Take a stroll through East Harlem and you’ll find a vibrant, culturally diverse neighborhood, which is evident no matter which direction you look. East Harlem is also known as Spanish Harlem, El Barrio, and “The Neighborhood,” as it is home to a population that represents Hispanic immigrants, primarily from Puerto Rico, as well as from Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. These immigrants brought their cultures with them, in the form of music, dance, art, and food. During the day, you’ll find the neighborhood filled with opportunities to experience Latin culture. Both the salsa dance craze and the graffiti style of art were born right in East Harlem. There are many great places to sample authentic cuisine, from Rao’s (where you cannot get a table unless you inherit one, and any reservations must be booked years in advance) to sidewalk carts, where you can get the best “street meat” to be had in NYC.
In East Harlem you’ll find a number of innovative educational opportunities in the form of specialized and charter schools that are considered top-notch. Many of these have very competitive admissions criteria and offer curricula that focus on creativity and social awareness. Such schools are a draw for young families that want to raise their children in an educational system that goes above and beyond the standard.
The vibe of East Harlem is one of community and neighbors that interact with each other routinely. There are many small, family-owned and -operated businesses and restaurants that have been neighborhood anchors for years. As you stroll through East Harlem, you will be immersed in sights, sounds and flavors that are straight from Latin American or the Caribbean islands, sometimes both at once. You can sample Puerto Rican-inspired plantain mofongo, which is mashed plantains with garlic and pork rinds, from local sidewalk carts. Or if it is a hot summer’s day, you might enjoy a Mexican-inspired licuado, which is a blended drink similar to a smoothie, made with milk, fruit, and ice. Sometimes, spices, citrus juices, and sugar are added. Although you will find an abundance of authentic cuisine and music no matter where you look in East Harlem.
Prefer to cook at home? East River Plaza offers Target, Costco, and Aldi stores, all of which offer fresh food at reasonable prices.
East Harlem housing consists of more affordable walk-ups, low-rise pre-war buildings, brownstones, and is dominated housing complexes. You can find some comparatively large apartments at reasonable price points, and even some rent-stabilized apartments. Luxury co-op and condo units are being built on the southern boundary of East Harlem.
The Graffiti Hall of Fame. This exhibit closes when the schools are closed, which often depends on the guards. Weekdays before 5:00 p.m. are your best opportunity to visit. You can see some of the display from outside the school, but you need to go inside for the full viewing experience. A tribute to the graffiti art form, an outgrowth of East Harlem’s cultural creativity, this open-air exhibit was created in 1980 by local graffiti artist Ray “Sting Ray” Rodriguez. Located on E 106th Street near Park Avenue, in the playground section of the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex.
La Marqueta “The Market”. This 83-year-old market (originally called the “Park Avenue Retail Market”) was established in 1936 by NYC mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia. It was during this time that the East Harlem neighborhood was getting a large influx of Hispanic immigrants, and transitioning from Italian Harlem to Spanish Harlem. La Marqueta is a place where you can find hard-to-source ethnic ingredients, as well as a burgeoning sense of community and, sometimes, live cultural music, which can inspire impromptu dancing. Located at 1590 Park Avenue.
Patsy’s Pizzeria. Patsy’s was the first pizzeria to open in NYC, in 1933. The pies are baked in coal ovens, which creates a super-crisp crust. They are topped with a special chunky sauce, made from plum tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, fresh basil and any other toppings you choose. Patsy’s was the preferred hangout of NY Yankee outfielder, Joe DiMaggio. Frank SInatra was another frequent patron. Located at 2287 First Avenue.
Taco Mix. Want the best taco in NYC? Head to Taco Mix! This authentic taqueria serves up authentic Mexican open-faced tacos. Their signature “al pastor” taco has pork that has been roasted on a spit and caramelized with pineapple juice. Located at 234 E 116th Street.
Demolition Depot. Strange as it may seem, Demolition Depot is one of the premiere antique-hunter’s haunts in NYC. In its four stories, you will find unusual treasures from all over the world. There are also great finds on objects that were extracted from historic local hotels and residences before they were demolished or converted to other uses. Located at 216 E 125th Street.
Museum of the City of New York. This unique time-capsule of a museum is entirely focused on the storied history of New York. It is the only museum of its kind and worth a visit. Located at 1220 Fifth Avenue & 103rd Street.
El Museo del Barrio. Part of the famed Fifth Avenue “Museum Mile,” El Museo del Barrio is a tribute to the art of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Latin America. It has special collections of art from artists of color. Although it was founded in 1969, its collections span over 800 years of Hispanic culture. It houses a permanent collection of some 6,500 objects, many of which are not to be seen in collections anywhere else. Not only does El Museo have a comprehensive art exhibit, but it also holds educational events, discussions, and cultural festivities throughout the year. There is even a cafe on the premises, which features Pan-Latin cuisine. Located at 1230 Fifth Avenue.
Central Park Conservatory Gardens. Behind the elaborate iron gate, which was made in Paris in 1894, you will be transported to another world as you stroll through the Central Park Conservatory Gardens. Many native New Yorkers do not even know that these enchanting gardens exist. There are three distinct gardens. The Italian Garden has a 12-foot tall fountain and beautifully tiered hedges, the English garden features perennial plants and shrubs, such as you might see in England, and then there’s the French Garden, renowned for the Three Dancing Maidens sculpture, created by German sculptor Walter Schott in 1910. Located at 402 Fifth Avenue and 104th Street.
What You Might See
There are interesting and colorful murals created on the sides of many buildings in East Harlem, depicting neighborhood life and making social commentary. One of the most famous, The Spirit of East Harlem, is on the side of a four-story building at Lexington Avenue and E 104th Street. It was painted from 1973-1978 by Hank Prussing and restored in the mid-1990s by his apprentice, Manny Vega.
A new mural initiative funded by the Centers for Disease Control, was produced by the Health Department, in collaboration with the 100 Gates Project and the Fund for Public Health in New York City. It was completed in January 2019, and paired mural artists with business owners, resulting in 22 new murals, painted on storefront roll-down security gates. The goal was to beautify the neighborhood to inspire people to get more physical activity by walking and cycling around the neighborhood to enjoy the murals.
What’s In The Future
Gentrification of East Harlem is causing a scarcity of affordable housing, as many landlords with vacant properties are allowing commercial businesses to occupy their ground floors, while maintaining residential property on floors above in a vacant status, in effect “warehousing” this property, waiting for the area to develop and an influx of potential tenants who can pay the higher prices they will charge.
Demographics in East Harlem are changing. The Chinese population has been on the rise in East Harlem since 2000. Young professionals are flocking to newly-created luxury properties that are being built on formerly vacant lots.
What You Might Not Know
East Harlem, or more properly “Spanish Harlem” or “The Barrio” has been immortalized in song. First was Ben E. King’s song, “Spanish Harlem,” which was released in 1961. Then the Mamas & The Papas released a cover of the King song in 1966. More recently, Carlos Santana released an album, Supernatural, in 1999 that had two songs mentioning the East Harlem neighborhood, “Maria Maria,” and “Smooth.
East Harlem boasts one of the very few television studios that are located north of midtown. Recently renamed NEP Metropolis, after NEP took over studio management in October 2018, the studio has produced BET shows, and created a website highlighting Puerto Rican culture.
What We Love
The best thing about East Harlem is the authentic expression of Hispanic, Caribbean and Latin American culture, traditions, music and food. The friendly community vibe, a place where you will know your neighbors, make it a more laid-back, neighborly place to live. The innovative schools that are fostering social responsibility and creativity give young families something to aspire to. The green spaces, public playgrounds and proximity to Central Park ensure that you can take a break from the fast pace of city life.