Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Rebuilding the Barrio

With burgeoning Mexican and Dominican presences and a rapidly changing economy, East Harlem, the city's original Puerto Rican enclave, is struggling to redefine itself for a new century.


On a cloudy Sunday in the middle of June, more than 2 million spectators stood fifteen deep along Fifth Avenue to watch the forty-second annual Puerto Rican Day Parade. It was, even as these New York celebrations go, an extraordinary event: both a dazzling display of ethnic pride and a joyous, salsa-driven party.

The parade, the biggest ever, kicked off what would become a summer-long national embrace of Latino culture. A summer when it has been nearly impossible to turn on the radio without hearing Ricky Martin or Jennifer Lopez. A summer when everyone from television newscasters to potential presidential candidates has acknowledged and paid respect to the growing Latino influence in America.

By 2005, Hispanics will be America's largest minority, comprising 13 percent of the population. In New York, there are already nearly two and a half million Latinos, and if current trends continue they will outnumber African-Americans early in the next century.

For a very long time, to be Hispanic in New York meant being Puerto Rican. And while that's no longer true, Puerto Ricans continue to see themselves as first among equals: Dominicans, Colombians, Mexicans, Ecuadorans, and all of the other Latin American groups that are now part of life in New York. "It's a community that's come into its own socially, politically, and economically because of its staying power and its presence," says Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, the city's leading Latino politician. "A generation ago, we were talking about firsts; now there are manys."

However, despite the extraordinary progress, only ten blocks from the end of the parade's festive show of strength, the story in East Harlem, New York's original Puerto Rican community, is a little different. Long known as la cuna de la comunidad, the cradle of the community, East Harlem is struggling to adapt to changing economic and political realities. East Harlem's Puerto Rican residents are battling to maintain its status as a Puerto Rican stronghold, a place in New York where Puerto Ricans can sustain, nurture, and build on their culture.

"The center of gravity for Puerto Ricans was always 116th Street, but now it's moved north to another county," Ferrer says coyly, as if reluctant to name his borough. "After the parade, though, we all still end up on 116th Street. As Harlem is for the African-American community, East Harlem will always be and should always be the spiritual cradle of the Puerto Rican community.

"The political leaders there made some poor choices over the years about where to put resources. They didn't focus on housing, so people left -- they followed the No. 6 train to Mott Haven and Soundview and Hunts Point and Castle Hill. But there are still footprints in the sand that won't go away," he says, mentioning that his wife grew up in East Harlem and still talks about St. Cecilia's on 105th Street, where she had her first communion.

"The No. 1 issue in East Harlem," says Henry Calderon, president of the East Harlem Chamber of Commerce and a prominent local player for more than two decades, "is making this a neighborhood where young people want to live after they graduate from school and get a good job. We need to stop them from saying, There's nothing there for me, so I'm leaving. We desperately need people living here who have good jobs, raise their kids, and take an active role in the schools. That's how you stabilize a neighborhood."

That's begun to happen in East Harlem, but slowly and fitfully, a fact Calderon ascribes to the lack of effective homegrown leaders. "Being a leader," says Calderon, "means having a vision or a goal and working towards it while bringing the people along with you. Obviously, we haven't had that."

East Harlem's identity crisis has been exacerbated by the boom that's been under way for a number of years in Harlem's black community. "Hispanics look at what's happening in central Harlem on 125th Street with Disney and everybody else, and they're very envious," says Nick Lugo, who owns a travel agency and several buildings on 116th Street and is the organizer of the annual 116th Street Festival. "Charlie Rangel is a really savvy politician. In the Puerto Rican sector, you don't have that. Look, African-Americans have a great head start; they've been in politics for many years. As for us, well, we don't have a cause that unifies us, something that makes us rally behind one person."

Most of the attention focused on Harlem over the past couple of years -- as well as most of the development money that has been flowing into the community -- has been directed toward central Harlem: the legendary, almost mythic Harlem of the Apollo Theater, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, 125th Street, Sugar Hill, Strivers' Row, Duke Ellington, and Langston Hughes.

Black Harlem is where the action's been. Disney, Sony, HMV, the Gap, and other blue-chip companies looking for untracked terrain have all flocked to West 125th Street. (East Harlem, also called Spanish Harlem or El Barrio, is roughly defined by 96th Street to the south and 140th Street to the north, from Fifth Avenue to the East River.)

This pattern of development has reinforced the long-held belief of many Puerto Ricans in El Barrio that they live in the forgotten Harlem. "Clearly, East Harlem is five to seven years behind central Harlem in terms of redevelopment," says Philip Reed, East Harlem's city councilman. "And you really get the sense from many Latinos up here that they believe they have never earned the respect in this community that they should have."

Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift