NYC Neighborhoods: Spanish Harlem




Aahhh, Spanish Harlem; one of the two homes of my youth. For those of you who may not know of me personally, growing up in NYC, I spent my youth split between living in Manhattan, and the Boogie down (Bronx), but when I was in Manhattan, I was here. Spanish Harlem is one of those rare places you see in this City that is massive, yet has remained largely untouched over the years. Recently, there has been a large amount of construction being done in the area, taking the vacant lots and dilapidated buildings, and put up new condominiums in their place. While I would be inclined to agree that it has indeed brought a breath of air to the community with the addition of new shops, restaurants, bakeries, etc, it has also changed the dynamics of the community. How so you say? Well to explain that, I’d have to take it back….waaaaay back.


East Harlem, known better as Spanish Harlem (previously Italian Harlem), or more affectionately known as “El Barrio” is  the the furthest Northeast point of Manhattan before you cross into the borough of the Bronx. Spanish Harlem is know as having one of the largest Puerto Rican communities in New York City , with 51.2% of it’s residents identifying as Hispanic. The neighborhood spans from East river to fifth avenue, between 96th St and 125th and has the second largest concentration of public housing in the United States, playing a close second to Brownsville in Brooklyn. As one would expect from such a setting, the neighborhood is (or was) largely undeveloped and is plagued with many social issues, such as the highest jobless rate in NYC, a high volume of homeless, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy. AIDS is also an issue that is starting to make an appearance in the area. Additionally, Spanish Harlem has the highest violent crime rate in Manhattan, quite the reputation eh? Well, despite all the adverse marks on the neighborhoods track sheet, it still manages to pull off a certain charm that’s all its own.

The urbanization of the area we know as Spanish Harlem began back in the 1880’s when the elevated transit line was constructed (which is presently used by the Metro North line), which brought about the construction of brownstones and apartment buildings. The original residents of the neighborhood were German, but later came Irish, Italian (Southern and Sicilian), and Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The neighborhood was also the founding location for the Genovese family, one of the five families that dominate the Italian-American Mafia (Cosa Nostra). Hispanics started to migrate into the area after the first world war, moving in around 110th St and Lexington; between then and World War II, as the Italians moved out, more Hispanics moved in, and gradually transformed the area. Evidence of this can be seen when you walk across 116th St, which has for decades ween a hub for all things Hispanic. While the shops have changed to suit the demographic (there’s a large population of Mexicans living in that area), some the original shops still remain.

Aside from the negative, Spanish Harlem is known for its contribution to Salsa, and music in general. Some of the contributions that Spanish Harlem has given to the world are:

Tito Puente

Ray Barretto

Julia De Burgos


Tupac Shakur

Al Pacino

and Frankie Cutlass, just to name a few. So while its generally a good idea to exercise some caution walking around certain areas at night, Spanish Harlem is one of this Cities few standing testaments to NYC’s past. While gentrification has made it’s way to the neighborhood, the demographics and the look and “feel” of the area remains largely unchanged; definitely worth a look!


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