East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem and El Barrio, is a section in Harlem in the north-eastern part of the New York City borough of Manhattan. East Harlem is one of the largest predominantly Latino communities in New York City. It includes the area formerly known as Italian Harlem, and still harbors a small Italian American population along Pleasant Avenue. However, since the 1950s it has been dominated by residents of Puerto Rican descent, sometimes called Nuyoricans, as well as large populations of Latin Americans and African-Americans, and a recent influx of young white professionals.
The neighborhood boundaries are Harlem River to the north, the East River to the east, East 96th Street to the south, and 5th Avenue to the west. The neighborhood is part of Manhattan Community Board 11. The primary business hub of East Harlem has historically been East 116th Street from 5th Avenue headed east to its termination at the FDR Drive. The area is patrolled by both the 23rd Precinct located at 162 East 102nd Street and the 25th Precinct located at 120 East 119th Street.
Manhattan Community District 11, which covers East Harlem and a part of the Upper East Side, has a population of 117,743 as of the 2000 US census. Over 25% of the population resides in units managed by the NYCHA. It also has one of the highest concentrations of Puerto Ricans in all of New York City. The vast majority of units in East Harlem are renter-occupied.
The construction of the elevated transit to Harlem in the 1880s urbanized the area, precipitating the construction of apartment buildings and brownstones. Harlem was first populated by German immigrants, but soon after Irish, Italian, and Eastern European Jewish immigrants began settling in Harlem. In East Harlem, Southern Italians and Sicilians soon predominated and the neighborhood became known as Italian Harlem, the Italian American hub of Manhattan. In 1895, Union Settlement Association, one of the oldest settlement houses in New York City, began providing services in the neighborhood, offering the immigrant and low-income residents a range of community-based programs, including boys and girls clubs, a sewing school and adult education classes.
Puerto Rican immigration after the First World War established an enclave at the western portion of Italian Harlem (around 110th Street and Lexington Avenue), which became known as Spanish Harlem. The area slowly grew to encompass all of Italian Harlem as Italians moved out and Hispanics moved in another wave of immigration after the Second World War.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, Italian Harlem was represented by future Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in Congress, and later by Italian-American socialist Vito Marcantonio. Italian Harlem lasted in some parts into the 1970s in the area around Pleasant Avenue. It still celebrates the first Italian feast in New York City, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Some remnants of Italian Harlem, such as Rao’s restaurant, started in 1896, and the original Patsy’s Pizzeria which opened in the 1933, still remain.
East Harlem was one of the hardest hit areas in the 1960s and 1970s as New York City struggled with deficits, race riots, urban flight, drug abuse, crime and poverty. Tenements were crowded, poorly maintained and frequent targets for arson. In 1969 and 1970, a regional chapter of the Young Lords which were reorganized from a neighborhood street gang in Chicago by Jose (Cha-Cha) Jimenez, ran several programs including a Free Breakfast for Children and a Free Health Clinic to help Latino and poor families. The Young Lords coalesced with the Black Panthers and called for Puerto Rican self-determination and neighborhood empowerment. Today the Latin Kings are prevalent in East Harlem.
With the growth of the Hispanic population, the neighborhood is expanding. It is also home to one of the few major television studios north of midtown, Metropolis (106th St. and Park Ave.), where shows like BET’s 106 & Park and Chappelle’s Show have been produced. PRdream.com, the 12-year old, award-winning web site on the history and culture of Puerto Ricans, altered the cultural landscape of East Harlem with the founding of its new media gallery and digital film studio called MediaNoche in 2003. MediaNoche (www.medianoche.us) continues to present technology-based art on Park Avenue and 102nd Street, providing exhibition space and residencies for artists and filmmakers working in new media. They regularly web cast events and PRdream.com (www.prdream.com) continues to collect oral histories and conduct screenings.
Major medical care providers include Metropolitan Hospital Center, North General Hospital and Mount Sinai Hospital, which serves residents of East Harlem and the Upper East Side. Many of the graduates of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine have pursued careers in public health initiatives critical to East Harlem, including the battle against asthma, diabetes, unsafe drinking water, lead paint and infectious diseases.
Many famous artists have lived and worked in East Harlem, including the renowned timbalero TITO PUENTE (110th Street was renamed “Tito Puente Way”), Jazz legend RAY BARRETTO and one of Puerto Rico’s most famous poets, JULIA DE BURGOS among others. Two famous film actors AL PACINO and BURT LANCASTER was born on 108th Street and 105th Street respectively. In 2008 CULLEN DORN wrote and won two awards for his autobiographical novel, “The Hierophant Of 100th Street”. And PIRI THOMAS wrote a best-selling autobiography titled, “Down These Mean Streets” in 1967. Also the contemporary artist SORAYDA MARTINEZ, the painter and creator of “Verdadism,” was born in East Harlem in 1956. Most recently, Assemblyman NELSON ANTONIO DENIS wrote and directed Vote For Me!, a feature film about East Harlem politics.
The Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts, home to the Raices Latin Music Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate, serves as a focus for theatre, dance, and musical performance in the neighborhood, as well as its hosting the annual competition to award the Charlie Palmieri Memorial Piano Scholarship, a scholarship established in Palmieri’s memory by Tito Puente for the benefit of intermediate and advanced young (12-25) pianists’ study of Latin-style piano.
El Museo del Barrio, a museum of Latin American and Caribbean art and culture is located on nearby Museum Mile and endeavors to serve some of the cultural needs of the neighboring community. The Museum of the City of New York is immediately south, followed by the New York Academy of Medicine. The Conservatory Garden is just across Fifth Avenue from the museums. The Museum for African Art will join these to the north at Duke Ellington Circle. There is a diverse collection of religious institutions in East Harlem: from mosques, a Greek Orthodox monastery, several Roman Catholic churches, including Church of the Holy Rosary (New York City), and a traditional Russian Orthodox church. A former church was transformed into the home of the National Museum of Catholic Art and History.
Despite the moniker of “Spanish Harlem” or “El Barrio,” the region is now home to a new influx of immigrants from around the world. Yemeni merchants, for example, work in local convenience stores alongside immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Italians live next to the influx of Central and South American immigrant populations. Other businessmen and local neighbors can be Korean, Chinese or Haitian in origin. The rising price of living in Manhattan has also caused increasing numbers of young urban professionals, mainly white, to move in and take advantage of the inexpensive rents, relative to the adjacent neighborhoods of Yorkville and Carnegie Hill.
Despite attempts by some businesses and residents to use trendy and gentrification-safe marks such as “SpaHa,” or “Upper Yorkville,” a growing Mexican and Spanish population (in addition to Central and South Americans and Caribbeans) are ensuring the continued use of the “Spanish Harlem,” or “El Barrio” designation to this community. Many non-Hispanics new to the neighborhood also respect the traditional names.
The entirety of the feature film Vote For Me! takes place in current-day East Harlem, and was written and directed by New York State Assemblyman Nelson Antonio Denis. Philippe Bourgois spent time in El Barrio and wrote an ethnography, called “In Search of Respect”, with the help of a few key people in the crack-selling subculture of El Barrio. Spanish Harlem was recognized in the Ben E. King’s R&B song, “Spanish Harlem,” The Mamas & the Papas’ song, “Spanish Harlem,” and in Louie Ramirez’s Latin soul song, “Lucy’s Spanish Harlem,” as well as being the source of the title for the Bob Dylan song “Spanish Harlem Incident.” It was also mentioned in Elton John’s song “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” and Carlos Santana’s songs “Maria Maria” and “Smooth.” Jim Jones, a native from Harlem, makes reference to the area in his song “Harlem.”
The area is also the setting for the J.D. Robb book Salvation in Death, the 27th book in the popular in Death crime series.
East Harlem has significantly higher drop-out rates and incidents of violence in its schools. Students must pass through metal detectors and swipe ID cards to enter the buildings. Other problems in local schools include low test scores and high truancy rates. Nevertheless, since 1982, the community has been home to the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics.
Among the public charter schools is the Harlem Success Academy and Girls Prep East Harlem is being planned.
Social problems associated with poverty from crime to drug addiction have also affected the area for some time. Crime rates have dropped significantly—more than 70% since 1990 in the two police precincts covering East Harlem.
In 2009 there were three homicides in the 25th Precinct, covering East Harlem north of 116th Street, compared with 35 in 1990. In the 23rd Precinct, the part of East Harlem between 96th and 116th Street, homicides declined from 31 in 1990 to 9 in 2009. Other major crimes also declined significantly during that period.
Drug addiction is also a serious problem in the community. While the neighborhood suffers from a high poverty rate, with many persons below the poverty level, its great population density gives the community a strong, aggregate purchasing power.
Union Settlement Association is one of the neighborhood’s largest social service agencies, reaching more than 13,000 people annually at 17 locations throughout East Harlem, through a range of programs, including early childhood education, youth development, senior services, job training, the arts, adult education, nutrition, counseling, a farmers’ market, community development, and neighborhood cultural events.
A lack of access to healthy food causes serious hardships to citizens of East Harlem, a neighborhood considered to be a food desert. According to an April, 2008 report prepared by the New York City Department of City Planning, East Harlem is an area of the city with the highest levels of diet-related diseases due to limited opportunities for citizens to purchase fresh foods. With a high population density and a lack of nearby supermarkets, the neighborhood has little access to fresh fruits and vegetables and a low consumption of fresh foods. Citizens of East Harlem are likely to buy food from discount and convenience stores that have a limited supply of fruits and vegetables, which are often of poor quality and generally more expensive than the same products sold at supermarkets. Supermarkets in Harlem are 30 percent less common, and only 3 percent of local convenience stores in Harlem carry leafy green vegetables as compared to 20 percent on the Upper East Side. Without access to affordable produce and meats, East Harlem residents have difficulty eating a healthy diet, which contributes to high rates of obesity and diabetes
“Residents of …East and Central Harlem …are largely limited to fast food restaurants and small bodegas as food sources, which primarily carry packaged foods and have limited fresh produce options. Area residents have also identified the need for more fitness options, particularly for youth and seniors. These inequities have resulted in health disparities and high rates of obesity.”
In order to address the issues of healthy food access in East Harlem, the East Harlem Supermarket Task Force was created in April, 2008. Spearheaded by New York Senator José M. Serrano and State Assemblymember Adam C. Powell IV, the task force includes the Coalition Against Hunger, the Department of Health, We Act, Mt. Sinai Hospital, Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500.
After a wave of arson ravaged the low income communities of New York City throughout the 1970s and “planned shrinkage” policies, many of the residential structures in East Harlem were left seriously damaged or destroyed. By the late 1970s, the city began to rehabilitate many abandoned tenement style buildings and designate them low income housing.
From 1996 to 2000, State Assemblyman Nelson Antonio Denis enacted reforms that broke down the “Berlin Wall of Bank Lending” between East Harlem and directly adjacent communities. Through Community Reinvestment Act legislation, public hearings, press conferences, CRA testimony throughout New York State and Washington, D.C., and advocacy on the New York State Assembly Banking Committee, Assemblyman Denis compelled banks to double their lending to home owners and small business persons in East Harlem, the Bronx, and other distressed areas throughout New York State.
Assemblyman Denis cemented these gains by invoking the 1975 Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) and conducting a census tract by census tract study, of CRA compliance in the 68th Assembly District and other underserved communities.
Go Green East Harlem! is a collaborative initiative sponsored by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s Office. Go Green partners include WE ACT, North General Hospital, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, the City Department of Health, Manhattan Community Board 11, State Senator Jose Serrano, and the Little Sisters of the Assumption. Go Green aims to create community sustainability and is working to address six environmental issues in East Harlem: public health and asthma, parks and open space, sustainable business, farmers’ markets and healthy eating, green building, and transportation. Go Green also recently launched a new East Harlem Green Market, open both Saturday and Sunday, to expand community access to healthy, fresh food.
Recognizing the need for access to recreational facilities in East Harlem, English football club Manchester City, in partnership with the embassy of the UAE, funded, planned, designed and built a rooftop soccer pitch on the roof of the PS 72 Lexington Academy. The pitch was formally opened in July 2010.
In recent years, property values in East Harlem have climbed along with those in the rest of the Manhattan and the metro area. Many people priced out of more affluent sections of the city have begun to look at East Harlem as an up and coming area due to the neighborhood’s proximity to Manhattan’s core and subway accessibility. With increased market rate housing, including luxury condos and co-ops, there has been a severe decline of affordable housing in the community.White non-Hispanic young professionals have settled in the newly constructed buildings. Fear of a wave of gentrification displacing current low income and long time residents has created tension in the community.
The southern tier of East Harlem has gentrified in recent decades, which has earned it several nicknames, including “SpaHa”, “Upper Upper East Side”, and “Upper Yorkville”
East Harlem is dominated by public housing complexes of various types. There is a high concentration of older tenement buildings between these developments. Newly constructed apartment buildings have been constructed on vacant lots in the area. The neighborhood contains the highest geographical concentration of low income public housing projects in the United States. The total land area is 1.54 square miles (4.0 km2).