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International Herald Tribune

Return of Puerto Ricans Revives Spanish Harlem New Life in El Barrio

A Philosophical Crusade

May 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003 International Herald Tribune via ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

Puerto Rican professionals, artists and intellectuals who grew up on the streets of East Harlem but moved away during the years when housing abandonment and drug selling were rampant are now returning, pumping new life into the neighborhood they call El Barrio.

They are sprucing up once-decaying buildings and enlivening the area's cultural life with art galleries. Town houses and apartment buildings are blossoming where there were empty lots. As a result, voguish restaurants and cafes have popped up, including La Fonda Boricua, Dinerbar and SpaHa (a Soho-like coinage for Spanish Harlem).

Their movement, the returnees say, is a philosophical crusade to keep Spanish Harlem the Puerto Rican heartland in the United States.

Puerto Ricans are coming back to the neighborhood, said Dylcia Pagan, a Puerto Rican nationalist who grew up on 110th Street and works for a technology company in San Juan, but was in the neighborhood recently and looked at a brownstone to buy. Many of us got our education, got better jobs and now are saying we want to come back to our community.

These Puerto Ricans are the vanguard of a wider gentrification that is changing the face of East Harlem just as it has changed Harlem to the west. Whites and Asians, mostly young singles, are crossing the once Berlin-Wall-like demarcation of East 96th Street and taking up apartments next to housing projects and bodegas, drawn by prices much cheaper than elsewhere in Manhattan. Residents say they have heard brokers casually speak of their neighborhood as the Upper Upper East Side or Upper Yorkville. Reflecting the new realities, the commission redrawing the City Council lines has pushed the proposed boundary of Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz's district on the East Side three blocks north to 99th Street.

As a result of more moneyed newcomers, the neighborhood's median household income climbed to $22,110 in 2000 from $20,110 in 1990. Most significantly, the median income for Hispanics grew by almost 18 percent to $18,313 Like many Puerto Rican strivers, David and Betty Cutie left the clamorous streets of Spanish Harlem for the suburbs 15 years ago, settling in a split-level ranch in Rockland County. But when their daughter Nina was grown and they were thinking about retirement, the Cuties David was a principal, Betty a guidance counselor realized they missed their old neighborhood's sounds and smells.

One year ago, they moved back, fixing up a brownstone on East 118th Street and finding that the streets retained much of the gritty, festive mix they cherished: gaudy murals, coconut-ice vendors, sidewalk domino players, hole-in-the-wall luncheonettes with incessant salsa beats, ragged tenements next to fussed-over gardens. But now it was on an upswing, with much less of the crime and drug dealing that had driven them out. They also saw a neighborhood that was losing the accent and influence that had defined it.

We felt the neighborhood needed us, that we had things we could contribute, said Cutie, who is now on Community Board 11 in East Harlem. Despite the reverse migration into Spanish Harlem, census figures suggest that Puerto Ricans continue to leave for leafier quarters in New Jersey or Queens, just as Italians and Jews left their ghettos when they acquired college educations and better- paying jobs. During the 1990s, the number of Puerto Ricans in East Harlem dropped to 34,626 from 42,816. They were often replaced by Mexicans and Dominicans seeking their fortune in the city.

Indeed, East Harlem appears to have experienced a significant shift in the 1990s. Non-Hispanic whites grew to 8,377 from 6,952, and the Asian population to 3,278 from 1,512, and by all accounts these numbers are still rising sharply. The city has helped things along; since 1986, it has sponsored the construction or rehabilitation of 8,310 homes and started work on 1,373 more.

But in revitalizing the neighborhood, the new Puerto Rican settlers admit, gentrification is raising rents, with two-bedroom apartments that might have been had a few years ago for $600 a month going for $2,200 today. Prosperity has meant jobs and the flowering of local shops, but community leaders worry that Latinos earning low wages cooks, busboys and housekeepers, many of them Puerto Rican will be driven out.

As many Puerto Ricans move away from El Barrio, others are coming in, often as a result of calculated efforts by both individuals and housing and arts organizations.

You have a community here that on many fronts is feeling threatened, said Felix Matos Rodriguez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. So the need to protect the base becomes very important because that's how you make a claim on the political structure.

Fernando Salicrup, director of the Taller Boricua Gallery on 106th Street, which is filled with contemporary Puerto Rican art, said the neighborhood now had more than 1,000 artists and theater people, including many with international reputations, like Jose Morales, Diogenes Ballester, and Antonio Martorell. Some artists moved there with the encouragement of Salicrup's group, or received its help in buying property.

Nicholasa Mohr grew up in the East Harlem of the 1940s, though her family moved to the South Bronx when she was 8.

No matter where you lived, even if people lived in Brooklyn or the Bronx, they always came here, she said.

They came to La Marqueta or they would come to see relatives, or go to church at St. Cecilia's. This was the capital, the heart of the Puerto Rican community.

- Ayear and a half ago, Mohr, a successful writer of novels for adults and teenagers about life as a Nuyorican, returned to her childhood streets, buying a duplex condominium in a converted school on East 108th Street.

It's very pleasant being in a Latino community, she said. There's a warmth I'd forgotten about. There's a warmth about being greeted in the morning and hearing both English and Spanish being spoken.

Aurora Flores, who runs a public relations business, counts herself as one of the pioneer returnees, having moved 12 years ago from the Upper West Side to an apartment on Fifth Avenue and 107th Street. In explaining her decision, she recalled how her son, Abran, then at elementary school, was urged by classmates to forgo Spanish because that was the language of the people who clean their houses.

I will not let my son get whitewashed when he has these deep roots, Flores said. Six years ago, Tanya Torres, who was born in Puerto Rico and lived as a teenager in Queens, decided with her husband, Carlos, to buy a four-story brownstone on Lexington Avenue that had recently housed a brothel. They paid just $118,000, and on the ground floor they set up the Mixta Gallery, which has drawn mainstream reviewers.

It's dirty, and it's not the most beautiful place in the world, she said of the neighborhood. Yet there's a real sense of community. People know what's going on in your life, and you kind of know what's going on in their lives.

The epicenter of the movement is 106th Street, a corridor that roughly connects several pivotal institutions, including El Museo del Barrio on Fifth Avenue and the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center on Lexington Avenue, which houses the Taller Boricua Gallery.

The movement's Rick's Cafe is La Fonda Boriqua, a restaurant started by a psychologist, Jorge Ayala, and his brother Roberto and known for home cooking and walls featuring neighborhood artists. It is where Latino professionals network.

Eating there the other day was Pagan, the nationalist, who was granted clemency by President Bill Clinton in September 1999 after spending 19 years in federal prison on a bomb-plot conviction stemming from the movement to gain independence for Puerto Rico. Also there was Mario Cesar Romero, a freelance curator who partly grew up in East Harlem.

There is an intelligentsia, a bohemia that has moved in, he said, showing a visitor around the neighborhood. He took pride in what he called the carnival street scene, but has misgivings about the new changes.

I don't object to charging more rent, he said, but not at the expense of the people who have historically lived in the community.

The usual question raised about gentrification is whether it will so prettify the neighborhood that the very flavors that drew people will fade. But Salicrup, the gallery director, is not worried.

What protects this area are the housing projects, he said. If you're thinking of moving to El Barrio, you might end up with a project next to you. So the poor are always going to be there.

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