East Harlem

East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem and El Barrio, is a section in Harlem, a neighborhood of United States, in the north-eastern part of the borough of Manhattan.  The neighborhood boundaries are Harlem River to the north, the East River to the east, East 96th Street to the south, and 5th Avenue to the West. The neighborhood is part of Manhattan Community Board 11. The primary business hub of East Harlem has historically been East 116th Street from 5th Avenue headed east to its termination at the FDR Drive.

The construction of the elevated transit to Harlem in the 1880s urbanized the area, precipitating the construction of apartment buildings and brownstones. Harlem was first populated by German immigrants, but soon after Irish, Italian, and Eastern European Jewish immigrants began settling in Harlem. In East Harlem, Southern Italians and Sicilians soon predominated and the neighborhood became known as Italian Harlem, the Italian American hub of Manhattan. In 1895, Union Settlement Association, one of the oldest settlement houses in New York City, began providing services in the neighborhood, offering the immigrant and low-income residents a range of community-based programs, including boys and girls clubs, a sewing school and adult education classes.

Puerto Rican immigration after the First World War established an enclave at the western portion of Italian Harlem (around 110th Street and Lexington Avenue), which became known as Spanish Harlem. The area slowly grew to encompass all of Italian Harlem as Italians moved out and Hispanics moved in another wave of immigration after the Second World War.



In the 1920s and early 1930s, Italian Harlem was represented by future Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in Congress, and later by Italian-American socialist Vito Marcantonio. Italian Harlem lasted in some parts into the 1970s in the area around Pleasant Avenue. It still celebrates the first Italian feast in New York City, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Some remnants of Italian Harlem, such as Rao’s restaurant, started in 1896, and the original Patsy’s Pizzeria which opened in the 1933, still remain.

East Harlem was one of the hardest hit areas in the 1960s and 1970s as New York City struggled with deficits, race riots, urban flight, drug abuse, crime and poverty. Tenements were crowded, poorly maintained and frequent targets for arson. In 1969 and 1970, a regional chapter of the Young Lords which were reorganized from a neighborhood street gang in Chicago by Jose (Cha-Cha) Jimenez, ran several programs including a Free Breakfast for Children and a Free Health Clinic to help Latino and poor families. The Young Lords coalesced with the Black Panthers and called for Puerto Rican self-determination and neighborhood empowerment.

The neighborhood is expanding. It is also home to one of the few major television studios north of midtown, Metropolis (106th St. and Park Ave.), where shows like BET’s 106 & Park and Chappelle’s Show have been produced.


Medical Access

Major medical care providers include Metropolitan Hospital Center, North General Hospital and Mount Sinai Hospital, which serves residents of East Harlem and the Upper East Side. Many of the graduates of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine have pursued careers in public health initiatives critical to East Harlem, including the battle against asthma, diabetes, unsafe drinking water, lead paint and infectious diseases.

Famous Residents
Many famous artists have lived and worked in East Harlem, including the renowned timbalero Tito Puente (110th Street was renamed “Tito Puente Way”), Jazz legend Ray Barretto and one of Puerto Rico’s most famous poets, Julia de Burgos among others. Piri Thomas wrote a best-selling autobiography titled, “Down These Mean Streets” in 1967. Also the contemporary artist Soraida Martinez, the painter and creator of “Verdadism,” was born in East Harlem in 1956. Most recently, Assemblyman Nelson Antonio Denis wrote and directed Vote For Me!, a feature film about East Harlem politics.[5][6][7]

The Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts, home to the Raices Latin Music Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate, serves as a focus for theatre, dance, and musical performance in the neighborhood, as well as its hosting the annual competition to award the Charlie Palmieri Memorial Piano Scholarship, a scholarship established in Palmieri’s memory by Tito Puente for the benefit of intermediate and advanced young (12-25) pianists’ study of Latin-style piano.[8]

Cultural Museums

El Museo del Barrio, a museum of Latin American and Caribbean art and culture is located on nearby Museum Mile and endeavors to serve some of the cultural needs of the neighboring community. The Museum of the City of New York is immediately south, followed by the New York Academy of Medicine. The Conservatory Garden is just across Fifth Avenue from the museums. The Museum for African Art will join these to the north at Duke Ellington Circle. There is a diverse collection of religious institutions in East Harlem: from mosques, a Greek Orthodox monastery, several Roman Catholic churches, including Church of the Holy Rosary (New York City), and a traditional Russian Orthodox church. A former church was transformed into the home of the National Museum of Catholic Art and History.


Urban Renewal & Gentrification

After a wave of arson ravaged the low income communities of New York City throughout the 1970s and “planned shrinkage” policies, many of the residential structures in East Harlem were left seriously damaged or destroyed. By the late 1970s, the city began to rehabilitate many abandoned tenement style buildings and designate them low income housing.

From 1996 to 2000, State Assemblyman Nelson Antonio Denis enacted reforms that broke down the “Berlin Wall of Bank Lending” between East Harlem and directly adjacent communities. Through Community Reinvestment Act legislation, public hearings, press conferences, CRA testimony throughout New York State and Washington, D.C., and advocacy on the New York State Assembly Banking Committee, Assemblyman Denis compelled banks to double their lending to home owners and small business persons in East Harlem, the Bronx, and other distressed areas throughout New York State.[23]

Assemblyman Denis cemented these gains by invoking the 1975 Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) and conducting a census tract by census tract study, of CRA compliance in the 68th Assembly District and other underserved communities.

Go Green East Harlem!

Go Green East Harlem! a collaborative initiative sponsored by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s Office. Go Green partners include WE ACT, North General Hospital, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, the City Department of Health, Manhattan Community Board 11, State Senator Jose Serrano, and the Little Sisters of the Assumption. Go Green aims to create community sustainability and is working to address six environmental issues in East Harlem: public health and asthma, parks and open space, sustainable business, farmers’ markets and healthy eating, green building, and transportation.[24] Go Green also recently launched a new East Harlem Green Market, open both Saturday and Sunday, to expand community access to healthy, fresh food.

Recognizing the need for access to recreational facilities in East Harlem, English football club Manchester City, in partnership with the embassy of the UAE, funded, planned, designed and built a rooftop soccer pitch on the roof of the PS 72 Lexington Academy[25]. The pitch was formally opened in July 2010.

In recent years, property values in East Harlem have climbed along with those in the rest of the Manhattan and the metro area. Many people priced out of more affluent sections of the city have begun to look at East Harlem as an up and coming area due to the neighborhood’s proximity to Manhattan’s core and subway accessibility. With increased market rate housing, including luxury condos and co-ops, there has been a severe decline of affordable housing in the community.


[1] Lee, Denny (July 21, 2002). “Neighborhood Report: East Harlem; A ‘Museo’ Moves Away From Its Barrio Identity”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-03.
[5] a b Navarro, Mireya (May 6, 2003). “Smile, You’re on Candidate Camera: With an Insider’s Eye, a Film Skewers Harlem Politics”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-07-18.
[6] Araujo, Richard, (5/3/03), Comedia Politica desde El Barrio, El Nuevo Dia,
[7] Vega, Maria, (4/17/03), Un Voto Comprometido con el Cine, El Diario La Prensa,
[8] Article on the Charlie Palmieri Memorial Piano Scholarship at
[23] Harrigan, Susan (November 17, 1995). “Minority Lending at Issue in Chemical-Chase Merger”. New York Newsday.
[24] > Programs > Sustainable Development > Go Green East Harlem
p26 Williams, Timothy (January 21, 2007). “As East Harlem Develops, Its Accent Starts to Change”. The New York Times: pp. 1. Retrieved 2009-01-03.