El Barrio Fights To Hold On To Its Latin Soul Amid Massive Changes

Are we losing the last remotely affordable neighborhood in Manhattan to gentrification?

By Jeff Vasishta October 13, 2016

As the molten lava of gentrification pours through New York neighborhoods petrifying the kind of unique vibrancy born of struggle, East Harlem is holding on to its Latin soul. But it has a fight on its hands. Affectionately known as El Barrio or Spanish Harlem it is, perhaps, the last remotely affordable neighborhood in Manhattan. With a median sales price of $801,000 and rising, the squeeze is on. The many murals depicting Puerto Rican pride, fallen street icons and musicians may soon be all that’s left to remind the new residents of the history of their neighborhood.

Related: Harlem Rents Go Back To The Future In New Development

It’s a story that nearby Harlem across the park knows only too well. Melanin challenged millennials are flooding in, germinating the hard scrabble city streets spreading the glitter of prosperity. Restaurants, condos and sparkling multimillion dollar townhouses are sprouting. But is that best for everybody?

“Many people remember the fires, the abandoned boarded up buildings, and the people who left,” Pearl Barkley, an organizer with Community Voices Heard, an economic justice advocacy non-profit told Essential services began disappearing from the neighborhood in the 1970s, she said, due in large part to city and federal policies that encouraged “benign neglect” of poor neighborhoods of color. “They left the neighborhood to fend for itself,” Barkley, who has lived in the neighborhood for almost 70 years, continued. “And the community was strong, but it suffered.”

“Now, East Harlem is a hot property,” she said. “We have to bring the focus back to the people who were originally here and went through all of this. We have to make sure that the people who were here can stay here.”

“There are a lot of young people now,” Edward Mateus, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, told AM New York last year. “It’s like the new Williamsburg.” Not the first or last time we’ll hear that.

Seems like every New York neighborhood is described as the new Williamsburg. But which Williamsburg are they referring to? The somewhat still affordable one of a decade ago or the over saturated, overhyped and overpriced one of today? For East Harlem it’s a catch 22. It’s still cheaper than surrounding parts of the city with an average rent of two bed condos starting around $500,000 according to . But the lower price points mean that new inhabitants have been favoring the culturally rich neighborhood, inching up rents and property values and squeezing out older residents.

Now, with dozens of new developments in the works and as much as 25 percent of the city’s affordable housing stock under threat by 2040 according to DNA Info, the de Blasio administration’s plans for affordable housing is in the cross hairs. Their fears won’t be eased by the new 1399 Park Avenue, which just went on the market with sales starting at $680,000, far above the current median price for a condo in the area. Amenities include bike room, children’s playroom, cold storage, parking, a gym, and a common terrace.

Courtesy of Sandrine Vives-Rotger/Flickr
Courtesy of Sandrine Vives-Rotger/Flickr

The argument for and against gentrification in a neighborhood often comes down to those who own versus those who rent. For homeowners praying for a turnaround, including good schools, grocery stores, safe streets and a return on their investment, gentrification can’t come soon enough.

For those decrying the loss of El Barrio’s cultural identity, a few landmarks still remain. The famed El Museo Del Barrio is always worth a visit. El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 transformed an abandoned public school into 89 units of live/work housing artists and their families and 10,000 square feet of complementary space for arts organizations. A staggering 53,000 creatives applied to live in the building, where studios will rent for as low as $494/month and two-bedroom units will go for $1,022/month.

Alas, the much loved La Casa Azul Bookstore closed last year and the Casina Latina Music Shop is still going after 30 years. But there’s little doubt that, like the rest of the city, East Harlem is caught up in blizzard of change. If it’s Latin culture you’re craving there’s still Washington Heights—but for how much longer remains to be seen.

Jeff Vasishta



Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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