New York's East Harlem: Neighbourhood Fighting To Keep Its Culture In The Face Of Gentrification

With a controversial plan to develop NYCHA property,mayoral hopefuls
spending an evening in one of the neighborhoods public housing developments, and the continually skyrocketing price of real estate, East Harlem (or Spanish Harlem( is one of the neighborhoods at the center of the gentrification debate in New York.
One of the city’s poorest districts, East Harlem has a median household income around $US30,000, compared to around $US55,000 for all of New York City, according to U.S. census data from 2010. But the area is also just north of Yorkville, one of Manhattan’s wealthiest and most expensive neighborhoods, making it a prime spot for development.

Spending time in the area and talking to the people who live there you can see the changes taking place in this dynamic neighbourhood.

East Harlem, Spanish Harlem or 'El Barrio,' -- from 96th St. to 125th St. (some say 146th St.) and Fifth Ave. and the East River.

Spanish Harlem is changing. Dark purple real estate is selling at prices that are much higher than the median income of the block ... i.e., rich people are moving in.

The new Spanish Harlem.

The demographics are clearly in flux, as the number of self-identified Whites and Asians have doubled over the past two decades.

This isn't the first demographic turnover for the area. Always a working class neighbourhood and originally a German area, by the early 20th century East Harlem was largely inhabited by Irish, Italian, and Eastern European Jews.

After World War I there was an influx of Puerto Ricans into the neighbourhood, especially around 110th St., an area which became known as 'Spanish Harlem' or 'El Barrio.'

This shrine from the Italian Roman Catholic church on Pleasant Ave., where they dance the giglio, is now maintained by the Puerto Rican community.

In 1941, to better house the growing population of the neighbourhood, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) built its first community housing project in East Harlem. Over the next 20-30 years the city built 24 NYCHA developments in the area.

The purpose of building up with public housing was to create public space for small parks and recreation areas.

But under a controversial NYCHA plan, the cash-strapped agency now proposes to lease public space in the project to private developers to build luxury housing -- 20% of which must be designated for low-income families.

Like many City Housing Authorities, the NYCHA uses federal funds to supplement the lower rental rates it offers. However, as Robbie Whelan explained in a recent Wall Street Journal article, as federal funding is running low many city housing authorities are looking for alternate funding options.

Many residents and community organisations are concerned that the reduction in public space will harm the neighbourhood and the increase in luxury housing will hasten the displacement of lower-income families.

Displacement has been a common theme in Spanish Harlem's history. From German to largely Italian in the 1900s, in the 1970s many of the old Italian families left as the neighbourhood went up in flames amidst race riots and a spike in arson.

The fires and the large-scale departure of Italian families left many vacant lots and homes.

The city claimed many of the destroyed lots and turned them into low-income housing, resulting in one of the highest geographical concentrations of low-income housing projects in the United States right next to one of the highest-income neighborhoods.

Not everything was burned down, and not everybody has left. Rao's has been family-owned in this location for over 100 years. It was closed when we visited and everyone was at the annual Dance of the Giglio.

The Dance of the Giglio is an annual feast that originated in the 1880s in Brusciano, Italy near Naples. The tradition was first celebrated in East Harlem around 1908 and the Giglio Society of East Harlem has continued the tradition.

Italian Americans still return in force to the old neighbourhood for the festivities, which culminate in the lifting (yes manual lifting) of this huge structure by a large group of large men.

They return to a neighbourhood that still has a crime problem. While crime has dropped significantly over the past 20 years, violence remains routine. As a fireman walks to work, building maintenance workers clean blood from the night before.

Despite the blood on the streets, violent crimes have decreased over the past 20 years after spiking in the 1980s and early 1990s.

But over the past two years some crimes are up, particularly the ones you would expect as upper and lower income communities get geographically closer.

And the NYPD continue to patrol Spanish Harlem in large numbers.

They patrol around areas like Upper Yorkville, looking up Lexington from the 'old' border of 96th St.

The nicest developments are going up next to Central Park -- like One Museum Mile. It recently set a neighbourhood record with the sale of a three-bedroom apartment for $US3.565 million.

And if you're thinking, 'At least renting is cheaper,' know that at 1214 Fifth Avenue the smallest studio costs $US3,625/month, and a corner three-bedroom will run you $US9,195/month.

The changes are just as dramatic on the east side. The East River Plaza has been a game-changer for the area.

This GIF shows the way the area around the plaza has developed over the past century.

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The Target store at East River Plaza has brought in lots of people -- some just to shop, others to live. Combined with the Costco the two stores have hurt smaller shops, but also offer locals cheaper prices.

And it isn't just new developments going up. Recently renamed, 'The Miles' is a large affordable housing property that's turning 'luxury' -- but it still has the worst elevators in the city according to the NYC Buildings Department.

Beyond the super-luxury and massive complexes, this iconic and now almost ironic mural sits near one of the more modest newer developments.

Some view the new developments as a revitalization, but locals explained that the stores across the street were closed after the luxury building went up, possibly as the owner prepares for a bigger payday for the property.

Among the stores that needed to move was Justo Botanica -- it had been at this location for 50 years.

Justo Botanica's new location is around the corner and down the block at 1702 Lexington Ave.

The botanicas (and there are many throughout the neighbourhood) sell an interesting mix of religious and spiritual items, a tradition from Puerto Rico. The proprietors are often looked to for advice and counsel.

Jorge Vargas owns Justo Botanica and was shocked when his previous landlord gave him notice to vacate the property. Especially, since it has simply sat shuttered since then.

Claudio's Barbershop dates back over 60 years to when the neighbourhood was still largely Italian-American.

Replaced by this.

The changes are more than just architectural. Andrew Padilla showed us around the neighbourhood one day. He has made a documentary that looks at the human and cultural cost and the dynamics of change that are taking place.

He does screenings of the film 'El Barrio Tours' to raise awareness and start a dialogue about these issues.

He is trying to raise money for similar projects in other cities to show the shared experience of communities undergoing gentrification.

You can learn more about his project and support it here.

The rush of newcomers hasn't yet driven out the old staples like $US0.99 stores that dominate the area.

And not all the new businesses are succeeding. 'SpaHa' (yes, they are trying to do that here) Cafe hasn't been able to make it in the area ... yet.

Milagros has been a crossing guard in the area for 15 years. She said there are more parochial and private schools in the area now.

Then there are old schools like the PS 109 -- a historic building -- which is being turned into an artist space.

This sounds good on paper, but some -- like Gwen Goodwin, a Democrat running for District 8 city council -- are concerned that it won't actually benefit the real local community but rather 'local' (Brooklyn is too expensive) artists.

Local businesses are also looking to preserve the Spanish Harlem culture. Luis Perez the owner of Casablanca on 110th St. bought the property his shop was on in the 1970s to make sure he wouldn't be forced out.

He then realised he needed the whole block to be safe. Now he rents it to stores and locals -- he has even developed some semi-luxury rentals as well.

Not all landlords have taken the same approach, and on some blocks only one house will be occupied, while building owners wait for tenants or buyers with bigger bank accounts.

Local non-profit Picture the Homeless worked with Hunter college on a report that estimates there are 143 vacant lots and buildings in East Harlem that could potentially house up to 9,252 people now.

For more information read the whole report.

Opening up those unused lots for non-luxury development could create more affordable housing which would help preserve Spanish Harlem's neighbourhood culture while allowing for newcomers as well.

And the ares is covered in its culture. This DeLaVega piece depicts works on themes of 'Slaves of the past.'

The murals have become so much a part of the society that they have plaques. However, people fear the changes in the neighbourhood will reduce this kind of local artistic expression.

The mural traditions continue to this day. Juan Fernandez, known as JuFe, is here from Puerto Rico as part of a group of artists working on murals in the area.

It will become a worker bee -- signifying the plight of the worker bees in this area.

Beautiful graffiti is another common feature.

But maybe not for long.

Despite the changes, Harlem still has style.

Want to see another gentrifying neighbourhood?

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