There are people who move to a place because they love what is already there. And then there are those who move because they love some vision of a scrubbed future--they only tolerate what is already there, as they wait for it to vanish. That vision is bulldozing East Harlem.
The City Council just approved a rezoning plan for a $700 million development on East 125th, while a trail of luxury development already zigzags across and down the neighborhood. The residents are concerned.
I hesitate to publicize all this info, but the fact is: East Harlem is an enchanting place that feels like an older New York City.
The sidewalks of 116th, especially, are thriving and alive. People walk without cell phones and iPods. They talk to each other, calling from one side of the street to the other. They even talked to me--at least three people made pleasant, impromptu conversation on the street. Mothers with strollers steered out of the way. No one--not one person, in that sea of humanity--bumped into me.
Brazen enough to set up right outside Taco Bell, sidewalk taco stands do brisker business than the chain. Every other storefront is a restaurant, serving Mexican and Puerto-Rican food. Many have outdoor gardens in the back. Shops sell cowboy boots and hats, santeria spells, and musical instruments. There's a peaceful hum to it all.
On visits this summer I dared to fantasize about moving there, in the hopes of living again in the real New York, but I know its charms will not last. Not with dozens of developments taking over. Before we know it, East Harlem will become like everywhere else.
According to the developers, East Harlem lacks amenities and needs more, more, more. "This mall is going to totally change that," said a VP at Corcoran about the development at East River Plaza, "Everyone is super excited about the Target."
Not everyone is super excited. Graffiti in the streets says "Take back El Barrio," and across plywood walls, "Take back East Harlem," "Revolution Is Coming." With all the fighting and protesting over the super-gentrification of Harlem, who is fighting for El Barrio, other than a few graffitists?
Condos are popping up everywhere. Few people live in them yet. And if the Gawker post-recession NYC map is correct, East Harlem could be saved just by being "marginal," meaning, "a recession could send gentrifiers fleeing." Already, the economic downturn seems to be taking its toll on the new real estate.
From 124th and 3rd down to 117th and over to East River Plaza, you can walk a trail of lonely, yellowy-brick construction. Start at the Bridges, a pair of condos recently turned rental when buyers stopped buying.
119th and Third is still under construction and offering a 25-year tax abatement if you will just please buy something already. "Call us...if you want to get good prices," says their home-made video. 119th also has Karl Fischer's non-descript Sloane, to be followed by his newly announced high-end Conrad on 110th.
karl fischer's sloane
The Ivy is at 118th and 2nd. For the hell of it, I went to their opening, which apparently wasn’t their first, since they had a kick-off sales party back in 2006. Across from The Ivy is the purple Casa Brava. Next door, a massive Fedders box has risen.
119th and 3rd
the ivy's common courtyard
tenements squeezed between ivy and fedders box
118th has Blue Rhythm, which isn’t blue. And on 117th, there’s 416 East 117, followed by The Leah, The Nina, The Pinta, and The Santamaria. (Kidding about those last two.)
Finally, over a dozen developments later, you’ll find East River Plaza, where the massive parking garage for the savior of every “SpaHa” broker (the Holy Trinity of Target, Best Buy, Costco) has risen upon the FDR, awaiting its flock.
I went into a condo office where the salesman tried to convince me to buy, saying, "This neighborhood is finally becoming residential." Finally? It's already filled with residential buildings, packed with families and working people. He listed several of the condos going up and told me that the neighborhood will soon be completely changed. In short time, he said, "You won't even recognize it."
Why would I want that? Why would anyone?