Formerly Spanish Harlem, this vibrant district has changed its moniker to suit its new style.
Wed May 20 2009
Photographs: Beth Levendis
El Barrio. Spanish Harlem. SpaHa. Whatever you call it (hopefully, not that last one), East Harlem is a-changing. As the tony Upper East Side pushes north past 96th Street, reconfiguring the nabe’s southern boundary, luxury condos, upscale retailers and trendy eateries have been popping up all over Manhattan’s northeastern ’hood. Although the economic downturn may slow gentrification, students, artists and families continue to move there, drawn by cheaper housing, some solid schools and eclectic culture.
Check it out
East Harlem runs along the northeast section of Central Park, which includes the Conservatory Garden (Fifth Ave at 104th St) and catch-and-release fishing spot the Harlem Meer (Fifth Ave between 106th and 110th Sts). Also there: the Dana Discovery Center (110th St between Fifth Ave and Malcolm X Blvd), an educational facility that offers families free summer concerts and the annual Halloween parade and pumpkin sail. When the Museum of African Art opens on Fifth Avenue in early 2010, Museum Mile will officially extend to 110th Street. El Museo del Barrio (1230 Fifth Ave, 212-831-7272), the Latino cultural institution, is known for its annual Three Kings Day celebration in January; although its galleries are closed for renovations until the fall, its theater continues to present family programming. Stroll east or north of the park, and the scenery changes. Tenements, makeshift community gardens and housing projects stand alongside revamped townhouses and high-rises, a fitting metaphor for the shifting demographics.
What local families do
Got an eye for offbeat art? Swing by the outdoor Graffiti Hall of Fame (Park Ave at 106th St), which boasts some of the coolest street styling this side of a ’70s subway car. The Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center (1680 Lexington Ave, 212-831-4333) houses the Taller Boricua gallery and hosts community arts performances. Thomas Jefferson Park (111th to 114th Sts between First and Pleasant Aves)—in the heart of what used to be Italian Harlem—features a track, a pool, and courts for basketball and baseball. Families looking to expand can adopt a rescued dog or cat at the Manhattan Animal Care Center (326 E 110th St, 212-788-4000).
The three main shopping drags—116th Street, 125th Street and Third Avenue—are dotted with beauty salons, jewelry boutiques and discount stores like Half Off Clothing (2146 Third Ave, 212-427-9780). The La Marqueta marketplace (Park Ave between 111th and 116th Sts, under Metro-North’s tracks), which served as the hub of the Hispanic community for decades, at its height comprised hundreds of stalls. Today only six remain, but the city has plans to revitalize the space. Until then, East River Plaza (FDR Dr between 116th and 119th Sts), tentatively set to open this October, will offer residents a veritable urban mall, complete with a Costco and Target.
It’s doubtful that you’ll be able to score a table at hot spot Rao’s (455 E 114th St, 212-722-6709, raos.com), unless you’re a celebrity. But there are plenty of other options, and most don’t require reservations. Local chain El Paso Taqueria (various locations; go to elpasotaqueria.com) dishes out tasty Mexican meals at low prices. Orbit (2257 First Ave, 212-348-7818, orbiteastharlem.com) is locals’ first choice for brunch—every item is under 10 bucks. La Tropezienne Bakery (2131 First Ave, 212-860-5324) serves sophisticated treats, like cinnamon eclairs, but kids will be overjoyed with the $2 cupcake.