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East Harlem sustains two ongoing and often competing narratives of
urbanism: one inscribed in concrete and the other in flesh. People conform
to the built environment just as the built environment conforms to people
over the course of generations and centuries. The story of East Harlem is
written in the sidewalks and storefronts, the abandoned buildings and
corner bodegas, the public school yards and project courtyards as much
as it is written in the lives of Puerto Ricans and African Americans, Italians
and Mexicans, new immigrants and old. To understand East Harlem, one
must understand how these two narratives fit together, how people transform
the streets and how the streets transform the people.
Between 96th and 125th Streets, Fifth Avenue and the East River, East
Harlem lies just beyond the printed boundaries of most tourist maps and
the imaginations of most Manhattan residents. There, in little more than
two hundred city blocks, live more than one hundred thousand people.
Italian, Puerto Rican, African American, Mexican, West African, Chinese,
and more than two dozen other national and ethnic groups constitute
one of the most diverse communities in New York City.
What follows is a biographyof the neighborhood, a dual narrative of
place and people that extends through time but is limited to a very specific
space. The people introduced in each chapter model the ethnic distinctions
that divide the neighborhood. There is the old guard: Pete, one
of the last Italian holdouts on the same block as Rao's famous Italian
restaurant; José, a second-generation Puerto Rican resident who fled the
crime of the 1980s, only to return more committed than ever to El Barrio;
and Lucille, an African American living in the shadow of the other
Harlem and standing up to the daily demoralizations of public housing.
There are more recent immigrants who seem likely to change the face of
the community as drastically as earlier arrivals: Maria, an undocumented
Mexican who has run the gauntlet of La Frontera, twice, to be a
hairstylist in East Harlem; Mohamed, who came to New York from
Guinea to open his own store just down the avenue from the mosque on
96th Street; and Si Zhi, a civil engineer from China whose night-shift job
in the lobby of a Times Square hotel paid for his own building in the
neighborhood. Finally, there are the newest immigrants to East Harlem,
upwardly mobile whites fleeing downtown rent increases and settling in
the newly renovated buildings that anticipated an expanding market.
The new migration is most visible in the refurbished buildings, new commercial
franchises, and new upscale restaurants featuring live jazz. But
urban renewal comes at a price as Pete, José, Lucille, Maria, Mohamed,
and Si Zhi face the looming uncertainty of market fluctuations and their
ability to hang on in a moment of cataclysmic change.
East Harlem is a community defined by the attachments of its inhabitants.
The life stories that I present explore how roots sink so deep so
quickly in a community that has always hosted the city's most recent
arrivals, how new immigrants challenge the claims of the old, and how
that cycle is now threatened as never before by the specter of gentrification.
But first, let us take a tour of the neighborhood.
BLOCK BY BLOCK ...
An oversized concrete mosque dominates the corner of 96th Street and
Third Avenue. Still unfinished but obviously thriving, the mosque is one
of several institutions that mark the physical boundaries of the neighborhood.
A few blocks away, between Second and First Avenues, stands
Metropolitan Hospital, a large public institution that serves the majority
of residents who have little or no health care coverage. On the opposite
border, nestled in the most affluent corner of East Harlem on Fifth
Avenue, lies Mt. Sinai Hospital. Mt. Sinai is an even larger voluntary hospital,
serving the well-to-do of the Upper East Side and the few well
insured of East Harlem. These buildings at the southern border of East
Harlem mark off the barrio and stand out from the largely undifferentiated
low-slung buildings of the neighborhood.
Standing next to the mosque, at the top of the hill on 96th Street that
descends down into East Harlem, you can tell it's Friday by the black Lincoln
Town Cars triple-parked along Third Avenue. The cars, lined up like
a UN motorcade or a dignitary's funeral procession, wait for their owners
to finish their afternoon prayers. They are the "gypsy cabs" that serve
East Harlem and neighborhoods like it. The ubiquitous yellow taxis of
Manhattan rarely cross the border at 96th Street without a paying customer
already inside, usually headed for La Guardia Airport via the Triboro
Bridge at 125th Street and First Avenue. Instead, the streets of East
Harlem teem with the dark sedans of gypsy cab drivers, tapping their
horns at each intersection to interest potential customers. The gypsy cabs
are driven mostly by entrepreneurial West Africans who have managed
to save enough cash to buy a car and work as illicit "wholesale" vendors
on the streets. They offer reliable car service to local residents based on
negotiated rates. With no meters and little regulation, the gypsy cabs are
as illegal as street vendors, but the city has long abdicated control over
this niche of the informal economy.
North along Third Avenue, past the mosque and Metropolitan Hospital,
the street level is dominated by the thriving commerce of 99-cent
stores, corner bodegas, discount clothing stores, and fast-food restaurants.
Sidewalks, split by weather and speckled with spit and chewing
gum, are crowded with merchandise spilling from the open doors of discount
stores and the folding tables of temporary merchants. Sweat suits
and evening gowns, underwear and overcoats hang on racks and lie in
bins, selling two for one and guarded by employees lounging in chairs
held together with duct tape and speaker wire. Music tumbles from windows
above and cars below-salsa, soul, rap, and reggae-blending with
the Spanish, English, Mandarin, and Wolof spoken and catcalled from
the vendors and customers. The smells of snow cones and bacalaito,
uncollected garbage and fresh-cut flowers combine. Jewelry stores, pawn
shops, hardware stores, dry cleaners, liquor stores, and pharmacies mark
the distance from one block to the next. There is now a McDonald's every
seven blocks from 96th to 125th Street.
And there, at almost every corner, often obscured by dumpsters and
scaffolding, are the public galleries of urban art. Some bear the scars of
turf wars, the "tagging" of graffiti writers, but most display a more discrete
mural art aesthetic. Many mark buildings with the portraits of
entertainers, an homage to the rap artist Biggie Smalls or the salsa king
Tito Puente. Others carry explicitly political themes, declaring Puerto
Rican independence or protesting the bombing of Vieques. One artist
dominates this genre, a young Puerto Rican named James de la Vega who
has left his mark in religious, pop cultural, and art historical iconography
throughout the neighborhood. But the most common form of public
mural art is often the most transient, the RIPs, or Rest in Peace murals,
that mark the sites of violence. The colorful collages of the deceased's
likeness along with the symbols of the person's passions or an ode composed
by a loved one serve as semipermanent reminders of loss. Most of
these are charred by the soot of temporary altars fashioned from cardboard
boxes, votive candles, and liquor bottles.
Above, the skyline is a low-lying, seven-story maximum, occasionally
disrupted by the towering public housing projects at 98th, 106th, 110th,
112th, and 125th Streets. The lower buildings display an arresting array
of color above the bacchanal of commerce at street level. Old tenements
of green, blue, red, and white form orderly canyons, guiding the streets
and avenues as they neatly dissect the neighborhood. Rising high above
are the housing projects. The drab, muddy brick monoliths seem naked
and unfinished, like foundation posts for some impossibly larger building.
And the taller, more obtrusive buildings not only disrupt the riot of
color; they also disrupt the orderly grid the older, smaller buildings work
so hard to maintain. Organized around so-called superblocks, the housing
projects razed micro-communities and closed off streets to create
building complexes centered on green spaces. Heralded as a miracle of
modern urban planning and a model for democratic housing, the projects
were given names like Jefferson, Washington, and Johnson. But with
no stores and no restaurants, the superblocks killed off the street life and
quickly turned their green spaces into some of the most fearsome real
estate in the city.
The steady march north past short blocks and narrow streets is
arrested at 106th Street, the first of two wide, two-way streets that intersect
the neighborhood. On the corner of 106th Street and Third Avenue
there are the telltale signs of relatively recent economic investment: KFC,
Blockbuster, and a shiny new chain pharmacy. But there are also the
indelible marks of the Puerto Rican community, the midcentury immigration
trend that turned East Harlem into Spanish Harlem and El Barrio.
La Fonda Boriqua sits just behind Blockbuster Video, serving up
Puerto Rican comfort food to the local literati. And just down the street,
at Lexington Avenue, is the heart of Puerto Rican East Harlem.
The 197-APlan to revitalize East Harlem developed by the community
board, calls the intersection of 106th Street and Lexington Avenue the
"Cultural Crossroads." On one corner stands the Julia de Burgos Cultural
Center, a somewhat controversial private enterprise that houses an
upscale art gallery, music studio, and performance space. On Thursday
nights the renovated public school building plays host to "Julia's Jam,"
an open mike event for Bomba y Plena music and Nuyorican poetry. Just
next door is the spiritual anchor for the Latino Catholic community, St.
Cecilia's Church. The large, ruddy red brick building dominates the
block and still offers most of its services in Spanish. St. Cecilia's also
houses Opus 118, the violin program made famous by Meryl Streep's
film Music of the Heart. Across the street is Metropolitan Studios, new
home to Black Entertainment Television. Facing St. Cecilia's Church and
the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center, Metropolitan Studios is a physical
reminder of the African American presence in the community, most
notably in its highly rated video music program, "106th and Park."
West of the Cultural Crossroads, at 106th Street and Park Avenue, a
third of East Harlem is sliced off by the elevated Metro North railway.
Bursting from underneath the streets of the Upper East Side at 98th Street,
the chunky granite and steel viaduct carries office-weary workers north to
Westchester and beyond. Gliding across the cityscape at the roofline, commuters
are carried swiftly over and through the neighborhood that was
founded in part to house the workers that built the tracks. Down below,
the arches carved through stone at each intersection gape like forbidden
caves, daring pedestrians to enter their unlit murky passageways. Stalactites
of unidentifiable ooze hang overhead, and the stench of human waste
hurries most against the light and into oncoming traffic.
Back into daylight and on toward the western border, the institutional
buildings of public housing, public schools, and the hinterlands of Mt.
Sinai Hospital mark the way toward the northern edge of Central Park
and the famed Museum Mile. On the right, a public school yard is an
assault of color. The graffiti "wall of fame" was designed to channel the
creative energy of so-called urban vandals. Arotating mishmash of style
and theme, the ball court-turned-outdoor gallery stands as an open-air,
contested counterpoint to the institutionalization of art and "culture"
awaiting at Fifth Avenue.
Fifth Avenue, known as Museum Mile because of its elite institutions,
includes the Guggenheim and the Met. But two museums mark the
western boundary of East Harlem at Fifth Avenue: the Museum of the City
of New York at 104th Street and El Museo del Barrio at 105th Street. Like
the mosque and the hospitals that guard the southern border, these two
institutions of history and art face the western approach. Both occupy
grand buildings on the avenue, and both face the Conservatory Garden,
one of the most secluded and peaceful gated gardens of Central Park. But
each has its own relationship to the neighborhood: one a museum of New
York that blurs the line between city and community; the other a museum
of the community that redraws the lines of division through art and
A few blocks north of the two museums, a small brick plaza redirects
traffic around the corner of Fifth Avenue and 110th Street. Lifted high
above the street on a platform supported by figures of nude women,
Duke Ellington stands regally next to a baby grand piano. The monument
anchors the southwest corner of Central Harlem, the capital of
Black America, where Duke Ellington reigned as most influential musician.
But Duke does not face Harlem. He gazes across the other half of
that traffic circle, which remains starkly empty of any similar memorial,
into East Harlem. When Tito Puente died just three years after the installation
of the Duke Ellington statue, Puerto Ricans were quick to rename
110th Street Tito Puente Way, and plans were set in motion to erect a
statue, facing Duke, of Tito and his timbales.
A few blocks east, past the trestle of the Metro North railway at Park
Avenue, is the intersection of 110th Street and Lexington Avenue, perhaps
the most infamous corner in East Harlem. In the 1980s this was the
epicenter of the crack cocaine catastrophe that rocked New York City.
Made infamous by Philippe Bourgois's book In Search of Respect, the corner
has long been known by locals as a haunt for drug dealers and violence.
Even the post office located at the intersection seems to echo this
mystique with the ominous "Hell Gate Station" emblazoned above its
Since the beginning of the 1990s, the intersection of 110th and Lexington
has made a slow climb out of disrepute. Thanks in part to an improved
economy and more effective policing, the area has witnessed a few more
of its abandoned buildings-cum-crack houses transformed into restaurants,
grocery stores, and bodegas. Even the public library on 110th got a
much-needed face-lift. Though drugs now change hands out of sight for
the most part, the corner remains a constant reminder that East Harlem is
a few subway stops and a world away from the rest of Manhattan.
Up the narrow canyon of Lexington Avenue, the thick odor of deep-fried
food fills the air. Local cuchifritos entice pedestrians with greasy clear
plastic facades filled with stacks of deep-fried fare distinguished only
by size and shape. Chinese restaurants, most no wider than the door itself,
serve up lo mein, chicken wings, and fried plantains to go, trying
to keep up with the tastes of the neighborhood. And there is the ever-popular
fast-food knockoff, like Kennedy Fried Chicken with its oddly
familiar red-and-white logo, that offers the eponymous poultry along
with pizza, burgers, and the occasional egg roll, all prepared behind the
safety of Plexiglas. Plexiglas does a thriving business in East Harlem.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the liquor stores that are as
common in the neighborhood as intersections. Open later than most
businesses, liquor stores are easy to spot at night, casting their fluorescent
glow onto the sidewalk and street, collecting three or four loiterers
like moths to a flame. Inside, the retail stores have the feel of a wholesale
distributor, their wares displayed in bulk behind a wall of Plexiglas. Customers
mill about in one or two lines, waiting for their turns at the plastic
lazy Susan that spins away their money and spins back a bottle of
Hennessey, Pisco, or wine.
Farther up the street you will likely find another mainstay in the local
small business economy, the botanica. One-stop shopping for syncretic
Catholicism, botanicas cater to the Old Country beliefs of older Puerto
Rican immigrants. Window displays are public folk art museums, with
effigies, icons, amulets, and artifacts. Inside, a busy Caribbean market
brought indoors, bins full of herbs, pots for potions, and all manner of
incendiary magic crowd the narrow aisles. Votive candles, slender glass
holders filled with colored wax and painted with images of worship, are
on offer for every occasion-one for a prayer to the Virgin Mary, another
for St. Jude, and even one with a space for filling in a lottery number with
a magic marker.
Excerpted from The Tenants of East Harlem
by Russell Leigh Sharman
Copyright © 2006 by The Regents of the University of California.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
2.Pleasant Avenue: The Italians
3. 106th Street: The Puerto Ricans
4. 125th Street: The African Americans
5. 116th Street: The Mexicans
6. Third Avenue: The West Africans
7. Second Avenue: The Chinese
8. Urban “Renewal” and the Final Migration