Is it El Barrio? Or is it the Upper East Side?
Spanish Harlem is changing, slowly and inexorably. What does it stand to lose?
The time had come for Claudia Munoz-Campos to decide: the Whole Foods on the Upper East Side, a nine minute walk downtown from her apartment in East Harlem, or the Whole Foods on the Upper West Side, which meant dragging her young daughter on the crosstown bus through Central Park.
But she already knew which one she would choose: the shlep to the West Side. What she struggled to understand was why. Perhaps, it had to do with the people there. They seemed more authentic, she said, more down to earth.
“Why do I like it if it’s the same?” she mused. “I don’t save time. I don’t save money. It just feels more homey.”
Something was missing on the Upper East Side. Something that Munoz-Campos searched for subconsciously everywhere she went, and found again whenever she crossed the invisible line at 96th Street from the Upper East Side back home to East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem, or, fondly, “El Barrio.” A place that was, in her words, “not as nice, but more real.”
That invisible line has blurred significantly over the last 20 years. In the borderland of the upper 90s and low 100s, many of the shops and luxury apartment buildings advertise their location as the Upper East Side, while others choose to embrace the neighborhood’s connection to Latino culture. Frenchy Coffee at 102nd and Lexington, for example, describes its location as “the vibrant neighborhood of Spanish Harlem.”
Between the coffee shops and high rises, traces of the neighborhood’s Latino community remain. Munoz-Campos’ neighbors are Puerto Rican and Dominican. As a Mexican-American, she feels a sense of comfort around them, though her husband, the Indian filmmaker Ritesh Batra, does not. The local business owners know her and her daughter, who is autistic, and for whom belonging is both more vital and harder to find.
But at the same time as people with means like Munoz-Campos are arriving to take advantage of the neighborhood’s authenticity, many of the Puerto Rican residents who gave the neighborhood that atmosphere are leaving.
This is not a typical gentrification story. East Harlem’s Latino identity isn’t disappearing entirely, but rather, in the view of those who have studied the neighborhood, morphing into something intangibly less “real.” This gentrification isn’t driven by young white people alone, but by Latinos as well. The dilemma is not whether East Harlem will resist gentrification, but whether the “realness” non-white gentrifiers seek there will elude them as soon as they settle down.
“The word that describes everything and explains everything is displacement,” said Thomas Angotti, Professor Emeritus of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College and CUNY. “It has been throughout the history of New York City and every major city.”
Taken literally, gentrification refers to the process by which wealthier newcomers move to an area, typically where people of color live, bringing with them trendier businesses, luxury apartment buildings, and an increase in the cost of living. But it doesn’t always necessitate displacement, and displacement often occurs without gentrification, driven by real estate developers and politicians.
The history of East Harlem is, in Angotti’s words, a “protracted, long term process of displacement” punctuated by upticks in real estate development.
Under the Bloomberg administration, what Angotti called “the financial sector surplus” grew rapidly in New York City and all over the world. Money poured in for real estate development, leading to what he characterized as a “building spree” in Upper Manhattan. The dividing line at 96th Street began to disappear.
When Mayor Bill DeBlasio was re-elected in 2017, he proposed a rezoning of the neighborhood to increase the allowed density of residential and commercial buildings. Many residents and community organizations fiercely contested it, arguing that the newly allowed development would lead to displacement. The city passed a revised proposal, pledging to include more affordable housing units. But Angotti says these plans often end up forgotten in the following years, when the city’s budget--and priorities--change.
The signs of gentrification slowly began to appear. From 2006 to 2019, the median rent increased from $720 to $910, according to data from NYU’s Furman Center. The number of residents without a high school diploma decreased from 36.5% in 2006 to 23.5% in 2019. Those numbers include residents living in public housing, which makes up 30% of all rental units in the neighborhood.
In 2002, the New York Times reported how a robust new community of middle class Puerto Ricans was revitalizing East Harlem. But the story may have appeared too soon: from 2000 to 2010, the percentage of Puerto Ricans in East Harlem dropped from 59 percent to 51 percent. From 2010 to 2018, the decline continued, reaching as low as 47 percent, based on partial data from the 2018 American Community Survey. At the same time, newcomers with origins in Central and South America began to arrive. In 2018, the neighborhood boasted over 600 Peruvians. In 2000, the census had counted only 86.
Then came 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic may have temporarily slowed development, but it sped up the process of displacement. Jobs disappeared, and so did the younger Puerto Ricans who relied on them.
“When the restaurants close down, when the hotels close down, you can’t work two or three jobs anymore,” said Father Peter Mushi, the priest at St. Cecilia’s Church at 105th and Park Avenue. Working class members of his congregation can no longer scrape together a living as they did before. “The issue is, ‘I cannot afford the rent anymore. The issue is, ‘how will I put these children through school and at the same time, afford to give them food?’”
Over the 12 years since he came to the parish, he’s noticed the changes within the community reflected in his congregation. He used to look out at mostly Puerto Rican faces. Now he sees Mexicans and Dominicans, many of whom are younger families with children. Meanwhile, the Puerto Ricans who remain, he says, are elderly, relying on Social Security. The younger population has moved away, back to the island or to Florida.
“Their children are not here,” Mushi said. “Their children left long ago.”
COVID-19 didn’t only speed up the displacement of East Harlem’s Puerto Ricans by taking away their jobs. It also killed them. Across the nation, Blacks and Latinos died of COVID disproportionately higher rates. In East Harlem, one out of every 160 people died. Nearby, in the Upper East Side, the ratio was one to 800.
Many of the Puerto Ricans on Angel Velasquez’s block, for instance, either left or died during the pandemic. Last month, he lost his aunt and his aunt’s daughter to COVID.
Velasquez has lived in the neighborhood all his life. He moved once, forty years ago, from around the corner to where he sat now, drinking orange juice in the front yard. His mother, who came to East Harlem from Ponce, on the island, also died on this block.
His building is right next to La Fonda, the neighborhood’s long standing Puerto Rican restaurant. To understand something of what is taking place in East Harlem, you need only look at the evolution of the restaurant’s name. La Fonda used to advertise itself as “La Fonda Boricua,” along with the description “Cocina Puertorriqueña” on its website. Today, only the words “La Fonda” appear in sparse capital letters, superimposed over rotating pictures of shrimp skewers and cocktails.
“It’s not Spanish Harlem anymore,” Velasquez said. “Now it’s East Harlem.”
He couldn’t stop pointing out the things that have changed.
The playground across the street, for example, used to have a hole in the wall where people would put in money and take out drugs. The apartment buildings that house college students used to be shooting galleries.
“Half of my friends are dead, and half of them are in jail doing life,” Velasquez said.
Now, he complains about going to the store around the block and realizing he’d paid what he’d spend on a week of groceries: “Guy gave me three little pieces of oxtail, I told him I don’t want no rice or nothing, three little pieces, he charges me twenty bucks. I said I’ll never come here again.”
He doesn’t usually buy restaurant food anymore, and since he works as the super of the building, he doesn’t have to pay rent. Most of the tenants are white and Asian women, many of them NYU students. Occasionally, one or two would emerge from the building and he’d open the gate for them. “Have a good day mama!” he’d call.
In 2004, the anthropologist Arlene Dávila published Barrio Dreams, an ethnography of East Harlem. In it, she warned of the crossroads the neighborhood would eventually face.
“At stake,” Dávila wrote, “is whether El Barrio remains primarily Latino, becomes gentrified, or-- in the eyes of many, and wistfully offsetting this binary vision-- develops into a gentrified but Latino stronghold.”
Dávila, who is Puerto Rican, suggests that the relationship between development and culture is symbiotic rather than coincidental. Real estate developers sell East Harlem’s cultural identity to gentrifiers. This marketing, which she calls “Latinization,” projects a sanitized version of the neighborhood’s culture, one more palatable to white people.
“There’s somewhat of a collapse in the categories of race and class,” said Angotti. “If you’ve got money, you’re probably white. If you’re a Latino with money, you can be understood or seen as white.”
The issue is intellectual but also personal for Angotti. His own daughter, who is Latina, bought a condo in East Harlem above 116th Street.
“It was being marketed with very favorable conditions,” Angotti said. “She got benefits that wouldn’t be available to others. It was an enticement to draw a different clientele to East Harlem.”
He also remembers visiting her. Many tenants would sublet their apartments. One was used for drug dealing.
“This was a big real estate investment company,” he said. “Their stake was looking more long term, at a neighborhood that would transition from a low income Puerto Rican neighborhood to a more mixed population. If you look at how real estate is selling in South Harlem or the Lower East Side, they're selling themselves as being chic, multicultural.”
The marketing, promoted by developers, also becomes adopted by residents themselves. The word “vibrant” is used in most real estate listings but also descriptions of local community organizations. Like La Fonda, other upscale restaurants in the neighborhood embrace this Latin-chic, from Ricardo’s, a Latin-themed steakhouse, to Santiago’s Beer Garden, a Dominican restaurant that serves bottomless mimosa brunches and a dish of pollo guisado for $17.
Who’s going there?
“Mostly caucasians,” Mushi said.
Ironically, as members of the community celebrate their culture, they also promote its gentrification.
“In their efforts to maintain a site as a Puerto Rican or a Latino space, they sell and announce it as such to the outside world,” Dávila writes.
The distinction between a local business and gentrifying business has become blurred. Mushi wonders who owns some of them, whether they have ties to the neighborhood at all: “I don’t see them in the community during the day.”
The new vision of “El Barrio” is decidedly less Puerto Rican. Instead, it has a vague, pan-Latino aesthetic. Even the name, once a term of endearment coined by the Puerto Rican community, now feels like an act of resistance.
La Casa Azul, New York City’s only Latino bookstore, opened in a basement next to a funeral home on 103rd and Lexington in 2012. The lack of daylight didn’t seem to matter; inside, you’d find a giant mural of Frida Kahlo, whose home the store was named for, while books by Latino authors covered the aquamarine brick walls. Students would study there instead of their school’s library. Arlene Dávila herself did a book signing at La Casa Azul. So did Junot Díaz.
The bookstore, owned by a Mexican-American woman from Los Angeles named Aurora Anaya-Cerda, was so symbolic of a prevailing Latino culture in the face of gentrification that it became the subject of a sociology master’s thesis at Fordham University. The author, Kasey Zapatka, now a PhD student in sociology at CUNY, was fascinated by the bookstore’s ability to bridge the divide between the neighborhood’s old and new residents.
La Casa Azul’s events blended the Latinized marketing of East Harlem with an earnest commitment to remembering its culture. It embraced an intellectual, boutique aesthetic more readily appreciated by the educated gentrifying class, but it also welcomed the neighborhood’s older residents into the conversations that took place there. Even the bookstore’s origin story was symbolic: failing to get a loan because the store didn’t seem profitable enough, Anaya-Cerda raised the money through crowdfunding.
So it’s hard not to see its closing in 2015 as symbolic, too. Anaya-Cerda, who could not be reached for comment, moved back to Los Angeles. In a blog post on the bookstore’s website, she wrote: “We have decided to re-design our business model to increase our social impact as a bookstore, community space and performing arts center.”
The bookstore was replaced by a doggy daycare called Hotel Bark Ave. It was founded by Christopher Turi, a former Wall Street banker, as announced on the daycare’s website, where its location is described as the Upper East Side.
But Kasey Zapatka chooses to see the bookstore’s failure as a business separately from its cultural success.
“I don’t know of many cases where a neighborhood was gentrifying, and then it stopped,” he said. “I wasn’t surprised when the bookstore closed, but I don't know if it's emblematic of a failure of the bookstore’s project or resistances to gentrification in the neighborhood. Because if we're talking about it in terms of culture, they certainly succeeded. If we're talking about it in an economic, material way, like, is the bookstore still there, well, no, they're not.”
In the housing climate of New York City, the disappearance of La Casa Azul from Spanish Harlem feels inevitable, its success and demise the product of forces far greater than one woman or one store.