As one emerges from the No. 4 Subway station at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in East Harlem, one arrives on what could only be described as an aggressively conventional 21st-century New York City block: dark, stained, gum-covered sidewalks, angry motorists whipping through traffic with horns-a-blazing, a 99-cent store, a delicatessen and a pawn shop. Were one to walk just a few blocks northeast, to 128th and Second Avenue, and gaze upon the bright orange “Crack is Wack” mural in the Crack is Wack Playground, one may discover that this neighborhood is far from conventional – that this neighborhood is one which had a unique identity, a sordid past, and a story that is quintessentially New York.
Visible from speeding cars on the neighboring Harlem River Drive, the mural present on the handball court today is actually in its second incarnation. In 1986, when artist Mark Haring first created “Crack is Wack,” it was vandalized and changed to read “Crack is It,” and was then promptly painted over by the authorities, according to a Huffington Post article from last year. The public outcry at the time was so great that the Parks Department then permitted Haring to redo his mural, even providing him with paint and a van. That mural still stands today, albeit surrounded by a high, black chain-link fence.
The “Crack is Wack” mural, and the controversies surrounding it, echo back to a particularly tumultuous time in East Harlem’s history, one ruled by gangs and drugs, even against the backdrop of President Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs.”
Even today, the neighborhood is still plagued by crime and other social ills. According to a 2013 article in The New York Times, violent crime spiked seventeen percent in 2012, even as crime in the five boroughs as a whole fell. According to a 2012 report by the Department of City Planning, East Harlem has alarmingly high rates of joblessness, teenage pregnancy, asthma, drug use, homelessness and AIDS.
Portions of the neighborhood, particularly those in the northern reaches of it, such as the area near Crack is Wack Playground, were desolate. Though it is predominantly occupied by light industry, open lots abound in the area north of 125th Street and east of 3rd Avenue. Some of these lots lie fallow and empty, while some larger lots are used for parking – an especially strange sight on the cramped island of Manhattan.
Proceed down 3rd Avenue into the heart of “El Barrio,” Spanish for “the neighborhood,” and things become livelier. It is here where the archaic name “Spanish Harlem” was born. Stores line the busy avenue and the sidewalk is as crowded as any other in Manhattan.
On this stretch East Harlem’s burgeoning street art scene becomes apparent. On the sides of buildings along side-streets, one will encounter a sea of murals on a vast array of topics.
It is also in this area that East Harlem’s Latin-American heritage is truly apparent. Crowds hustle to-and-fro speaking only Spanish, businesses’ signs appear in both Spanish and English, and intermittently the street is filled with the scent of authentic Latin-American street food. Along 116th Street, countless Latin-American eateries line the sidewalk, serving their predominantly Puerto Rican and Mexican clientele.
The Associated Grocery Store on 116th just west of Lexington Avenue appears from the outside to be a rather conventional American grocery store. On the inside, however, one will discover a wide array of Latin-American specialty products, and a large delicatessen and prepared foods department offering up variations that look and smell delicious.
Under the Metro-North tracks above Park Avenue, between 112th and 115th Streets is La Marqueta, a massive market with multiple vendors inside of it. Vendors sell a multitude of items – ranging from groceries to novelty items. In the rear of La Marqueta is Hot Bread Kitchen, where people can watch through windows as the bakers prepare the fresh bread. Typically teeming with life, La Marqueta was surprisingly desolate.
Just north of La Marqueta, under the tracks between 115th and 116th, is Flea Marqueta, a large, multi-level venue with complete with tables and chairs, and even a stage for performances. This too was deserted on Saturday morning.
A few blocks south on Tito Puente Way (110th Street), is the Casablanca Meat Market. Anxious customers waited on a very long line that snaked out the door, into the cold mist, and down a few storefronts for the freshest cuts for their Saturdaymeals.
East Harlem is not purely a Hispanic neighborhood, however. Until World War II, East Harlem was primarily an Italian community, producing Italian-American Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Italian-American actor Al Pacino. East Harlem holds the distinction of being New York’s first “Little Italy,” and its Italian heritage is apparent on 1st Avenue and Pleasant Avenue between 114th and 118th Streets.
Along First Avenue at 118th Street is the world-famous Patsy’s Pizzeria, which still uses coal-fired ovens for an extra-crispy crust. On Pleasant Avenue at 114th Street is Rao’s, the famous Italian restaurant for which one must reserve a table years in advance.
One block north, on 115th between Pleasant and First, is Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church, New York City’s first Italian church. The church is particularly ornate, with high, vaulted ceilings which curve downward and pour into thick Corinthian style marble columns. The church is dimly lit, with light entering only through stained glass windows.
Perhaps the most emblematic attraction within East Harlem is “The Spirit of East Harlem,” a mega-mural near the neighborhood’s southern end – at the corner of 104th Street and Lexington Avenue. The mural depicts a diverse array of ordinary people doing ordinary things: playing dominos, holding children or just standing there and watching the world unfold around them.
The particular area within East Harlem that is probably the most indicative of what direction the neighborhood is moving in lies in the far east – near Rao’s, Patsy’s and Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The brownstones there appear better kept, and the neighborhood feels less edgy and, on the whole, more gentrified. On 116th, east of Pleasant Avenue sits East River Plaza, a large shopping mall complete with Target, Costco, Best Buy and other big box retailers.
The 21st-century forces of gentrification appear to be seeping westward from this area too. Along 3rd Avenue, newer buildings are rising up and are coming to clash with the older construction. The manner in which New York is changing is especially apparent at the corner of 119th Street, where there is a newer building with a dollar store in it, the brand new $135 million building for Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work, an older, more traditional building with a delicatessen, a liquor store and a few other staples, and an empty lot – waiting to be developed.
What will become of that space? That is the question that is ever present in the minds of so many in East Harlem with regard to so many East Harlem locations. But that’s to be still written in the ever-evolving novel that is the history of East Harlem; and still to be immortalized on the walls of its buildings.