Rebuilding the Barrio

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.”

“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.”

Now, from her second-floor office on 116th Street next to the Banco Popular, she works the phones relentlessly on behalf of her clients and her neighborhood. She watched East Harlem deteriorate (“I remember when people used to get dressed to come to El Barrio, and then I remember when the elevators stopped working in our building and I had to step over junkies on the way to school”), and she is determined to do what she can to help turn things around, even if it means alienating some people or starting an intramural battle in the community by complaining about “our leaders here who do absolutely nothing.”

But as I walked the streets of East Harlem with her over several days, it was clear that this is a neighborhood in transition. Though there is plenty of work that still needs to be done, the physical environment is no longer an aesthetic or economic emergency. Nearly all of the abandoned buildings are gone, either renovated through public and private initiatives or torn down – an arduous undertaking accomplished through the work of people like Mark Alexander, the executive director of Hope Community, a nonprofit development group that has built more than 1,000 units of housing in East Harlem. Flores introduces me to Alexander one afternoon at his office on 104th Street. Alexander knows East Harlem in a way that only someone who has spent the past twenty years struggling to provide decent housing for the residents can know it.

By renovating decrepit, abandoned, and burned-out buildings as well as putting up new ones, Alexander has been responsible for recapturing whole blocks that had been surrendered to addicts, dealers, hookers, and the ravages of urban decay. Blocks like 105th Street between First and Second Avenues. Once one of the worst streets in the entire neighborhood, it’s now home to a bright five-year-old 102-unit apartment building for seniors and half a dozen smaller rehabbed residential buildings. “This was an empty lot used as an open-air heroin market for years,” says Alexander.

Alexander’s efforts had a similarly dramatic impact on Lexington Avenue and 105th Street, where Hope put in a garden, complete with charming foot bridges that rise over a man-made stream stocked with fish. And you can also see the impact on 104th Street, where Hope not only renovated three residential buildings and some retail space but also planned and funded the restoration of a four-story mural known as The Spirit of East Harlem. Painted in 1973 by Hank Prussing, the mural, which features characters from the neighborhood, had become a local landmark. Badly weathered, it was painstakingly restored by Puerto Rican artist Manny Vega, who, 25 years ago, was Prussing’s apprentice.

Even private development dollars in search of new venues with potential have begun to find their way to El Barrio. The Blumenfeld Development Group, a Long Island company, is only months away from breaking ground on a $150 million project known as East River Plaza, a six-acre shopping center that will include Home Depot, Costco, and perhaps Staples and Old Navy. The site, purchased at a foreclosure for $3.1 million, is the old Washburn wire factory, which runs from 116th Street to 119th Street between Pleasant Avenue and the river. It’s been empty for more than fifteen years.

Blumenfeld has also gone to contract on a city-owned piece of property on 125th near Lexington, right across from the one-year-old Pathmark. David Blumenfeld told me the company wants to build an eight-screen, 50,000-square-foot movie-theater complex with stadium seating. Plans for the site also include 25,000 feet of retail space to be occupied by a bank, a clothing store, and a fast-food outlet.

A critical factor in the changes happening uptown is that crime is down dramatically. “Crime used to be so bad,” says Alexander, “that on 103rd Street, people would have to pay somebody to walk them to the subway. I could be in my car with my family, stopped at a red light, and be physically accosted by someone trying to sell me drugs. You could see people lined up on 119th Street to buy crack. I mean, they were literally queued up waiting to make their buys. It’s clearly not as intense as it was.”

Overall, says Alexander, who grew up in the Woodrow Wilson Houses, a project on 106th Street and First Avenue, the changes have allowed the community to breathe again. “For a long time, people had their doors and windows shuttered tight. They were frightened. Now the people here are opening their doors and windows, they’re coming back outside, and they’re getting to know their neighbors.”

As the process of revitalization moves forward, small victory by small victory, the focal point of much of the frustration and disappointment felt in El Barrio is the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone; the government vehicle designed to stimulate private investment in Harlem by providing $300 million in seed money and a variety of tax breaks and other incentives. “I don’t see where East Harlem is benefiting from the Empowerment Zone,” says Raul Rodriguez, executive director of the East Harlem Council for Community Improvement, the largest one-stop social-service provider in the neighborhood.

“When I look at the Empowerment Zone, it seems to me that the whole deal is 125th Street. They’re giving money to people who already have money and tax breaks to big businesses that don’t need them. And then we have to fight to get some of the jobs. So you tell me, who’s empowering who?” asks Rodriguez, who co-founded EHCCI two decades ago.

“When we complain, they ask, ‘Where are your plans?’ Well, what money do we have to plan with? Where did they get the money to plan and create Harlem USA? You know, it just looks to me like the same old story. The Old Guard that’s run Harlem for all these years – Paterson, Sutton, Rangel, Dinkins, and now Virginia Fields is part of that same group – they’re used to controlling things, and they have made significant gains for their community. But I don’t see it here.”

Actually, what’s happened in East Harlem is not all that different from what’s happened in central Harlem. For years, the economy uptown was driven by public expenditures. And the people who got this money to dole out – in amounts based essentially on how much juice they had – were the politicians. Now the rules have changed. The Old Guard no longer controls development, and this has posed problems for both communities. “They’ve had to step up to the plate to compete,” says someone on the zone’s board. “And it’s like they’re playing a team with seven-footers, and central Harlem’s players are only six feet tall and East Harlem’s players are only five feet tall. They’re both disadvantaged, but one’s clearly more disadvantaged than the other.”

On one level, the competition for Empowerment Zone funds is simply a microcosm of the tension that exists between blacks and Puerto Ricans in Harlem. Though nobody likes to talk about it openly, everyone discusses it privately. Because the majority of Harlem’s black and Puerto Rican residents occupy the same rung on the economic ladder, they end up competing for the same jobs, educational opportunities, and benefits.

“The perception in the Latino community has long been that blacks have greater access to power,” says Mark Alexander. “And as far as the Empowerment Zone is concerned, it was an African-American congressman Charlie Rangel who brought it to Harlem, it’s focused on central Harlem, and its board is filled with people connected to central Harlem. And significantly more money has actually been dispensed in central Harlem. The Empowerment Zone will say East Harlem hasn’t given us enough applications. But the belief in the Latino community is, in order to put in an application, you need to know someone in power to put it together.”

In its eagerness to get some projects going in El Barrio, and to fight the perception that it was unfairly favoring central Harlem, the Empowerment Zone board has been burned. Eddie Baca, for example, who runs an organization called the Local Development Corporation, was given a significant six-figure grant to start a micro-loan program to help small businesses. A well-known figure in East Harlem, he had to be defunded for not fulfilling his obligations.

“Look, the truth is, there’s simply no there there,” says a former executive of the zone. “You know how they say in Hollywood every other person is walking around with a screenplay? Well, in Harlem now, every other person is walking around with a plan to get Empowerment Zone money. But they’re not fully thought-out and developed proposals; they’re concepts.”

Mark Alexander believes he knows what El Barrio needs, and it’s the same thing he thought it needed when he first went to work at Hope Community in the late seventies: leadership. “There is in East Harlem even the absence of the perception of leadership,” he says. “Communities need leaders, and this community in particular needs more young people to stay here after college.”

Raul Rodriguez, who, like Alexander, plays a quasi-leadership role by virtue of the services he provides, is more specific. “We need some leaders who’ve made it in life and see politics as a way to give back, as a way to use the resources of their success. What we have now is people who take these positions to help themselves.”

Rodriguez is particularly hard on East Harlem’s state senator, Olga Mendez, who, after 21 years in office, is the grande dame of Latino politics. Mendez, a Democrat who is very close to both Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki, is credited with helping to get the East River Plaza project going. “I’ve adopted a nonaggression pact toward Olga,” says Councilman Philip Reed, who’s had a particularly difficult time with her. “I don’t win beating up on a 70-year-old Puerto Rican woman. All I will say is, she tells you she has influence. Good. Tell her to use it.”

Rodriguez goes even further: “Olga simply doesn’t have the energy anymore. Every time I see her, she says she’s retiring. But then she doesn’t. What that means to me when someone says they’re retiring and then they don’t is that they simply don’t want to work anymore.”

Mendez seems genuinely surprised by the harsh criticism. “We’ve always worked well together and he comes to my fund-raisers and supports me,” she says of Rodriguez. “We humans are full of surprises, I guess. But I do my job, and when my constituents need me I’m there.”

But as the Puerto Ricans of East Harlem look toward the future, there are larger issues at stake than the performance of a state senator who at most will serve one more term – particularly the issue of holding on to East Harlem as a social, political, and cultural center for Puerto Ricans. Help may lie across the Harlem River in the Bronx, which, thanks to Borough President Freddy Ferrer and Democratic county boss Roberto Ramirez, has become a Puerto Rican political powerhouse.

“I’ve said to the Bronx that they’d better do something about East Harlem,” says Rodriguez. “I’ve told them I’m not running for anything, but they still see me as a threat. I’ve also told them, Freddy Ferrer, we don’t see you. You’re supposed to be a leader of the Puerto Rican community, not just of the Puerto Ricans in the Bronx. Our leaders have to see these voids. They have to recognize the possible loss of Manhattan as a Puerto Rican enclave.”

Implicit in this statement is that Ferrer also has to make sure he has a unified Latino base if he plans a run for mayor in 2001. “The only real future we have,” says Rodriguez, “is if we work together and consolidate the two communities.”

Rebuilding the Barrio