Wednesday, October 15, 2008

East Harlem on the Brink

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?


Anonymous said...

...i agree, the same thing is about to happen in Jamaica, Queens...where the mayor has signed the biggest rezoning of any neighborhood in the history of the city...I have many friends who have left the city for bigger cheaper homes and 90% of them want to come back...I'm the only hold I have become their Marriot whenever they visit...

Anonymous said...

As a long time resident of Upper Manhattan, who currently lives in the border area between Central and East Harlem, let me play devil's advocate to your first statement ("There are people who move to a place because they love what is already there"):

People who live in poor neighborhoods do so primarily because they can't afford to live in better neighborhoods. Nobody says "I love living in the ghetto because there are so few sit-down restaurants! I love that fast food and fried chicken take-out joints are my only food options within walking distance when I'm not up for cooking!"

Poor neighborhoods also typically have very little street life at night. Without bars, restaurants, and other attractions open late, only "bad people" are out at night-- because why else would you be hanging out on the streets? Where else would you be going? People scurry home from the subway after work because there's nowhere else to go and it's dangerous to hang out after dark.

The idea that Harlem shouldn't change is *not* one that would be shared by most Harlemites, but rather is primarily expressed by 1) people who don't live here but would like to see Harlem preserved as museum of poor minorities who are imagined to visit the Apollo and eat at Sylvia's every night, 2) social service providors and other people who have an interest in these neighborhoods remaining laboratories of poverty, and 3) business interests who have something to lose in these people having more consumer choices.

East 116th Street is a *great* commercial corridor, and possibly my favorite street uptown. You're right that it is vibrant and full of small immigrant entrepreneurs. But East 125th Street is nothing like E 116th. 125, east of Lexington, is downright crappy, and the area is shady at night. The two streets are nothing alike. Nobody is suggesting that 116th be demolished and replaced by big box stores and condos. The rezoning plan addresses an area that's disinvested, hostile to pedestrians, and unlike 116th, doesn't have a thriving commercial corridor. 125 to 127 between 2nd and 3rd is mostly parking lots and half-abandoned auto-oriented industrial garbage.

Gentrification is creeping north from the UES into East Harlem, whether the city rezones anything or not. I think a lot of the existing architecture and storefronts in East Harlem are beautiful, and should be preserved, and existing businesses should be given assistance so that they can thrive as new investment comes in. But putting new buildings on vacant lots, gas stations, truck storage lots, and cheap 1-story bodegas (that charge inflated prices for spoiled milk, etc) isn't a bad thing, like you're suggesting here.

These same business interests (the "bodega lobby") were opposed to the Pathmark on 125 and Lex because they said it would kill their business. The Pathmark is the best thing to happen to the area because it actually attracts people at all hours who don't live in the neighborhood, which adds vibrancy and more eyes on the street.

Anonymous said...

If you consider relocating to East Harlem, you should try the Yankee Stadium/Grand Concourse area of the Bronx. Just a few more minutes on the subway, it has the same vibe on the street. People say good morning to each other and chat with neighbors on the side walk and in the local diners and bars. There will be no new ritzy condo construction. One has the sense of being in old New York.

Anonymous said...

Loved the spiel from the bunco artist selling hipster habitrails: "You won't even recognize it."

Of course we will. It will look like every other neighborhood in the Manhattan of Mayor McChee$e's wet dream.

Jeremiah Moss said...

anon 10:48, i don't disagree with much of what you say. there's a tipping point with gentrification. initially, it may bring in better services and improve existing residents' lives. eventually, though, the tipping point comes and those residents can't afford the new highly inflated services, and they lose their homes.

somehow, balance always seems out of reach.

Anonymous said...

I live in West Harlem, and though I've only been in this great city a few years I miss and love how new york used to be ( hopefully, going back!)I am one of those lost souls who "did" move to the neighborhood because of what is there, people who spoke to you, neighbors who looked out for one another and it did not have the erosion of character that has been spreading like a disease through this great city. So I have to slightly disagree with anon 10:48 in the characterization of those parties who want Harlem ( East and/or West) to be preserved as a museum of poor minorities. I am a minority, and it angers me seeing how money and greed can trump over the basic principles of someone being able to have a home and community. Someone earning $16,000 a year is no less important than someone making over $100,000.

I have zigzagged all over uptown and I love the grittiness I find in unexpected places, not everything needs to be shiny, bright and monotone and scream luxury. These folks who want luxury, ( false) safety and wish to live in the confines of their silent, Ikea decorated homes truly lack what it means to have street smarts. Its like the woman who was featured in the Times earlier this week complaining about how she never would have bought her condo in Williamsburg if she would have known that the ferry wouldn't run all year round to get her to Manhattan in 15 minutes. ( heaven forbid one ride the bus and subway!) Life is not meant to always be convenient.

And the area around Yankee Stadium is great for capturing old New York, walk over there all the time...though that new stadium is a horrible eye sore. Keep up the good work J! perhaps the tide will turn soon. :)

oh. P.S Corcoran has a new poll on their website asking people which of the chains ( Starbucks, Duane Reade, Whole Foods, etc.) would they want to be "down the block" from them..Whole Foods got the most sad.. I'd want a Childs Restaurant but would have to go back in time by about 70 plus years :)

-Nostalgic "new" New Yorker

Anonymous said...

Nostalgic 'New' New Yorker is annoying. We don't need a kid who just moved here and enamored with the 'grittiness' of the city to preach about yesteryear.

There are some fantastic things about E. Harlem and some terrible things. 3 people killed on my block in a year, 2 of which were completely innocent of whatever caused the violence. Yeah, that is grittiness I can do without.

anon 10:48 jerimiahmoss said it right. The balance is what is elusive.

Part of what makes E. Harlem great is the Latio/Black mix. I don't think any other uptown neighborhood is so mixed. There is room for more diversity in race and income. If rent regulation does its job then hopefully a balance can be found.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 10:48, you forgot one:

4) entrenched politicians whose careers depend on maintaining the illusion of ethnic solidarity against evil outside forces.

Anonymous said...

In response to jared, I am far from being "enamored" with grittiness, nor am I preaching to anyone. You think you are the only one who hears or witnesses violence? I'm not some yunnie from the middle of nowhere and I have just as much a right to care for what happens to this city as you. ( who obviously has lived here longer than I, and I repect that) I would never equate people being shot or harassed as true "grittiness"...last time I checked that's an occurrence that can happen anywhere... no need to throw rude remarks, I see new york for what it is, a city with an incredible past, a past that gets eradicated for the sake of progress without a balance for everyone involved, a city that requires regardless of what some may toot as being safe still requires you to have street smarts and common sense..
remember that though you are certainly in a position to remember and care for things long gone, others will come after you to fight for those things also, even if we don't remember it all, and if it bothers you that a "kid" happens to be one them, I don't know what to tell ya.


Anonymous said...

Jeremiah - check your facts - the "Fedders Box" on 118th near The Ivy is not a luxury condo but low cost housing for the formerly homeless operated by the Friendly Hands Ministry. It will also contain a seniors center. Not all new buildings are luxury condos - some developers are actually putting up good, new housing for the underprivileged!

Jeremiah Moss said...

thank you for the clarification! good to know the poor are getting their allotted percentage.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Very well written and thorough.

I live in Harlem, up in Hamilton Heights, and I hesitate to write about E.Harlem myself, afraid that I'll be telling some secret. 15 years ago I wanted to live in the LES. I dont anymore. Now I want to live in E.Harlem. Its such a gem, and time will soon tell how it changes.

No matter what one feels about gentrification, wealth, community, change, etc...Its never fun when whole communities disappear, and with them all that knowledge. Not that anyone said otherwise, but people who learn to live and work and raise families and run business and create communities in the US, after arriving from somewhere else with little grasp of the language or norms...they're wicked smart, incredibly talented and versatile, and often go out of their way to sustain community. they just dont ever get to talk about it, some dont want to.

That kind of knowledge should be shared with a broader community. Its important and valuable.

You know J, maybe you should start whipping out an audio recorder and getting a few words from people when you're out and about in these hoods.

"whats your name? When did you come here? Where do you live?" Etc....

Anyways dude,
nice post.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks much paolo. i know what you mean not wanting to "give away" the east harlem "secret." i like the tape recorder idea, but i think i'd feel too intrusive. i already feel intrusive just being a blogger.

how about you? you could add a micro audio thing to your blog, whatever that's called. a podcast?

Anonymous said...

FYI- Blue Rythm Condominium is 431 East 115th Street. I actually went to the Open House on Sunday, and loved the apartments, and it's an amazing block..right around the corner from my favorite restaurant!

Jeremiah Moss said...

hey anon, you kinda sound like you're selling the place! are you shilling?

Senobia said...

Again..this is what us outsiders want to think the whole city is like.