Wednesday, May 20, 2009

adios el barrio!

For the past five years, I’ve called el barrio (a.k.a. Spanish Harlem or East Harlem) home. But now, I’m moving out. Goodbye Claudio’s Barber Shop! Farewell el barrio Juice Bar! Adios Ricardo’s! Yes, this weekend, I will cross the Triborough Bridge to begin a new chapter of my life in Astoria, Queens. I’m sure this will not be my last time in el barrio (I have too many friends here to ever do that), but something about this move has got me reflecting on the old neighborhood: it’s history, it’s present, future, and how this place schooled me into the person I am today.

I shared my first apartment in el barrio with my ex-wife on the corner of East 115th Street and First Avenue. On the day I moved in, I was welcomed to the neighborhood by a circle of elderly Italian women sitting on the sidewalk (which, I soon discovered was how they spent every day). The oldest women in the group had resided in the apartment above mine her entire life. After welcoming me to the neighborhood, she asked if I "was Italian?" Of which I replied: “Nope. American.” This confused her; however, she then expressed how relieved she was that I was "at least white and not a nigger."

Her racism was ignorant, but not surprising; after all, throughout the sixties and seventies, el barrio was (as it is today) going through considerable change. Back then, the neighborhood was not “Spanish Harlem” it was “Italian Harlem”. And as the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood changed, competing gangs vied for control of their “territory”. At one point, Second Avenue was a dividing line between Italian immigrants to the East and Puerto Rican immigrants to the West. Things got even more complicated once the Italians began hiring Puerto Ricans and African Americans to run their drugs while they reaped the profit.
Like every neighborhood in New York, el barrio has an interesting and often violent history. Part of this history is rooted in organized crime or the Cosa Nostra. The first Crime Family to gain dominance of East Harlem was the Morello Crime Family, which later morphed into one of New York’s “5 families” - the Genovese Crime Family. As a big fan of mafia movies, I was so excited to see an old Genovese “social club” still in operation across the street from my apartment on East 115th Street. Everyday, I’d look out my window and watch the old timers run numbers, hand out loans, or just soak-up the sun while smoking cigars. Of course, the most organized activity I ever saw come out of that little brown social club with the green awning was surrounding the preparation and celebration of the annual Giglio feast. Each year, Italians from all over the tri-state convene in the old neighborhood to celebrate their ethnic heritage. Sadly, this last of the “social clubs” has become like many other relics in el barrio – boarded-up and vacant.

Throughout the summer, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans, and Domincans also host street festivals and parades. In fact, it is not uncommon to stumble across a large stage set-up on the street for outdoor music performances. The largest of these festivals is undoubtedly the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Most Puerto Ricans migrated to New York during the 1930’s to settle in el barrio and the South Bronx; over the years they have become the largest population in the neighborhood. In my opinion, Nuyoricans are the cultural and artistic lifeblood of this ethnic enclave. In fact, the Nuyorican stronghold, Camaradas, became one of my favorite haunts in el barrio. Camaradas opened one month after I moved into the neighborhood and although much has changed since then, I will always look back fondly on those late nights (that often turned into early mornings) rambling politics, drinking beers, and dancing (badly on my part) to salsa music.

After living in any place for a period of time, one begins to acquire experiences and memories; accordingly, every corner of el barrio has a story for me. While walking up First Avenue from East 114th Street, my mind wanders back to the runs I took along the East River and cooled-down in Thomas Jefferson Park. I think back to the few years I spent on East 115th Street and to the many friends I made in Camaradas. Of course, there were many more debaucheries that took place at Orbit as well. The corner of East 116th and First Avenue would be where my heart was shattered by one girl and then healed by the embrace of another. And up the Avenue a little more would be the place I was mugged. This city makes me into who I am with every punch and kiss.

I only lived in el barrio for five years. But during that short time I made many friends and watched as the neighborhood changed. As I reach the small apartment I lived in for the past two years at 346 East 120th Street, I look West to new condos going-up and wonder how long el barrio will remain “el barrio” and not “Spa Ha” or the “Upper East Side”? How long will the corner boys be able to scare away the Starbucks?

El barrio made me into a stronger person. But it has also contributed to some of my bad habits. Although I will miss the old neighborhood, I am excited to start this next stage of my personal evolution in Astoria.


harlem B said...

great article. thanks

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