Sunday, January 21, 2007

As East Harlem Develops, Its Accent Starts to Change

The New York Times

As East Harlem Develops, Its Accent Starts to Change
Published: January 21, 2007

Inside a wooden shack set in a garden on East 117th Street, a group of Puerto Rican men, many of them in their 70s and 80s, are playing a spirited game of dominoes on a rainy winter afternoon. A painting of a woman wearing a burgundy shawl over a flamenco-style dress hangs on a wall, and in the garden, tomatoes, peppers, corn and culantro, an herb used in Caribbean cooking, grow in the summer.

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Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Work under way on East 117th Street
between First and Pleasant Avenues

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A Puerto Rican Enclave

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
Rafael Merino, a community board
member, says that that East Harlem
is in crisis mode over keeping its Puerto
Rican identity.

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Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
A renovation at East 116th Street and
Pleasant Avenue; a Home Depot is
expected to be built not far away.

But outside their little retreat, a thick dust, the pounding of hammers and the shouts of construction workers inundate the block, signaling the transformation of East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio (the neighborhood). Many see it changing from the Puerto Rican enclave it has been for decades to a more heterogeneous neighborhood with a significant middle-class presence, luxury condominiums and a Home Depot.

It is a familiar story of gentrification in New York City, but this one comes with a twist: the many newcomers who are middle-class professionals from other parts of the city are joining a growing number of working-class Mexicans and Dominicans.

The result is a high degree of angst among many Puerto Ricans who worry they will be unable to prevent their displacement from a neighborhood that is far more than a place to live and work. “We’re in crisis mode right now, and as far as retaining the Puerto Rican and Latino identity in the neighborhood, we’re in red alert,” said Rafael Merino, who is on the local community board. “If we don’t pick up speed, we’ll lose a lot of it.”

While East Harlem — which had previously been an Italian neighborhood — was not the first place Puerto Ricans settled after arriving in large numbers in New York after World War II, it became the de facto center of cultural life after large-scale displacement from Chelsea,
Hell’s Kitchen, the Upper West Side, and more recently, Williamsburg and the Lower East Side.

East Harlem is the place where people come to celebrate Three Kings Day and quinceaƱeras, to gather the night before the Puerto Rican Day Parade, and to play dominoes on weekends.

But in recent years, rising rents have caused many Puerto Ricans to leave for more affordable Hudson Valley towns, or for cities like Allentown and Bethlehem in Pennsylvania and Stamford and Bridgeport in Connecticut.

“You have a choice, try to pay that rent, or move out,” said Tony Ramirez, a plumber who has lived in East Harlem for 43 of his 47 years. “Puerto Ricans in El Barrio is like being extinct. None of the people I grew up with are around. People feel like strangers in their own town.”

An illustration of his lament can be seen on several blocks of 116th Street, long Puerto Rican East Harlem’s main shopping strip, which are now filled with shops selling Mexican food, flags and pastries.

In 1980, there were 856,440 people of Puerto Rican descent living in New York City, compared with 787,046 in 2005, according to census data.

In East Harlem, the number of Puerto Ricans has also been declining, to 37,878 in 2005, from 40,542 in 1990, according to the census. They now make up about 35.3 percent of the neighborhood’s population, down from 39.4 percent in 1990.

Carmen Vasquez, public relations manager for Hope Community Inc., a private, nonprofit real estate and cultural organization in the neighborhood, said that the concentration of public housing and other low-income apartment units in East Harlem would keep the Puerto Rican population stable for now.

“There will be some displacement, but we will retain our heritage and our culture,” she said. “You won’t stop gentrification, but you can contain it and slow it down.”
But the changes are unmistakable.

For decades, there had been no doubt about where the Upper East Side ended and East Harlem began: 96th Street, the last major east-west street before the start of East Harlem’s clusters of high-rise public housing projects.

Taxi drivers sometimes dropped off passengers at 96th Street rather than venture farther north to what they considered to be a crime-ridden area. Some courier services also refused to cross the line. Even the row of upscale shops along Second and Third Avenues stopped just short of 96th Street.

That demarcation line is softer now, and nicknames for the southern tier of East Harlem abound: the Upper Upper East Side, Upper Yorkville and SpaHa — short for Spanish Harlem.

Peter Lorusso, 25, who works for a shipping company, has lived for about a year in the Aspen, a 234-unit luxury apartment complex at 101st Street and First Avenue, where one-half of the units rent at market rates.

The three-year-old building has its own garage with valet parking and a 10,000-foot courtyard with bamboo trees. It also offers a free shuttle van every 20 minutes to nearby subways during the morning and evening commutes — as do several other new upscale buildings in the neighborhood.

Mr. Lorusso said he does not usually go north of 101st Street. Instead, he and his friends “do the pub crawl” on the Upper East Side along Second Avenue. The Aspen, he said, is “an extension of the Upper East Side.”

“People are bringing more money north, which is a good thing,” he said. “You just got to be street smart.”

Jon Rich, 30, a stockbroker who lives in the Aspen, had previously rented apartments in TriBeCa, Battery Park City and Midtown. He now splits the $2,800 rent for his two-bedroom apartment with a roommate. “I couldn’t afford to stay where I was,” he said.

Fifteen blocks north of the Aspen, on the site of the former Washburn Wire Factory at 116th Street and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, workers have dismantled the plant to make way for the $300 million East River Plaza shopping center, which will feature a Home Depot, a Best Buy and a Target store.

A second large development in the area was derailed by the Bloomberg administration last year after widespread opposition. The $1 billion project, known as Uptown New York, had called for retail space and 1,500 apartments in an area between 125th and 127th Streets and Second and Third Avenues. Eighty percent of the apartments would have been rented or sold at market rates.

Still, residents say many of East Harlem’s new residential developments are unreasonably expensive. On 117th Street between First and Pleasant Avenues — a block that the police say has been home to a thriving drug market and where two people were killed in the past six months —more than eight buildings are being renovated or constructed.

One of the buildings is the Nina, nine units of “luxury condominiums” where a one-bedroom penthouse is on the market for $850,000.

“The Upper East Side is now the playground for the sophisticated bohemian,” reads the Nina’s Web site. “East Harlem will be known as the area that will feature SoHo-type lofts, with a NoHo sensibility, and a Village flair, without the hefty price tag.”

Jose Hidalgo, 76, one of the men playing dominoes in the shack on 117th Street next door to the Nina, has lived in the neighborhood for 55 years. He grew up in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico.

“Where am I going to live with these people and their condominiums?” he asked. “If I have to leave, I’ll go back to my country. I don’t have to pay rent; and I have a house there.” But Mr. Hidalgo said he believes that even if the new condos and co-ops find buyers, their owners won’t stay.

“These people come here and they don’t last long,” Mr. Hidalgo said. “Once they see what the neighborhood is really like, especially in the summer,” he said, when the streets become noisy and the crime rate typically climbs, they will sell their apartments and leave.
His friend, Jose Vazquez, 65, who has lived in East Harlem since 1959, said poor people are going to be forced out. “People who used to pay $600 a month are now paying $900 a month.”

But Henry M. Calderon, a real estate broker and president of the East Harlem Chamber of Commerce, said some Puerto Ricans believe they are entitled to live in East Harlem, although they failed to buy property when it was cheaper.

“Is it a right to live here or a privilege?” Mr. Calderon asked. “Is it a right to have an apartment facing Park Avenue? We cannot expect that we have a right to live where we want to live.”

Nicholas L. Arture, executive director of the Association of Hispanic Arts and treasurer of the East Harlem Board of Tourism, said even without significant rates of Puerto Rican home ownership, one way to preserve the area’s pedigree is to market it to visitors. One plan calls for transforming 106th Street east of Fifth Avenue into a “cultural corridor” showcasing Puerto Rican heritage through murals and cultural centers, art galleries and restaurants.

Mr. Arture said the area’s Puerto Rican flavor has already attracted visitors who want to know more about the neighborhood. Recently, a group of graduate students from Kenya said they wanted to visit after having read about the neighborhood on the Internet. “They wanted to eat rice and beans,” Mr. Arture said. “They wanted to experience the culture.”

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