Latino Americans Blog

El Barrio in the 21st Century

August 27, 2013 12:02 PM by Ed Morales

For my family, East Harlem, or Spanish Harlem/El Barrio was the core community that defined being Puerto Rican in New York. My parents met in the neighborhood after migrating from different towns in Puerto Rico, and much of our extended family lived there at one time or another. They shopped in a food market called La Marqueta on Park Avenue, and on Saturday nights they danced at the Park Palace on 5th. Tito Puente was born and raised on 110th Street, and Spanish was spoken everywhere on warm summer nights.

It wasn’t always that way. When my father’s family moved to First Avenue near Jefferson Park, they were one of the few Puerto Rican families to live in what was considered an Italian-American area. In the early part of the century, Germans and Jews populated the neighborhood, and African Americans have lived there since the 1930s. And just as many of those groups have left the area, El Barrio’s Puerto Rican population has been on decline as well. Today, only a couple of my extended family members live there and the many changes are evident on the streets.

Even during its postwar heyday as cultural capital of Puerto Rican migrants in America, El Barrio was never entirely Puerto Rican. Several other Latino nationalities were present, the Italian enclave in the neighborhood’s northeast corner never completely disappeared, and there was always a significant African-American presence. But, reflecting population trends across the city, the Puerto Rican population has dropped around 10 per cent in East Harlem since 2000, an the Dominican and Mexican populations have been steadily increasing by a similar number. But even though Puerto Ricans still remain the majority population, the perception of the neighborhood is vastly different.

While I did not grow up in El Barrio—my family having sought relative prosperity in various corners of the Bronx—the neighborhood was ground zero for cultural memories of mambo men and in shark-skinned suits and women in lacy dresses, of piragua (snow-cone) vendors and their brightly painted trucks delighting kids like me. Later, it became a zone of resistance, where political activists like the Young Lords staged media-savvy protests to draw attention to poverty and substandard health care. It was a place where new bilingual identity was forged, and being a proud Nuyorican combined English, Spanish, and Spanglish.   

In some ways, the Puerto Rican presence in El Barrio is tied to an effort by the city and local entrepreneurs to capitalize on the neighborhood’s cultural vibrancy to generate tourism. Every year the National Puerto Rican Day Parade turns Fifth Avenue into a carnival of Puerto Rican pride. Two significant Puerto Rican businesses that opened in the last 15 years, La Fonda Boricua, and Camaradas, thrive on the overflow crowd of Puerto Ricans looking to connect with the neighborhood’s store of memories. Although underutilized in recent years, the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center nourishes that spirit, trying to live up to the galvanizing force of its namesake, a poet whose message was about pride in Hispanic roots and Afro-Caribbean heritage.

 But while many Puerto Ricans have left because of upward mobility, moving to local suburbs and different parts of the country, many are being forced out by an unfortunate product of the neighborhood’s recent success. As a byproduct of what many observers refer to as “gentrification,” rising residential and commercial rents have been pushing out not only many long-time residents, but even recent business owners. However, since many Puerto Rican residents live in public housing—East Harlem has the highest concentration of public housing in the city—they are actually less subject to rising rents than the more recently arrived Mexican and Dominican residents.

The new higher-income population includes students and professionals, as well as more prosperous Latino and Latin American arrivals. While the neighborhood has seen an increase in restaurants and other amenities, many locals cannot afford them, and there is concern over a new plan by the New York Housing Authority to build luxury housing on land adjoining housing projects, sometimes eliminating park and community center space.

East Harlem faces many challenges as a community as it moves forward. There should be a commitment to preserve the cultural flavor of the community forged by residents over so many years. Its new residents, who now reap the benefits of a community in transition, should find ways to share in that spirit of cultural preservation.  Many residents I have interviewed complain of being “ignored” by newcomers who say things like “before I moved in, nobody lived here.” This conflict could be solved by a willingness by newcomers to engage long-time residents in block parties or cultural events, learning about historical figures like Tito Puente and Julio De Burgos, and becoming conversant in the hybrid languages and rhythms that give El Barrio its “flow.” As the neighborhood comes to grips with the knowledge that many Puerto Ricans have left or were forced to leave, a commitment to affordable housing should be made lest we lose the character of the neighborhood altogether.

Even real estate brochures that tout El Barrio’s attractions assert that the friendly nature of the neighborhood—that quality of knowing people will smile and greet you as you make your way down its streets. The feeling is still there, whether it’s walking past the graceful building that houses St. Cecilia’s Church on 106th Street, or the famous Cuchifritos fried-food emporium on 116th. It’s the same feeling you get when you walk through the town square of any small town in Latin America. It’s a feeling of comunidad, one of knowing you’re safe at home in El Barrio and its ever-expanding familia.

ED MORALES is a New York-based journalist who has written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and the Progressive Media Project. He is a former Village Voice staff writer and Newsday columnist. Morales is also the author of two books, Living in Spanglish (St. Martins) and The Latin Beat (Da Capo Press) and co-directed Whose Barrio? (2009) a documentary about the gentrification of East Harlem. He is currently a lecturer at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.

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