United States: A Visit to Remember “El Barrio”

Andrew Padilla, a young Puerto Rican born and raised in El Barrio, New York -a neighborhood also known as East Harlem, Spanish Harlem or SpaHa-has decided to delve into his community in a very creative way.  By launching a blog and a documentary, both entitled “El Barrio Tours,” Padilla explores the impact of “gentrification” in one of Manhattan's most prominent cultural axis, which is also his “barrio.”

We hope that the following interview with the creator of El Barrio Tours, joins the chorus that has exposed (and continues to expose) the intrinsic complexities of the aggressive course of urban displacement. Although this issue is not breaking news, it s still worth discussing.

Global Voices (GV): How would you explain “gentrification”?

Andrew Padilla (AP): Gentrification is the process of developing a neighborhood with little to no input from the original community itself. The process has many stages, can take decades, and finally ends with the once working class community becoming a wealthy enclave in which few if any original residents reside.

Image from the blog "El Barrio Tours."

Image from the blog “El Barrio Tours.”

GV: Some people might argue that “gentrification” strengthens local business…

AP: Most renters can’t afford to remain in their home if their rent doubles, or triples, small businesses are no different. In Central Harlem, the more gentrified next door neighbor of East Harlem, costs for retail space has soared along with the rising rents, to the point where mom and pop stores, just like mom and pop, have been forced to move further from the city center, in order to find more affordable places to do business. Look at the first neighborhoods to be gentrified in NYC, Times Square, Lincoln Center etc. you'd be hard pressed to find one small business remaining in the area.  You instead have 20 Duane Reads, 20 Starbucks, 20 CVS's. As gentrification moves further along, national chains become the only ones that can afford to pay the astronomical rents.

GV: On the other hand, it is also argued that El Barrio residents deserve access Home Depot, Marshalls, Starbucks. What is your take on this?

AP: El Barrio, just like any other neighborhood in the city, deserves rapid access to quality goods at affordable prices. However, the idea that a neighborhood can only receive this is through a large multinational corporation is a flawed one with severe repercussions for the distribution of power in already economically depressed working class neighborhoods.

GV: Also, it is said that  the incidence of crimes lowers as the community undergoes gentrification…

AP: Gentrification doesn't lower crime, but crime goes down in gentrified communities for two reasons:

1. These areas receive far more police surveillance and monitoring than ever before. The crime does not necessarily end but ends up being contained in so called “trouble spots” in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification.

2. The communities with issues of crime, which the city has neglected to aid appropriately and fund adequately, eventually get pushed out of the city center.

 GV: How about an upside-down High Line for East Harlem(Also known as La Marqueta Mile)

AP: Would beautifying of the space under the Metro North tracks be nice? Sure! But I'm not sure that getting the Chelsea Market developer Irwin Cohen involved in the creation of luxury store fronts in one of the cities poorest neighborhoods is the best way to go about it. The idea of  the High Line in Harlem is more a pipe dream for real estate developers trying to raise the value of land by the tracks. Considering the crime, asthma, education and unemployment problems this district has (just to name a few), it doesn't appear to be a top priority.

GV: How are community leaders fighting against massive displacements?

AP: Many organizations like Hope Community & Operation Fight Back, work tirelessly to try and create affordable housing for residents in the neighborhood. But you can't help but feel sometimes like they and all of us engaged in this struggle, are simply workers suspended from a dam trying to plug holes with chewing gum.

GV: Have you been able to document abuses or harassment from the part of landlords and/or building owners on your blog?

AP: If your looking to rent an apartment in El Barrio and Google 101 East 116th Street. You get this:

These residents have been under constant abuse and pushing from their landlord for years now. I tried to give them a place to tell their stories in hopes that the notoriety would put pressure on the owner to stop, or to at least force new renters to be confronted with the situation at the building before moving in.

GV:  You also worked on a documentary under the same name. Does your blog complement the documentary?

AP: Absolutely. Both the blog and the Documentary are colorful and informative snapshots of the neighborhood in flux.

GV: Is your blog audience very active? 

AP: I am contacted frequently through email and in person, but people sometimes shy away from posting. I think they don't realize that posting is easy. In the next few months I will be reformatting the website a bit to make that submission process a bit more simple and inviting.

GV: You mention in the blog that you offer tours: Who are usually interested in the tours around the community? Tourists, academics, cultural activists, recent community members…?

AP: I've toured professors, full classes, artists, new residents, old residents, even Nicole Lyn Pesce of the Daily News.

GV: Are your planning to screen the film on your blog?

AP: I will be uploading short films and video clips from the films expansion and various neighborhood events. In addition to advertising all screening dates and opportunities to get involved with the film.

If you would like to learn more about this topic, GV recommends these resources:  The documentary Whose Barrio?: the Selling of Spanish Harlem by Ed Morales and Laura Rivera, and  “Barrio Dreams: Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and the Neoliberal City”, by Arlene Dávila.

*Thumbnail photo of Andrew Padilla is used with his permission.

1 comment

  • I am interested in bringing psychological education to the Spanish heritage/Spanish peaking population of El Barrio. Was wondering if anyone knows of a space that can be used for this purpose. I am native new Yorker and puerto rican and have been practicing as a psychologist for almost 20 years.

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