Wandering in Spanish Harlem, New York City

storefronts-Spanish Harlem

Winter bit down hard the day following my ramble through DUMBO and across the Brooklyn Bridge. Nonetheless, I decided to check out Spanish Harlem (also called El Barrio and East Harlem)

This might have been overly ambitious.

Temperatures had fallen at least 20 degrees overnight, and clouds scudded before a cold wind. I put on all my clothing layers and caught the M60 bus that lumbers south along Broadway to 125th, then east to Madison Avenue, which looks a lot different in this corner of Manhattan.

the wrong end of Madison Avenue

This is the upper, upper east side. This is the Spanish Harlem memorialized in song by Ben E. King . (There is a rose in Spanish Harlem…) This is the neighborhood that became “Latin” in two immigrant waves, mostly from Puerto Rico, following the World Wars, and that became a war zone in the 1960s when riots, drugs, gangs, and general mayhem overran the streets.

Puerto Rican on a chicken-bike

To me, Spanish Harlem sounded more like romance than ghetto warfare, but my fantasy began to fray as I walked along deserted Madison Avenue under the elevated train. I zig-zagged to 116th–the unofficial heart of the neighborhood–and the scene began to liven up.

Street vendors braved the elements, and Mexican restaurants and off-brand churches were tucked into nooks every few feet.

"downtown" Spanish Harlem



I continued south, following streets that looked interesting and noting restaurants I might want to return to.

One of many public housing projects


Along the way, I understood why this area had once been so violent. I passed by dozens of tenements, those bleak and scary low-income housing projects that were incubators for crime and disease. I lived in the ghetto in Detroit in the 1970s, and I can still remember the “projects” looming in the near distance. They were so forbidding, so full of violence and misery, that they were a burned-out no-man’s land, even in the ghetto.

These were different. Old folks and children were on the street. Teenagers were just…teens, not hoodlums. This was Stuyvesant Town in Goodwill attire. Apparently, the bad old days were gone–and good riddance. Not that all is hunky-dory, however. While nice, middle-class Stuytown has restaurants and markets around every corner, the population density here is staggering, and markets are few. The neighborhood is known as a “food desert.”

Now, I’m staying in a food desert in the Inwood neighborhood, and I can tell you that it’s a bloody nuisance. Try carrying 50 pounds of groceries back home on the subway. And there are far more markets and tiny bodegas where I live.

the minaret between the condos and the projects

My destination was the southern boundary of El Barrio on 96th Street where I’d heard the kingdom of Kuwait had built the people a brand new mosque.

By the time I made it to 96th, I was cold and hungry. I walked along the street, looking for this elusive mosque that was supposed to take up a city block. There! Squeezed between luxury condos on one side and projects on the other was the Islamic Cultural Center of New York.

Now what?

I wandered around the perimeter, far too shy to breach the walls. Two women were selling snacks on the streets. They wore bulky coats, black headscarves, and the big smiles of people who are anxious to explain themselves.

“Do you know about Islam? Did you want to visit the mosque?” they asked.

When I said I didn’t know much about Islam, the older woman, who was a head shorter than I, peered over her glasses and launched into a breathless and heavily accented short course on her religion.

She told me about the Five Pillars, and that she was never able to make the haj to Mecca because her father was paralyzed and her brother couldn’t afford to go and a single woman cannot go alone. “That is my sin,” she said, finally coming up for air.

“No, no. Allah forgives. You could not go,” said the younger, taller, and beefier woman, who was from Ghana.

I learned that Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were all Muslim, even though Mohammed hadn’t been born yet. “It is in the Scriptures,” said my teacher nodding and gesticulating and peering over her glasses.

I learned that, when Jesus was a tiny baby and Mary was being harrassed by the neighbors, “Mary said nothing, but she pointed with one finger (my teacher forcefully pantomimed the gestures) to the tiny baby. Jesus began to talk! He said, ‘That is my mother, and I am a prophet.’ ”

I guess that shut up all the naysayers.

I walked back to the bus stop, noticing all the churches, both grand and storefront, in the neighborhood. More churches than bars or grocery stores. This place may be a food desert, but it’s not a faith desert.

I ducked into a Cuban restaurant for a terrific meal of beef and onions sliced thin in a vinegar-y barbeque sauce with a side of black beans and rice. And an incredibly rich flan for dessert.

Overall, Spanish Harlem was more Harlem than Spanish. More gritty than scary. Probably more interesting than I could learn in an afternoon.

A bakery in El Barrio--not your mother's birthday cakes.







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2 Responses to Wandering in Spanish Harlem, New York City

  1. Kate 21 January, 2012 at 9:42 am #

    You’re probably remembering the Spanish Harlem in days of yore, when it was like Detroit in the 1970s. I’m actually finding New York to be very walkable and visitable. I haven’t really been in neighborhoods I felt unsafe in. This was a surprise because the density of low-income housing was so high. But it was just a neighborhood.

  2. Jean 20 January, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    What an interesting adventure!
    I’d be afraid to venture into Spanish Harlem. I try not to worry about you doing your thing in some parts of the world.
    Thanks for the sharing.