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Rebuilding the Barrio

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"There's absolutely a legitimacy to that perception," says a key economic-development adviser to Governor Pataki. "And it goes back 30 years. Historically, they were simply left out. HUDC the Harlem Urban Development Corporation, the now-disbanded agency that for two decades funneled state money to the neighborhood was a central Harlem organization that completely ignored East Harlem. They just never got very much."

Though the census nine years ago put East Harlem's population at 110,000 (down from 155,000 in 1970), the accepted number today is around 135,000. This breaks down to roughly 53 percent Puerto Rican, 45 percent black and West African, and 2 percent white and Asian. Not counted in these numbers, however, is the rapidly growing Mexican presence.

Traditionally an entry-level immigrant neighborhood, East Harlem has, at various times, been home to arriving waves of Germans, Irish, and Italians. Little Italy, in fact, was originally in East Harlem, and a small vestige of the Italian community is still centered near the river, between 114th and 116th Streets on Pleasant Avenue. Rao's, the vaunted 100-year-old red-sauce Italian restaurant that's a clubby hangout for guys in ventless double-breasted suits and a regular assortment of celebrities, is still on 114th Street.

And just around the corner is the 115-year-old Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, a longtime center of the Italian diaspora, where they still have their annual street festival and parade celebrating Saint Paulinus.

But ever since the fifties, when Puerto Ricans began coming to New York in significant numbers, East Harlem has been viewed as a gathering place for those who left the island. El Barrio is the widely acknowledged birthplace of salsa music. (Several groups are currently shopping competing proposals to raise money for a salsa museum.) It is also home to El Museo del Barrio, the Puerto Rican museum on Fifth Avenue and 104th Street, as well as the recently opened Julia de Borges Latino Cultural Center on 106th and Lexington.

But population shifts have begun to threaten several decades of Puerto Rican dominance in the neighborhood. The changes are immediately apparent on 116th Street, which is known in the neighborhood simply as the strip, and is to East Harlem what 125th Street is to central Harlem. Though the street signs on the strip say Luis Muñoz Marin Boulevard -- honoring the first governor of Puerto Rico -- the store signs around Fifth Avenue all have West African names now. When you head east over to Third Avenue, you walk right into what is called Little Puebla, for the concentration of Mexicans who have come from an area in Mexico called Puebla.

Here, the stores have names like La Hacienda, Exquisita Comida Mexicana, and Casa El Rodeo, and offer everything from Mexican food to music to shoes to cowboy boots. (Tucked oddly in the middle of all this is Morrone & Sons Bakery, a still-popular Italian outpost.) Farther east, in Jefferson Park, the Mexican immigrants gather on Sundays for an outdoor Mass, followed by some very serious and well-attended soccer matches.

"Right now there are 15,000 Mexicans in East Harlem," says Juan Caceres, president of Cecomex, an organization that helps new arrivals with everything from small-business loans to housing and social services. "They have opened 57 businesses so far, and there are five more in the process of being opened. This area is good for the Mexican community. There's no language problem, and it's easy to adapt."

Then there is the issue of the Dominicans. Already dominant to the north in Washington Heights, the Dominican entrepreneurial class has moved into El Barrio, opening groceries and other retail businesses. And those who follow population trends predict that by 2010, the Dominicans will pass the Puerto Ricans and become the largest Latin group in New York.

"By next year," says Henry Calderon, from the chamber of commerce, "the dominant consumer class in East Harlem will probably be Mexican, and the dominant commercial class will be Dominican. East Harlem is a neighborhood of change, of immigrants. It always has been. The land doesn't belong to anybody. If you want to own this land, you have to have a deed, and we Puerto Ricans didn't buy property, so we can't say anything belongs to us." (Calderon actually started a Republican club a couple of years ago in an effort to get pols from both parties to pay more attention to El Barrio.)

"The Puerto Rican community in East Harlem is reeling from these demographic changes," says a former public official who's had extensive experience in the neighborhood. "What's happened is that these changes force every issue up there to become a race issue. And as the Puerto Ricans war with each other for control, they have also lost a number of political offices."

One of those offices is East Harlem's City Council seat, which was won by Philip Reed, a black man, 22 months ago, in an election that had three Latino candidates. Reed, who has overcome significant early hostility (he's black, he's gay, and he's HIV-positive) and started to win the respect of some in the Latino community, is fully aware of the resonance and the sensitivity of these issues for many of his constituents.

He sees disdain for his community when he looks at the neighborhood's public transportation. "We have one subway line, the No. 6. You know the Jennifer Lopez album On the 6? Where she sings about taking the 6 from the Bronx down to reality? Well, this is the train she's singing about. The express stops at 86th Street and then at 125th, passing by 96th, 103rd, 110th, and 116th Streets," he says.

"And the proposed Second Avenue subway? The MTA's preliminary plan for this line, which is desperately needed by the residents up here, doesn't even include a stop at 116th Street. Do you know any other community that would put up with that? I don't. The lack of good public transportation up here is a major impediment to growth and development."

It's no surprise, then, that when I talk to community activist Gloria Quiñones, she sounds exasperated much of the time. "Our community suffers from low self-esteem," says Quiñones, who came to New York from Puerto Rico when she was 2; earned a degree from Brooklyn Law School; and lives in a brownstone on 116th Street she bought twenty years ago. "Too often we settle for what we call in Spanish el mango bajito, the fruit that hangs lowest on the tree. The one that requires no effort to pick."

Though El Barrio remains primarily a community of poor people, there are very early but hopeful signs that it's beginning to attract the kind of young, energetic professional class that has helped fuel the renaissance to the west. One prominent member of this group is Aurora Flores, who grew up in East Harlem and still lives and works there. Flores is the founder of Aurora Communications, a public-relations company based in El Barrio.

If the resurgence is to gain real momentum, it will be because of people like her; dogged, tireless advocates who know the neighborhood, the issues, and the importance of investing more than just rhetoric in the fight. An ambitious, savvy businesswoman, Flores was raised in the projects, was schooled at Columbia, and has a client list that includes Goya, McDonald's, Pathmark, EAB, and others.

The daughter of a seamstress and a cook, Flores has worked at the Daily News, Billboard, Channel 7, and a handful of advertising and public-relations companies. But eleven years ago, newly divorced and the mother of a young child, she decided to start her own public-relations business. She took office space on Madison Avenue. However, when Pathmark became a client and she began working on its effort to build a store on 125th and Lexington, she decided it was time to move back. "Professionals should come back," she says. "I can't overemphasize how important role models are."


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