Barrio Dreams: Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and the Neoliberal City

Barrio Dreams: Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and the Neoliberal City

by Arlene Dávila

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Arlene Dávila brilliantly considers the cultural politics of urban space in this lively exploration of Puerto Rican and Latino experience in New York, the global center of culture and consumption, where Latinos are now the biggest minority group. Analyzing the simultaneous gentrification and Latinization of what is known as El Barrio or Spanish Harlem, Barrio Dreams makes a compelling case that—despite neoliberalism's race-and ethnicity-free tenets—dreams of economic empowerment are never devoid of distinct racial and ethnic considerations.

Dávila scrutinizes dramatic shifts in housing, the growth of charter schools, and the enactment of Empowerment Zone legislation that promises upward mobility and empowerment while shutting out many longtime residents. Foregrounding privatization and consumption, she offers an innovative look at the marketing of Latino space. She emphasizes class among Latinos while touching on black-Latino and Mexican-Puerto Rican relations. Providing a unique multifaceted view of the place of Latinos in the changing urban landscape, Barrio Dreams is one of the most nuanced and original examinations of the complex social and economic forces shaping our cities today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520937727
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/02/2004
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 271
Lexile: 1570L (what's this?)
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Arlene Dávila is Associate Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at New York University. She is the author of Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People (California, 2001) and Sponsored Identities: Cultural Politics in Puerto Rico (1997) and coeditor of Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York (2001).

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Barrio Dreams

Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and the Neoliberal City
By Arlene Davila

The University of California Press

Copyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-24092-8


Barrio Business, Barrio Dreams

"This is not an antipoverty program," repeated New York City congressman Charles Rangel to a beleaguered audience of East Harlemites, mostly Black and Puerto Rican, in an informational forum on Empowerment Zone (EZ) legislation. Once again, the initiative he himself had helped design to revitalize distressed inner-city communities through economic investment and incentives was the subject of much reproach and criticism. In particular, East Harlem Latinos felt that they and their community had been neglected by the initiative. But Rangel was adamant: "This is not about your dreams. This is about business, profit, and jobs." Only projects that prove to be profitable and "entrepreneurial" would be considered for funding. But he was speaking at the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center in March 2002, itself the product of civil rights struggles of the 1970s, not to mention state distribution programs to quench political claims. The audience could still remember a time when cultural demands commanded economic resources and political valence. But there was little that could be done. Coffee and biscuits had been served, themeeting was called back to order, and break-out sessions were about to start. Some sat anxiously through the forum while others swiftly departed in protest.

One of the central contradictions in East Harlem is the treatment of culture as industry to attract jobs, business, and profits and the simultaneous disavowal of ethnicity and race as grounds for equity and representation. Meanwhile ethnicity and race are in fact the bases on which urban spatial transformations are being advanced and contested. The resulting struggles around space, representation, and identity not only reveal strategies of contemporary Latino cultural politics but also the place of culture in the structuring of space.

This book examines the cultural politics of urban space in New York's East Harlem (also known as El Barrio or Spanish Harlem) in the context of rapid gentrification and social change. I foreground gentrification and the neoliberal policies that favor privatization and consumption alongside the increasing "Latinization" of U.S. cities. These processes are overtaking cities throughout the United States and beyond, and are vividly at play in New York City, a global center of culture and consumption, where Latinos, at 27 percent of the population, now constitute the biggest minority group. Put simply, Home Depot, Starbucks, and Soho-like museums are coming to El Barrio, confronting residents with disparate and competing agendas for their future. Spurring these contests is an increasingly tight real-estate market, which has attracted new residential and commercial tenants to predominantly Black and Latino Upper Manhattan neighborhoods such as Harlem, East Harlem, and the South Bronx. State and federal government policies, such as the Upper Manhattan EZ, have served as catalysts for outside development, displacing in the process local businesses and residents. Even the politics of multiculturalism have arguably helped erode the borders that once maintained these communities as ethnic enclaves, rendering their once despised differences into potential ethnic or historical attractions. At issue is the meaning of the ostensible "Latinization" of U.S. cities when the displacement of Latino populations is simultaneous and even expedited by this very process. At stake 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.

In part, these dynamics are not at all new. Latino/a communities have long been outcomes of struggles between developers and residents' resistance practices for space (Acuna 1988; Villa 2000; Leclerc et al. 1999). This is true of East Harlem, a major target of urban renewal policies since the 1940s. After all, gentrification-whether called renewal, revitalization, upgrading, or uplifting-always involves the expansion and transformation of neighborhoods through rapid economic investment and population shifts, and yet it is equally implicated with social inequalities (Delaney 1999; Logan and Molotch 1988; Neil Smith 1996; Williams 1988). While a complex and multifaceted process, it is also characterized by the re-signification of neighborhoods to be rendered attractive and marketable to new constituencies through the development of museums, tourist destinations, and other entertainment venues that characterize global cities like New York (Zukin 1995; Judd and Feinstein 1999; Lin 1998). I suggest, however, that the specificity of contemporary processes of gentrification and neoliberal policies pose challenging questions about the operations of culture in the spatial politics of contemporary cities, and about the growing interplay between culture as ethnicity and as marketable industry. Moreover struggles over El Barrio can help reveal the place and prospects for Latinos in the neoliberal city, particularly in communities where they have had a long history and continue to be a visible majority.

I am especially concerned with the intersections between current development initiatives and people's dreams and aspirations to place. I suggest that veiled in culture-and intricately invested in issues of class and consumption-proposals for tourism, home-ownership programs, and even the EZ become implicated with people's ethnic and class identities in multiple and contradictory ways. As such, they prompt questions about the intersection of culture, ethnicity, class, and consumption in development debates, while underscoring that so-called race-neutral policies are never devoid of racial and ethnic considerations. For instance, central to current transformations in El Barrio is the cleansing and disassociation of the area from its marginal past, processes that many residents have in fact contributed to as part of their upwardly mobile aspirations for themselves and for El Barrio. By supporting consumption and entertainment projects, such as museums and home-ownership programs, residents are furthering gentrification and increasing prices in East Harlem, thereby hindering their own future claims to the area. A closer look at people's embrace of these projects, and of the same discourse of marketing and business that seem to threaten El Barrio and its history, however, shows motivations and aspirations at play that are different from those promoted by current developments. For one, it is the prospect of bridging culture as industry and as ethnicity that heartens residents' efforts, that is, a longing to align economic empowerment with particularized identities. Despite neoliberalism's supposedly race- and ethnicity-free tenets, dreams of economic empowerment are thus never devoid of distinct racial and ethnic aspirations. People's engagements with contemporary projects reveal as much about the intricacies of gentrification and the neoliberal policies that currently fuel it as they do of this community's history and aspirations (cultural, political, economically, and otherwise) in a rapidly changing landscape. This work sorts through similar disjunctions in order to critically assess the workings of the neoliberal city in light of East Harlemites' continuous claims for representation and place.

Strategies of marketing and re-signification are as central to the transformation of landscapes as they are to people's negotiations and contestations of space. Culture will thus surface as an important resource of development, and as a significant challenge. In this way, I wish to complicate dominant frameworks used to talk about gentrification and displacement, where culture and discourses of identity are primarily seen as defiant challenges to gentrification, not as resources that can be situationally put to its service. In particular, I explore how Puerto Rican and Latino culture and discourses of Latinidad figure as both objects of and challenges to entrepreneurial strategies and processes of gentrification. These are dynamics that have reverberations wherever "Latinized" cities are pitted against processes of gentrification, where there is little choice but to maneuver among entrepreneurial-based urban developments, whose control, this book shows, is beyond people's everyday influence.

My focus on Latinos is purposeful and part of a growing literature intended to disturb the dominant tenet of urban studies, where issues of race and ethnicity are consistently subsumed to a black-and-white paradigm that veils the complex multiethnic/multiracial dilemmas of contemporary cities. Public discussions of gentrification in Harlem, for instance, continually subsume East Harlem into Harlem, erasing the significant number of Latino populations in the greater Harlem area, not to mention the centrality of El Barrio's Latino history among Puerto Ricans and Latinos, who, at more than 52 percent, are the largest population segment in East Harlem. Indeed, the meaning of East Harlem to Latinos, especially to Puerto Ricans, is similar to African American perceptions of Harlem, the "Black capital of the world," even if this meaning is not as widely known beyond the borders of El Barrio. Geographical definitions of East Harlem, however, vary according to political or planning designations, though for the purposes of this work East Harlem will be defined as it was understood by most of my informants: bounded by Ninety-sixth and 142nd streets, Fifth Avenue, and the East River. This is a section that is included in the Manhattan Community District designations, but is not defined solely on these administrative bases. But beyond its geographical limits, El Barrio is defined in relation to its Puerto Rican, and increasingly, Latino history, as well as in relation to West and Central Harlem, the well known Black culture stronghold to the west, and in relation to the upscale and mostly white neighborhood of the Upper East Side to the south. These rigid racial/spatial identifications prevailed in people's discussions even though in practice these boundaries were always more fluid. This work focuses primarily on Puerto Ricans and Latinos and their claims to El Barrio, but keen as I am also to elucidate the intersection of race, ethnicity, and processes of gentrification, I will also touch on intra-Latino relations, and relations among Latinos, African Americans, and other residents of El Barrio. I am concerned mostly with the specificity of current racial, ethnic, and spatial conflicts in the area, which I suggest become exacerbated by the cultural bases of many contemporary development initiatives at the very time that intraethnic and racial alliances among minorities are most impending and most needed.

El Barrio/East Harlem is a key site to examine these dynamics, given the area's renown as a symbol of Latinidad and its contested public meanings disseminated in the social science literature and in the media at large. A community with a long, multicultural immigrant history, as formerly a Jewish, Eastern European, and Italian enclave, East Harlem's Latino/a identity spans the early 1900s and peaks in the 1950s with the massive immigration of Puerto Ricans spurred by the island's industrialization program and the government-sanctioned migration of destitute agricultural workers into the States (Andreu Iglesias 1984; Sanchez-Korrol 1983). Soon thereafter East Harlem became a chief example of ghetto culture, an identity consolidated through representations in the media and in the social sciences literature. The archetype ethnic enclave, or the " island within the city" and the paragon of Puerto Ricans' "culture of poverty," East Harlem is also the site of numerous anthropological studies of lower-income urban enclaves, as well as of journalistic exposes of crime, urban blight, and poverty.

Conversely, El Barrio is also the nostalgically celebrated barrio of Puerto Rican fiction writers, and the site of transnationally important Puerto Rican events, such as Puerto Rican festivals and landmarks ranging from casitas (brightly colored "little houses" evoking Caribbean architecture) to murals to fiction, each serving as a recourse of identity for Puerto Ricans in and beyond New York. El Barrio is also home to key images of "urban" Latino culture, often appropriated as background in Jennifer Lopez music videos or Sports Illustrated modeling shoots, and most recently, the backdrop to Fox's controversial new ghettocentric Latino-themed comedy show Luis. Most important, the area continues to serve as a reservoir of immigrants and vulnerable workers. It is home to one of the largest concentrations of Mexicans, the fastest growing immigrant group in the United States. The neighborhood's past and present thus provide key sites in which to explore the re-signification of ethnicity and marginality as well as the different interests now vested in struggles over El Barrio/East Harlem, which involve claims to physical space and the shaping of the past, present, and future meanings of the area. Such struggles are already evident in the emergent names circulated for the area, each registering contesting claims to space, a common index of the gentrifying process (Mele 2000). Names as varied as "Upper Yorkville" and "Upper Carnegie Hill," which link East Harlem to the bordering upscale neighborhood of the Upper East Side, or alternatively, "Yukieville," which mocks such attempts, increasingly complement the more traditional and still debated names of El Barrio, Spanish Harlem, and East Harlem. This work will use the area's official and colloquial name of East Harlem and El Barrio interchangeably, though a recurrent concern is to sort through the politics and the claims embedded in the growing preference among Puerto Rican and Latino residents for "El Barrio" as part of political statements of assertion in the face of gentrification.

Adding to my interest in East Harlem is the recent development and expediency of social transformations in the area amid continued poverty and inequality. Some numbers are illustrative here. Following a consistent decline since the 1970s, East Harlem's population grew for the first time throughout the 1990s to stand at 117,743 in the 2000 census; the number of housing units built in the area also increased. And while still lagging behind the medium household income for New York City ($38,293), East Harlem's medium grew to $21,295. This represents the most significant rise in a figure that had been lagging in the low and midteens for decades. Similar increases are seen in residents' levels of educational attainment: Although lagging behind greater Manhattan rates, high school graduation rates (56 percent of the population in 2000)show steady increases since the 1980s. The inequalities are particularly stark the closer one gets to the affluent Upper East Side, with some census tracks displaying among the greatest income gaps in the entire city between the affluent and the poor (Scott 2003). Once known as a decaying neighborhood, East Harlem is no longer an overflow of vacant lots and buildings. Nevertheless, poverty rates in the area have remained high, at 36.9 percent in 2000, as opposed to 21.2 percent for the city, with 36.7 percent of population in income support, as opposed to 19.3 percent for the entire city, and unemployment at 17.1 percent as opposed to 8.5 for the city. These numbers are likely to show increases in years to come as a result of New York City's growing fiscal crisis and ensuing cuts in social services. A major target of urban renewal policies, East Harlem has one of the largest concentrations of public housing in New York and the fewest number of homeowners: 93.6 percent of the population are renters, among the highest numbers in Manhattan. Overall, East Harlem's population is highly vulnerable to diminished social welfare and the privatization of government services and highly susceptible to shifts in rents and to changes in public housing legislation. Such is the context where these chapters unfold.


Excerpted from Barrio Dreams by Arlene Davila Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Barrio Business, Barrio Dreams
1. Dreams of Place and Housing Struggles
2. "El Barrio es de Todos": Predicaments of Culture and Place
3. Empowered Culture?: Tourism, the Empowerment Zone and the Selling of El Barrio
4. Culture as Business and Business as Culture: On Corporate Headquarters, Museums, and the Education of El Barrio
5. The Mexican Barrio: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and the Terrain of Latinidad
6. The Marketable Neighborhood: Outdoor Ads Meet Street Art
Some Final Words


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