in those conditions. I am
sure they make the best out of living there, but at the same time I feel like they will eventually
have to get kicked out to be placed in the middle of the street, for some rich guy to buy the
building a put a mansion sized McDonalds right there. I understand gentrification is good for the
communities of New York City, but it is also somewhat sad. We are getting rid of the old and
placing new buildings so it will look better. Tourist trade is another element that may help
Spanish Harlem maintain its character, though it has a downside. Tourism always runs the risk of
objectifying cultures and romanticizing what in reality is complex and messy, so this takes away
from appreciating the culture.
An influx of immigrants from Mexico, the Caribbean and China in the 1908s and 90s
have added to the multicultural mix of East Harlem. In recent years, this community has
undergone tremendous changes brought on by the process of gentrification that has been
occurring since the late 1900s in the neighborhood. With housing prices on the rise and white
professionals moving into the area in ever-increasing numbers, there is the questions of whether

El Barrio will retain its unique multicultural flavor or simply become an extension of the
exclusive Upper Eastside. (Russo & Cullinan, 2014, p. 162) It's not uncommon to find people
playing congas or playing checkers on the street or riding tricked-out bicycles with Puerto Rican
tunes blasting from their radios. You can feel a real sense of community in the bodegas and on
the streets as residents chat up their neighbors and warmly greet one another with "Papi" or
East Harlem has been through some tough times in the past few decades to say the least.
And unfortunately, to a lot of New Yorkers, it is still a place to avoid. East Harlem is one of the
smaller neighborhoods in Manhattan but because of its nominal and geographical proximity to
the more famous, and politically influential, Harlem, is regularly ignored as its own separate
neighborhood. (Pan, 2008, p. 40) In a way I find this interesting because although, tourism is
what apparently keeps Spanish Harlem in the works, being separated from all the rest will also
help it maintain its pace and vitality unique to life within its own boundaries. As the daily lives
of El Barrio inhabitants unfold on the street, the housing projects are always there, as reminders
of the neighborhoods collapse since their creation. Even the projects themselves are quickly
losing their status as safe havens for affordable housing. One large development, 1199 Plaza,
recently turned into a hybrid combination of rent-stabilized housing project and private co-op
building. Eventually, the whole development will be privately owned. (Pan, 2008, p. 47) I could
not think of another reason why it would be privately owned, but because of the way the projects
look. Everything is pretty nowadays and if it doesnt meet a certain quota, its out. This makes
me think of people protesting to keep the projects which brings me to think of something else,
protests on immigration. U.S. laws are now deporting families and I remember when I went to
visit El Barrio with the class, I saw signs that said Keep our families united. From what that

tells me is that the government could care less of who they take back or keep. Anyway, I do not
hear of many protests to keep the projects.
For all of the changes in East Harlem over the last 200 years, the residents today are still
just like the immigrants who first settles in the neighborhood in the early 1800s. Living in what
is still one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York, even if it is rapidly becoming not so. We
are all aspiring, dreaming, working for a better life for ourselves and our families. Our shared
dreams of something better are more powerful forces of change than any larger corporate ones. It
was the immigrants dreams that brought them to East Harlem, Spanish Harlem, El Barrio. And
slowly but surely, it is being created into a dynamic new community, full of pride, strength,
activism, and power. Although I have only been there once, in my mind I feel like I can call it
home, along with the rest of the Hispanics and other newcomers.


Dwyer, June. "Reimagining the Ethnic Enclave: Gentrification, Rooted Cosmopolitanism, and
Ernesto Quionezs Changos Fire." MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. 34.2
(2009): 125-39. Web.
Pan, Allison. "Crossing the Border: Art and Change in East Harlem."
Journal for Cultural Research 12.1 (2008): 39-57. Web.
Russo, M., & Meritta, C. (2014). The Heart of the City: Midtown. In Essential New York
(p.162). Ars Omnia Press

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