Close-Up on Spanish Harlem

Spanish Harlem, 1930: In the back room of Almacenez Hernandez, his sister's Madison Avenue Record shop, Raphael Hernandez eases a melody from the piano. Almacenez is the first Puerto Rican music store in a neighborhood soon to be nicknamed "El Barrio." Due to East Harlem's proximity to Manhattan's recording scene, the wedge between Central Park and the river is beginning to draw Hispanic musicians abandoning their former enclave of Red Hook, Brooklyn. Social clubs are springing up on neighboring blocks and Hispanic immigrants turn passion into a cultural force that overwhelms the old Jewish community and lingering Dutch influence in what had once been called Nieuw Haarlem.

Spanish Harlem, 2005: Hernandez is a legend, but his sister's shop is a housing project. The southern portion of "El Barrio" is consumed by hospitals and apartment towers, many of which are government-subsidized housing projects.

The real Spanish Harlem may be harder to find, but start off exploring north of 116th Street. There, sunny Saturday afternoons seem made for young men blasting Mas Gasolina from open van windows and little girls coaxing stray kittens out of alleyways. There is a vibrant sense of '30s Latin culture fed by 80s and 90s hip-hop, all of which struggles against today's commercial tastes .

Trends of recent years trouble the area's long-time residents, who are working to preserve some of what nourished independent recording and birthed salsa music. Not only is hip-hop threatening Latin beats in this salsa cradle, but iPods playing Bright Eyes are moving in.

But be heartened and look to new architecture such as Enrique Norton's new Park Avenue Marriott or young hot-spots, such as Orbit, both of which suggest that Spanish Harlem's culture is what's hot, not just the affordable real estate.

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Life is still sweet, thanks to flourishing shops and restaurants.
photo: Christine Lagorio

Boundaries: The East River to the east and Fifth Avenue to the west. Spanish Harlem stretches north roughly thirty blocks from East 96th Street.

Transit: One subway vein serves the neighborhood, the vital 6, which stops at 96th, 103rd, 110th, 116th, 125th Streets. Its express also stops at 125th. The 2/3 line isn't a far walk west; it swings up Lennox Avenue north of Central Park. The M60 bus runs along 125th to LaGuardia Airport and the large MetroNorth train hub at Park and 125th will get you upstate or to Jersey.

Main Drags: Frawley Circle at Central Park's northeast corner is a daytime driving hub, but for pedestrian life, 116th and 125th Streets are East Harlem's best bets.

Prices to Rent and Buy: They say it's a renters market. Craigslist sublets are some of the best priced in the metropolitan area. Even through a broker, a studio can be had for $700 per month; a one-bedroom generally ranges from $1,400 to $1,600; a two-bedroom from $1,700 to 2,000—and these are the prices for newly renovated properties. Co-ops and condos are rare, but a brownstone market exists, both in renovated pre-wars ($1.5 million) and shells in need of restoration ($500K to $700K).

Green space: To the east, Jefferson Park follows the river from 111th to 115th Streets. Marcus Garvey Park is a favorite, and one of the oldest public squares in Manhattan. Used varyingly as a play space, a meeting place, and a holy land, it stretches west from Madison Avenue along the early 120s.

Check out: El Museo Del Barrio, at Fifth Avenue and 104th Street, began its climb to cultural icon in 1969. Today it is a vital stop along "museum mile."

Hangouts and Restaurants:What might seem like a hole in the wall along 116th Street probably serves the best tacos and tortas you've ever tasted. La Hacienda is one (between Second and Third Avenues), and if you head further east, you'll hit Orbit, a Puerto Rican bar/music club that serves a mix of authentic cuisine, Italian and new American. Further north, try Andy's diner at Third Avenue and 123rd Street. It's a simple place with classic fare, but don't mess with the waitstaff: they're used to dealing with hangovers from the methadone clinic across the street. Do bring your Spanish skills (for faster service, if nothing else).

Crime Statistics: Spanish Harlem is divided between the 23rd Precinct to the south and the 25th Precinct to the north. The 23rd recorded five rapes in the first two months of 2005; there were 29 total in all of 2003. Although the precinct recorded 379 more burglaries in 1993 than 2003, it saw a near-70-percent drop in crime over the past 12 years. Comparing its early-2005 crime statistics to those of early 2004 in the 25th Precinct paints a stagnant, if not bleak, picture. Robbery is up, felony assault has risen and grand larceny is on the rise, too. Assault is down, though, from 492 reported incidents in 1997 to 260 in 2003.

Elected Officials: City Councilman Philip Reed; State Reps. Keith L.T. Wright, Adam Clayton Powell; State Sens. David A. Paterson, Jose Serrano (son of Congressman Jose Serrano); and U.S. Representative Charles B. Rangel. All are Democrats.

 
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