Welcome to SpaHa: Gentrification in New York’s Spanish Harlem

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I was raised in the Uptown Manhattan area known as “El Barrio.” Well, at least that’s what I know it by. You might know it as “Spanish Harlem.” El Barrio has always been home to the newly arrived—those looking for the “American Dream.”  

My grandfather was one of those dreamers first arriving here from Puerto Rico during the Great Depression. He already had aunts and uncles waiting for him, and they all lived in a one-bedroom apartment on 110th Street and Lexington Avenue. This is how it was done. 

Family welcomed family until they were able to fend for themselves, and so what you would find in any given tenement building was cousins playing with cousins and a multitude of aunts and uncles and grandparents to watch over them. 

The same can be said about the Italians that came before the Puerto Ricans and settled in El Barrio. These streets became a haven for the newcomers and new generations were birthed that still call it home but find it impossible to stay here. 

Gentrification in El Barrio has been happening since the late ’70s. It started in a very subtle matter: crack buildings evacuated, dusted off, and priced at $1,000 rent. The myriad of empty lots turned into community gardens. The police officers walking up and down the neighborhoods or parked in their cars, watching.

But what was most noticeable was the closure of corner liquor stores and the opening of establishments with organic offerings—as if we weren’t interested in healthy living, cleaner apartments, and safer neighborhoods all these years. 

El Barrio is now called “SpaHa,” shortened from its fancier name. When I first heard that El Barrio was now being referred to as “SpaHa” by newly arrived millennials from the Southern states and realtors trying to purify the reputation of the area, I almost choked with annoyance.

OK, a part of me kind of liked it. It had a ring to it. 

The tricky thing about gentrification is that it can be viewed on two separate scales. Yes, it’s basically a manipulated U-Haul agenda of a people that can longer maintain the rent or afford the local grocery prices where soda and chips come cheap and organic fruits and vegetables are now a luxury. It displaces those that have lived and bled in these communities, Mom-and-Pop stores that once flourished along 3rd avenue now closed because the rent’s too high.  

Many Puerto Ricans had no choice but to exit, relocating to PA or Florida. 

Yet, while I felt a sense of pride seeing my community finally cleaned up and providing its citizens with proper food options and job opportunities, the new SpaHa isn’t meant for us.

I once had an interesting conversation with a newcomer out at a local bar one night. After a few drinks, this recent transplant from rural Texas began speaking of her adaptation to the city. She admitted she felt some shame for moving into the neighborhood.

She expressed her concern about being part of the problem and not the solution. Many newcomers believe they’re helping the community by bringing in more money.  

She ended up leaving El Barrio and moving to a more upscale area of Manhattan, which turned out she could afford. Many of these newcomers don’t come from poverty and could easily afford $2000 in monthly rent, but they choose to live in El Barrio so they can save for their future homes in the suburbs. 

They came here unsure of their place in this community. I realized that in the mid-90s, when I first began to see sprinkles of the lighter shade entering the hood. I noticed that almost every newcomer owned a pit bull. Although they made this their home, they were afraid to be here. I knew immediately how dangerous that fear could be, because it meant that one of us would have to leave.  

The newcomers would not blend in with the already established culture of the brown and black people forged across generations. A choice of who can stay would have to be made. 

Present-day El Barrio is a mere shadow of what it was. The atmosphere is trendy, mixed with the yearly scent of fear that circulates inside the homes of those tenement buildings not yet bought out, and within the project walls.  “How much will my rent go up this year?” “Is this the year they buy us out?” 

It’s interesting how the projects are receiving upgrades. Residents must allow NYCHA workers into their homes for mandated renovations. Meanwhile, the hallways remain dirty, with little to no maintenance staff visible to keep up with cleanliness—a basic necessity that should be afforded to tenants, especially during a viral pandemic. 

Changes to the exterior of the projects are also being made. It’s impossible to walk the hood now and see any project buildings without scaffolding surrounding them—a sign of change to come. The rumor is that they want to turn them into co-ops.

Long gone are the days of yelling out tenement windows, “Oye prima!” or “Tío, where’s Mami?” Everyone is a stranger now, and the few that remain from the old days have a Plan B exodus plan on hand, just in case.

But many don’t have a Plan B and are stuck with the uncertain future. El Barrio was the place of resistance, graced by the presence of the Black Panthers and the urgently needed activism and work of the Young Lords. Our black and brown united communities birthed hip-hop on these streets. We survived the crack era and cleaned our own blocks when snowplows and sanitation crews left us forgotten.

El Barrio has always been home to the newcomers, the dreamers. But now it’s home to the highest bidder. 

Featured image: “Mural in Spanish Harlem” by smays is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Melissa is a poet born in Puerto Rico but raised in Spanish Harlem, where she lives.

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