East Harlem History

12/31/05 - Walking along the cobblestone streets past museums and row houses, you'll think you've traveled back in time, when in fact you're in East Harlem. This New York neighborhood makes up a diverse tapestry of many ethnic groups including: African American, Mexican, Dominican, Puerto Rican and South American. In its early days, East Harlem attracted Dutch and French settlers who were lured to the area by the abundant fish supply and excellent water quality. 

The early 1800s brought black farmers, as well as German and Irish immigrants who wanted to escape overcrowded urban areas. Railroads provided cheap transportation and a new wave of immigrants moved to the area from Italy and other parts of the City, displacing many existing residents like the German and Irish, who migrated to the Bronx and Queens. 

The Italian community in East Harlem grew considerably after 65,000 apartments were built from 1870-1910. This influx created the need for markets and small businesses, which took advantage of the cheap transportation and immigrant labor and their strong work ethic. 

After East Harlem residents returned from tours in the World Wars, the area had yet again opened its doors to more immigrants, especially those of Puerto Rican descent, who made this part of Harlem their first stop in pursuit of the American Dream. Many more African Americans moved to East Harlem around this time, as veterans relocated to nearby suburbs or other areas of New York such as Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx to take advantage of GI programs, further their education or start businesses. 

As East Harlem Latino population grew, the borough earned a new name: Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio. As with the Italian boom, businesses catering to this group opened in earnest, particularly along Park Avenue between East 111th and 115th streets-an area that came to be known as La Marquetta. Spanish Harlem is the birthplace of many renowned Latin artists such as Tito Puente, Eddie & Charlie Palmieri, and Ray Barretto. Spanish Harlem extends from about East 96th St. to East 140th St. and is bound by the Upper East Side, East River, Central Harlem, and Central Park. It is also home to shows like BET's "106th and Park" and "The Chappelle Show" have been produced. 

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra, which was founded in 2000, won Best New Artist at the 2003 Billboard Latin Music Awards and was nominated for a Grammy in 2002 for Best Salsa Album Of The Year. The band was formed when Aaron Levinson joined forces with salsa giant Oscar Hernandez. Their debut album was released in October of 2002 to immediate acclaim. 

Tensions rise

Even though the East Harlem community is banding together to rebuild and maintain a strong cultural identity despite a continuing tide of new immigrants from Mexico and other parts of South America, in the not so distant past there were political and social tensions with the City, as well as within its own borders. 

In the mid-90s, East Harlem's growing population put a strain on the local housing supply. To keep up with demand, the City organized an effort, led by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Congressman Vito Marcantonio, to build large housing tracts in place of many low-rise buildings. Problems surfaced when lifelong residents were displaced by the large-scale destruction of existing properties, when many residents didn't even qualify for the public housing that replaced their former homes. 

The ensuing political battle transitioned into a fight over resources, out of which emerged decision-making groups like the East Harlem Schools Committee. The riots of East Harlem in exposed the challenges East Harlem residents faced on a daily basis. East Harlem struggled through the 80s and 90s as community activists fought to improve housing conditions, and institute social and cultural centers. 

Cultural diversity

Today, the residents of East Harlem are made up of a diverse tapestry of ethnic groups. Returning and new residents are helping revitalize the area by renovating apartment buildings and opening small businesses like boutiques and restaurants. 

In addition to restaurateurs and other entrepreneurs, many new residents are artists and musicians. Organizations like the National Black Theater, Taller Boricua, Palo Monte, Los Pleneros de la 21, and the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater strengthen East Harlem's cultural identity. Museums, including El Museo del Barrio and the Museum of the City of New York, bring tourists to East Harlem to learn about its rich history and cultural origins. 

East Harlem Attractions

If you're planning on visiting our neighborhood, we highly recommend making room in your itinerary for the following attractions, many of which are designated landmarks: 

* St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The cathedral at 15 East 97th Street was built in 1901-1902 and dedicated to St. Nicholas the Wonder-worker. The Muscovite Baroque design is attributed to John Bergesen, in particular the five magnificent onion domes. The church's cross came from a sunken Russian navy ship, the Retvizan, which went down during the Russo-Japanese war. 

* St. Cecilia's Church. Built in 1883 to serve the Irish community, St. Cecilia's still stands today as a sanctuary and house of worship for a diverse congregation. 

* Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Built in 1886, the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at 115th Street was the first Italian Parish. Stop by to see the Blessed Virgin, one of only three Images of the Blessed Virgin coronated by Pontifical Authority. There have been several documented miracles that believed to have been performed by the Blessed Mother. 

* Langston Hughes House. While no longer open for public tours, the house at 20 West 127th Street, is worth a walk-by. The former home of African-American poet, novelist, and playwright, Langston Hughes, who was one of the most influential interpreters of racial relationships in America. Hughes purchased the building in 1947 and lived on the third floor for the last 20 years of his life. 

* Belltower in Marcus Garvey Park. The Mount Morris Fire Watchtower is a predominant feature of Marcus Garvey Park and the entire neighborhood. When City Hall was built in 1812 along with the bell, it became the City's first and main fire alarm. 

* El Museo Del Barrio. Founded in 1969 by a group of Puerto Rican educators, artists, parents and community activists in El Barrio, El Museo del Barrio is New York's leading Latino cultural institution, with expanded representation of the diversity of art and culture in the Caribbean and Latin America. It is the only museum in New York City specializing in representing these cultures. 

* The Museum of the City of New York. Founded in 1923, the Museum celebrates the City's cultural diversity through its collections, exhibitions, and programs for adults and children. 

Getting to East Harlem

East Harlem boundaries range from 96 Street to 148th Street. Take the 4, 5, 6 Lexington Avenue and Metro North Park Avenue/125th Street trains run in East Harlem. 

Amy Covington