East Harlem History and Culture, Soon a Thing of the Past?

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IMG_7161By Robert Waddell

New York is an ever-changing place, for good or ill. Last year there were two exhibitions celebrating the New York Landmarks Conservancy law that preserved many grand, old architectural buildings from demolition.

This was the law that saved Grand Central Station but came three years too late to save the majestic Penn Station – where the soon-to-be-demolished Madison Square Garden now stands. One show at the Arsenal Gallery and the other at The Museum of the City of New York told stories of how a group of people banded together to save the city’s history and beauty.

On Tuesday March, 22, former political prisoner Dylcia Pagan was honored in El Barrio where she was seen in video with supporters saying, “El Barrio no se vende!” (“East Harlem is not for sale”). To be sure, more and more of the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican culture is in danger of being lost – as was the case with Michelle Cruz’s “The East Harlem Café” on Lexington Avenue and 104th street, which recently went out of business.

Speaking of change – and sounding like an old geezer – I remember when Hollywood Video was a block away from my house before it became a men’s clothing store. Blockbuster video was a subway ride away. The local Hallmark store has given way to a big-box store. The neighborhood theater is now a Marshalls. Gone are two local diners – one that served the most delicious spinach pie.

Change and gentrification go on everywhere. For example, Times Square was once a squalid, film-noir scene of depravity that gave way to a happy haven for tourists seeking Madame Toussards and the comforts of home at Applebees, McDonalds, and Red Lobster. Without the dealers and the hookers, the twisted crossroads of the world has gone middle-of-the-road.

Farther downtown, the Moondance diner – where Jonathan Larson wrote “Rent” – the Great Jones Diner, and the mecca of punk CBGBs are all distant memories, as are the city’s movie revival houses. That’s right kids, before Netflix and Hulu there were movie theaters that programmed old movies. Before YouTube, there were Tower Records and Blockbuster Video.

In recent years, New York has become a blob of unimaginative, gentrified glass and metal. Thank goodness, some old architectural structures with character, charm, and art have been preserved, but the new stuff is a mediocre modern morass.

As if gentrifying a community and displacing people were not bad enough, the cooptation of culture is an integral part of this change.

This brings to mind the new “affordable” housing development in East Harlem – where very few New Yorkers can afford $100,000 one-bedroom apartments. There goes El Barrio as those in power have silently continuing the Bloomberg administration’s policy that living in New York City should be a privilege.

In my old neighborhood Mott Haven, the creeping gentrification has also arrived – first with artists and then developers who attempt to erase the last 100 years of history and culture by re-branding the South Bronx as the “Piano District.”

Last year, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, there was a celebration of the history of the Young Lords Party. What many may not know is that the Lords began in Chicago as an organization fighting against gentrification, and that founder Jose “Cha-Cha” Jiménez once had a landlord pull a gun on him.

Maybe today, with so many worthy movements, the essence of the Young Lords Party needs to be revived. How about this for a slogan: “El Barrio Matters!”

 

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