Spanish Harlem Going to the Dogs?

I’m a little late on this but the cheery Times “Living In” section appears to have glommed off Whose Barrio doc I co-created as well as channeling Times story I wrote referring to James De La Vega’s painting about the shifting borderline between El Barrio and Upper East through Obama autobiography.
Times story:
Whose Barrio site, which has trailer featuring James Garcia:
My NY Times story, discussing De La Vega:

UPDATE: Perhaps you’re confused about my reference to the De la Vega painting, which once hung at the “Diner Bar,” an early gentrifying space that I’m not sure even exists anymore (and of course we all know that De la Vega left the neighborhood years ago for St. Mark’s Pl.). It turns out that reference was in an early draft of the piece and was later edited out. Just for the heck of it, here is that early draft, which includes much stuff that didn’t make it into print–not accusing NYTimes of censorship here, just part of the “normal editing process.”

In Search of Spanish Harlem

By Ed Morales

When the Metro North trains come rumbling like massive conga drums out of the Park Avenue viaduct at about 96th Street, they draw attention to one of the enduring symbols of racial and class divide in New York City. It’s as if they’re saying, welcome to East Harlem, where hiphop and salsa trumps classical, prime real estate gives way to inner city. The architectural necessity of the viaduct, constructed in the 1840’s, is the primordial source of the real estate mantra, “Manhattan below 96th Street.” But the proverbial face of East Harlem is changing. Whispered buzzwords like Upper Yorkville, Carnegie Hill North, Spa-Ha, are creeping up from the south.

Valente Leal knows a thing or two about northward migration. He is a 14-year-old immigrant from Mexico who’s lived in East Harlem for the last 8 years. The P.S. tk student has a bushy, spiked punk haircut, likes hard rock bands like Korn and Slipknot, is an occasional painter, and wants to be a doctor. Valente’s got a theory about why so many people from south of 96th street are moving in. “Ever since 9-11 there’s all these people from downtown around here,” he says, wide-eyed. “I think they got scared or something.”

While there may be something to Valente’s anecdote, it’s more likely that new faces are appearing in East Harlem because it’s slightly more affordable than the East Village. This summer you could walk up the somewhat less shabby blocks of Lexington Avenue to 104th Street and find a youth hostel, The Manhattan Youth Castle, with neo-bohemians spilling onto the stoop, Mexican restaurants like Puebla and El Paso Taquería, and the Diner Bar, which flaunts the kind of arty white and African American customers you might have found in the East Village about 15 years ago.

But among the paintings hanging on the exposed-brick walls of the Diner Bar is one by local Nuyorican artist James de la Vega. In the painting De la Vega has inscribed this text:

Don’t think for a minute that we haven’t noticed that the 96th Street boundary has moved further north.

Over the last year or so new luxury high-rise developments like the Monterrey, at the corner of Third Avenue, and Carnegie Hill Place, still under construction at 97th and Lexington, are pushing back the ghetto flavor that New York-born Puerto Rican author Piri Thomas immortalized in his 1967 novel “Down These Mean Streets.” The Spanish Harlem of the mind, dotted with world’s greatest cuchifrito (fried Caribbean snacks) stands, stickball clubs, and the old piragueros, men who sell flavored ices from pushcarts, is threatened with extinction.

Many East Harlem natives and most returning college graduates have complained that they have been forced out of the neighborhood. But some like East Harlem Chamber of Commerce President Henry Calderon feel the changes in the neighborhood are part of the process of a long-awaited “development,” a chance to establish middle-class Latino homeownership and entrepreneurism.

It’s easy to picture East Harlem, roughly the area bounded by 125th Street, Fifth Avenue, 96th Street, and the East River, as a parallel case to Central Harlem—a longtime minority stronghold experiences development through corporate investment (by way of government-mandated empowerment zones) and real estate speculation. But East Harlem is Central Harlem’s poor kid brother. It has no world-famous tourist attraction like the Apollo, very few of Harlem’s lauded brownstone properties, and the largest concentration of public housing projects in anywhere in Manhattan. Aside from Tito Puente, it has no historical cultural figures as recognizable as Duke Ellington or Langston Hughes to canonize its essential identity. What’s more, as district leader Felix Rosado would put it, East Harlem is a political orphan because of a lack of continuity in leadership from elected officials, redistricting changes that in some cases cut the neighborhood in half, and an inequitable distribution of funds from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone.

The UMEZ, local critics say, is controlled by U.S. Representative Charles Rangel and a crew of Central Harlem politicians and boosters indifferent to the neighborhood’s needs and cultural identity. “When I go to district leader meetings and say Spanish Harlem,” says Rosado. “[Neighboring City Council district member] Bill Perkins gets up and says East Harlem.” Recently, Rangel has made pronouncements that address the complaints about the Empowerment Zone, and both bureaucrats and community activists hope this bolsters the idea that the area’s biggest asset is its culture. They want to protect the core idea of “Spanish Harlem,” or “El Barrio.” But there are some who feel the neighborhood is going through a natural demographic succession, and Latinos merely resent losing their grip on the neighborhood. Rafael Merino, a self-employed graphic designer who grew up in the Lower East Side and recently moved from Williamsburg doesn’t’ think so. ““It’s not about Latinos losing El Barrio, it’s about New York City losing El Barrio,” said Merino. “This is one of those diverse gems that makes the city what it is.”

Home Is Where the Art Is

Tour buses stop only at Little italy The Barrio of bodegas, botanicas (small shops that sell herbs, potions, and artifacts related to the Afro-Caribbean santería religion), and bomba y plena (traditional Puerto Rican folk music) came into being in the ‘50s, when the Puerto Rican migration, including my own parents, peaked. But the Latino presence in the neighborhood goes back to the turn of the century, when East Harlem was an ethnic patchwork of Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, and African Americans. Over the years, the neighborhood became indispensable to Latinos as a kind of spiritual homeland, where various rites of passage were played out: Pilgrimages to 114th and Park for then-exotic Caribbean vegetables at La Marqueta, an indoor market first enclosed during the La Guardia administration; going to the Valencia Bakery on 104th Street for a birthday cake; dancing mambo at the Park Palace on 110th and 5th Avenue, became essential.

But in the ‘70s the area went into a steep economic decline and depopulation, and the neighborhood’s Latino identity began to take on an ephemeral quality. Stickball “Some of us, if they were lighter skinned, gravitated to a white identity,” said Aurora Flores, a publicist and community activist. “Those who were darker gravitated to a black identity, so it’s become important to us to define our identity.” Ms. Flores is the MC of a weekly Thursday gathering called “Julia’s Jam,” held at the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center at 105th and Lexington. At Julia’s Jam recitations by single mothers and schoolchildren take precedence over slam poets, and the evening culminates in a free-form jam session by the bomba y plena group Yerba Buena, who are sometimes joined by the Dominican folkloric group Palo Monte and the Colombian folksinger Lucia Pulido.

Much of the El Barrio renaissance is centered around art. Administered by the 25-year-old arts organization Taller Boricua, the de Burgos Center is part of a “Cultural Corridor” envisioned by Taller cofounder Fernando Salicrup, who is also a painter and an El Barrio homeowner. Born and raised in the neighborhood, Salicrup is something of a role model for an emerging group of young artists, writers, and musicians that are moving back to the neighborhood. “I learned to be Puerto Rican in this community–I didn’t learn it in Puerto Rico,” said Salicrup. “We want to leave a legacy for our children and create a community with a cultural substance.”

On any random evening in El Barrio, the informal concept of the Cultural Corridor comes alive. In this once crime-plagued central section of the neighborhood, new blood is trying to make what Salman Rushdie would call an “imaginary homeland” a tangible reality. At La Cantina, a tiny taco stand plastered with ‘70s art posters and a couple of rickety tables outside, you can run into Erica Gonzalez or Melissa Mark-Viverito, co-founders of Women of El Barrio, a political watchdog group, or Mariposa, a poet scribbling away in a notebook at the counter. At the corner of 107th and Lexington, the Puerto Rican-born curator Tanya Torres holds Friday night events at the Mixta Gallery, which she has opened on her property. The newly reopened Edwin’s Café (111th & 3rd) and the five-year-old La Fonda Boricua (106th between 3rd and Lexington), both exhibiting Latino art, serve traditional Puerto Rican cuisine.

Further down Lexington, at the intersection of art and commerce, and the new and old East Harlem, is Galeria de la Vega, a storefront gallery/T-shirt shop run by the local artist. De la Vega is curious hybrid between a street kid and an Ivy League-educated guerrilla performance artist.” He surfs between the personas of “mayor of the block,” “eccentric artist” and “entrepreneur” with relative ease. Because he has run tours of El Barrio for outside agencies, has an open mind when it comes to new residents, scrawls incendiary slogans on the sidewalks, and occasionally sports a huge Afro wig and black leather pants, he is the focus of some controversy. “I have a love-hate relationship with this place,” said De la Vega, who grew up in the neighborhood. “Some of the things I write on the sidewalk are a little tough for the people here, and I like to piss them off.”

Someone in the neighborhood has taken such great offense to De La Vega’s act that they painstakingly defaced most of his murals, which are scattered all over East Harlem. Although he doesn’t connect it to the vandalism, De la Vega feels ambivalence about how his art and his shop can attract gentrifying agents to the neighborhood. “As much as I like to promote the concept of this being Spanish Harlem, I also feel that we have to connect with the world in a bigger way,” he said. “But there’s an element here that doesn’t feel I’m doing the right thing, so I feel a little awkward and it forces me to rethink myself sometimes. I know that having the neighborhood support is the base of my appeal.”

De La Vega is not the only flashpoint for conflict around art and identity in the neighborhood. A quick stroll west from the Cultural Corridor, El Museo del Barrio (105th and 5th) has recently been challenged by a small, boisterous group of neighborhood activists, who feel the museum’s has become aloof to community concerns. At the core of their complaints is the way the musuem, which was founded by local Puerto Rican activists in 1969, has changed its mission to focus more on the high art of Latin America. “The change has resulted in the elimination of programs and staff that facilitated communication between the community and the museum,” said consulting curator Yasmin Ramirez. Director Emeritus Susana Torruella Leval admits that “perhaps we failed to communicate in a consistent way with certain members of the community.”

El Museo’s board insists that expanding their mission to encompass all U.S. Latino and Latin American art is a response to demographic changes. “Our new direction has been towards inclusivity,” said Bechara, a native of Puerto Rico. “We’re not neglecting Puerto Ricans—we have the only permanent exhibition on Tainos [indigenous Caribbeans] in the country.” Bechara explained that the museum’s limited space (about 8500 square feet, 30% of which goes to the Taino exhibit), limits the amount of community artists they can show. Museo board member and UMEZ officer Irvine McManus feels that constructing an alliance between the museum and other East Harlem cultural organizations could finally consolidate the idea of the Cultural Corridor. The museum’s space issue could be solved by a move to the present site of the Museum of the City of New York, which may be moving into the Downtown Reconstruction Zone. New media technology, says McManus, could be used to create a permanent exhibit on the El Museo’s community-oriented history.

Mi Casa Is Whose Casa? A growing group of educated and professional Latinos are choosing East Harlem as a place to live and/or work. Writer Nicolasa Mohr, a regular fixture at Julia’s Jam, recently moved into a former schoolhouse on East 108th Street that was converted into duplex lofts. Her apartment is a veritable museum of ‘70s-era Puerto Rican and Nuyorican art, and she sits to write everyday from a sun-bathed alcove. But although Mohr is privileged, she is concerned with keeping her less fortunate neighbors. “I wasn’t happy about all the housing projects years ago,” she said. “But now I’m glad they’re here because you can’t get those people out.”

East Harlem is literally sliced and diced by hulking housing projects, scattered in different sections of the neighborhood and making it difficult to gentrify. Any movement to privatize the projects will be protracted, which buys some time for East Harlem to re-shape itself in a way closer to its self-image. Hope Community, a community development corporation that currently manages 1400 units and oversees about $125 million worth of real estate, sees itself as a buffer between rampant high rents and El Barrio’s lower-income residents. In existence since 1968, Hope Community helped restore the picturesque mural “The Spirit of East Harlem,” on 104th Street and fostered de la Vega’s career–they rent him his gallery space and commissioned some of his murals. “Gentrification is happening in East Harlem, regardless of what we do,” said Hope Community director Mark Alexander. “Our belief is we should be of some influence as the community continues to develop.” Some people in the neighborhood are wary of Hope’s heavy-handedness with some tenants and Alexander’s flexible idea of what constitutes middle income (“anywhere between $45,000 and $150,000 annual household income”). (2001 median income: $14,882 per household)

The current spate of housing construction was triggered by the rampant sale of city-owned land during the Giuliani administration. “A lot of the land that is being built on was land that was cleared by urban renewal programs,” said Arlene Davila, NYU professor and author of the upcoming book Barrio Dreams: Latinos and the Neoliberal City. “Activists argued that the land was cleared for public good and not private homeownership. But the local political leadership envied the townhouse-building that was going on in the Bronx. They asked, do you want us to be a ghetto forever?” “Is every single family in East Harlem going to have a good time of it? No,” said Alexander about future housing opportunities. “But I don’t see it as a wholesale situation of involuntary displacement. The basic character of the neighborhood isn’t gong to undergo wholesale change because most of the underlying housing stock is regulated.”

The New Latino Melting Pot

My father, who lived on First Avenue near 114th Street in the early ‘50s, likes to tell the story of a friend from his hometown in Puerto Rico who came to visit him after emigrating to Chicago. “He adopted some of the Mexican customs they have over there and came to New York wearing a flashy zoot suit,” he said. “He was late, so when I went to check on him, I found him bloodied in the hallway. The Italians had beaten him up.” Forty years later, the Mexicans began arriving in an uninterrupted stream, and after enduring their own beatings from local groups, they settled in to become hardcore El Barrio residents.

The central drag of 116th Street boasts several Mexican restaurants, record shops blaring mariachi and rock en Español, and even a store filled with futbol jerseys. The Mexicans bring such a feeling of new energy into the neighborhood they give some locals the incorrect impression that they are the new majority Latino population. (According to the 2000 census, Puerto Ricans are still the majority by 53% to 17% over Mexicans.) Leaders of both the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities fall all over themselves to express solidarity with the other, but there is little overt interaction. Juan Caceres, the head of social service organizations CECOMEX and Alianza Mexicana, praises Puerto Rican State Senator Olga Mendez. “The Puerto Ricans showed us how to navigate the system–they have the structure and political machinery, and we have benefited mutually.” On the surface, the differences are clear: the jukebox in El Paso Taqueria favors corridos and cumbias over salsa and merengue, and the street kids align themselves in camps that prefer Mexican rockers Jaguares or Puerto Rican rapper Fat Joe. But in the public schools, the kids are creating a new Latino melting pot. Alberto Medina, a Puerto Rican classmate of Valente Leal’s, says, “I play soccer. I eat tacos…my uncle married a Mexican and my other uncle married a Dominican.” Still Mexicans are still generally absent from community power plays, and no direct pol representation.

With the Dominican presence strongest in Washington Heights and Central and South Americans sprinkled throughout Queens, the new Latino melting pot’s logical headquarters is Spanish Harlem. In the shadow of the Zapata and Hector Lavoe murals and cuchifrito joints lies a hoped-for a synergy between cultural identity, commerce, and real estate that will save the Latino character of the neighborhood. It’s going to take a while, but everyone in El Barrio knows that where they’re from, things tend to move a little slower. It’s a place where strangers will say hi to you on the street; where people are tying to hold onto a sense of melody and rhythm that’s defined them for the last 50 years. I can hear it echoing on these streets—it’s a song that calls me back, like a sailor to his old home port. It’s the song of Harlem, Spanish Harlem.



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