Exploring the Latino Metropolis: A Brief Urban Cultural History of US Latinos

East Harlem

East Harlem, also currently known as “Spanish Harlem” or “El Barrio,” is a neighborhood of New York City bounded by 5th avenue on the west and 96th street on the south (Spanish). Since very early on, East Harlem has been a multi-ethnic enclave of Manhattan. In the 1800’s German Jews and Eastern Europeans began to migrate to America in search for protection from persecution and better economic opportunities. Many of these immigrants settled in East Harlem because it had been abandoned and provided cheaper housing than most other neighborhoods (Bell 11). Later on in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s Italians looking for better living conditions migrated to East Harlem were they easily found housing and jobs. Italians became the dominant group in the region, so much so that East Harlem became know as “Italian Harlem” (Bell 17-18) At the same time, small numbers of Puerto Ricans migrated to New York City in search for independence and political asylum from the Spanish-American War of 1898 (Bell 32). Soon after the war ended middle class Puerto Ricans continued to move to East Harlem with more economic motives than before. By the 1930’s more than half of Puerto Ricans living in mainland United States had settled here (Padilla 68). 

However, it wasn’t until after World War II (in the 1940s and 1950s) that Puerto Rican migration into New York city soared, and East Harlem became an “Island within the city” or a Puerto Rican cultural enclave (Dávila 6). As this was happening Urban renewal policies drove out Italians and as a result East Harlem became a quasi segregated community (Bell 3, 121). During the 1950’s East Harlem faced a substance abuse problem (which continued through the 70’s). Also, during this time period many gangs arose due to racial and ethnic clash (primarily between Italians, blacks, black Puerto Ricans and light skin Puerto Ricans) a in the neighborhood; East Harlem and the Puerto Ricans themselves soon became known for their “culture of poverty” brought on by violence, drugs, and income scarcity; perhaps the best example of this culture is depicted in the drama West Side Story (Dávila 7, Bell 122-126, 135).  The revolutionary spirit of the 60’s reached East Harlem and Latinos and Black stood up to the white supremacy to halt urban renewal process (Bell 3). A sense of national pride also surged at this time, with the introduction of several outreach programs to help the community, and through introduction of projects, such as the Museo del Barrio, which preserved the Latino history in East Harlem (Bell 3). However, this victory was short lived since gentrification began again later in the 90’s (Dávila 6). 

In more recent decades East Harlem has opened its doors to many more immigrants specially those of Mexican, Salvadorian and Dominican descent. Today over 50 percent of the population of East Harlem is Hispanic and over 30 percent is Black, this is a higher proportion of blacks and Hispanics than New York City overall (NYC 1). Although there have been many outreach programs to help the community, East Harlem still has one of the highest poverty rates and unemployment rates in NYC (Dávila 7). The culture of poverty that urban scholar Arlene Dávila describes in Barrio Dreams: Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and the Neoliberal City  is still quite prevalent. Thus, Dávila makes the point that gentrification through the introduction of big chain stores such as Starbucks and Home Depot, is driving the price of property up and displacing the people of the community. He acknowledges that although some aspects of gentrification may be beneficial to the community by bringing in revenue, the majority of the time this involves removal of Latino culture; which is starting to be seen in the use of mural space for marketing. Despite this, East Harlem is “home to key images of “urban” Latino culture” where Puerto Rican influence is evident (Dávila 6) For instance, it has been used as backdrop for ESPN, Jennifer Lopez videos, TV shows, etc. Furthermore, Spanish harlem is known for its countless latino celebrations held there yearly, but more important it is know as a center of Latino artistic expression, through countless of Murals, Graffiti, and El Museo del Barrio.
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