Andrew Padilla (left) shares a laugh with Edwin Torres, longtime East Harlem resident and author of Carlito's Way, at the film's New York City premiere. (Photo : elbarriotours.tumblr.com)
You're still more likely to hear Spanish than English on the streets of El Barrio. The neighborhood, which stretches from 96 street up to 142, bounded by Fifth Avenue to the west and the river to the east, is lined with the same corner stores, carnicerias and Creole restaurants that have crowded its avenues for decades. But, scattered between them are new glass-fronted condos, and abandoned lots are now plastered with "For Sale" signs. Gentrification has taken a firm hold in East Harlem, and these new developments are glaring symbols of the demographic sea change that is radically reshaping the fabric of the neighborhood.
In his documentary "El Barrio Tours," recent Fordham University graduate Andrew Padilla tries to uncover the roots of those changes. The 30-minute film, which chronicles the history of the neighborhood, combines archival footage with interviews with city councilmembers and longtime residents. By illustrating the chronic disinvestment in East Harlem by both the private and public sectors as well as the trials faced by tenants who can no longer afford to stay in their homes, Padilla hopes that his neighbors will be inspired to stop-or at least delay-the rising tide of gentrification.
"We don't talk about gentrification in school or at work," Padilla said in a phone interview. "But we're seeing it all across the city. ... We want to make sure that New York City remains an affordable place for working class people. The point of the project is to kind of wake the neighborhood up and get people involved before their rent goes up."
The community seems to be wide awake. Hundreds showed up for the film's New York City premiere on Friday April 5, filling both the screening and overflow rooms at the CUNY School of Public Health to capacity. The waitlist, Padilla told me, was 500 people long. "El Barrio Tours" debuted last year at the San Diego Latino Film Festival and made its rounds on the festival circuit, winning best short documentary at the Puerto Rico International Film Festival. But for Padilla, the homecoming screening was the most important. These were the people who he needed to get excited and get involved.
A third generation resident of East Harlem, Padilla has spent all 23 years of his life within a three block radius of East 108 Street. For him, the realization that his neighborhood was changing hit home when he began to notice the blurring of the once unbridgeable divide between Yorkville and East Harlem.
"I realized the border was breaking when I started to see wealthier businesses and wealthier tenants move in-people who used to be afraid of coming up here," Padilla said. "I mean, East Harlem was never on any tourist maps! Tourist maps of Manhattan would end at 96 Street. But the flipside was that businesses and families I'd known for a long time started to leave. I realized it was getting far too expensive for the working class to live here and experienced it firsthand when I got my first apartment. ... I've been here 23 years and couldn't afford it anymore."
In one of the most affecting examples of displacement chronicled in the film, Padilla spoke with Maria, a middle-aged woman who has lived in her East Harlem apartment for 28 years. After the death of her husband in 2011, she has been under tremendous pressure from her landlord to relocate. Her kitchen cabinets are green with mildew, aggravating her asthma and forcing her to pile her groceries and dishes in precarious towers on the counter, but she refuses to leave.
"This is all I have," she tells the camera. "These are my memories."
The newcomers make far less sympathetic interview subjects. We see hipsters with feathered headdresses strutting down Lennox Avenue and hear countless interviewees make tone deaf statements about how they now feel safe venturing above 96 Street. Michael, an artfully coiffed Napa transplant who now runs Vinyl Wine, mentions that he opened shop in East Harlem so that the neighborhood could have a liquor store that wasn't walled in behind bulletproof glass. A middle-aged white woman says, "It felt that we were in unfamiliar territory and now it feels like we're in New York."
The homogenization of Manhattan is by now a familiar narrative, but the cycle from economically depressed neighborhood to haven for hip young people to upscale residential community has accelerated. In the outer boroughs, Williamsburg is the favorite example, but Central Harlem, Hell's Kitchen and the Lower East Side have all witnessed dramatic, rapid gentrification in the past two decades. East Harlem is a unique case for two reasons: its proximity to the Upper East Side-one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city-and its dense concentration of public housing. According to Charlie Rangel, who has served 22 consecutive terms as Representative for New York's 13th district, the section of East Harlem that he represents has one of the highest concentrations of public housing in the country, second only to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
Still, soaring rents throughout Manhattan have made residents less choosy about the buildings next door, and the racial and economic composition of East Harlem is undoubtedly changing. Once an enclave of German and Italian immigrants, El Barrio had transformed into an almost entirely Puerto Rican neighborhood by the end of World War II. The area was devastated by the fiscal crises and race riots that ravaged the city in the '60s and '70s, and was also particularly hard hit by the crack epidemic of the 1980s. In the film, Rangel recalls a time when rats ran across the street in broad daylight and residents set their own houses on fire in attempts to recoup their insurance money. Racial lines were fixed and disinvestment was the norm.
In the past decade, however, the white population in East Harlem increased by almost 5,700 according to U.S. Census statistics, while the Hispanic population declined by almost 2,500 people. New arrivals to the neighborhood and tourists like those Padilla interviews in the film rave about the low rents and how safe the area has become. While some dispute the notion that gentrification displaces longtime residents, Padilla insists that the residents who endured the difficult times are slowly being forced out, and worries that they will never be able to unable to enjoy the new amenities the neighborhood has to offer.
"No one in Spanish Harlem or in Harlem is against progress. But we want a seat at the table. We believe that there isn't one vision of progress that leaves the people of the district out of it. ...The media talks about gentrification as if it is inevitable; 'Gentrification equals progress and that is that.' There is never a question of whether development has to be gentrification. We rarely discuss alternatives or involve the community in these conversations."
Padilla developed "El Barrio Tours" with that exact goal in mind. Though he always planned to devote his career to helping the working class of East Harlem, he expected to do so through a career in law. In 2011, however, he left his job as a paralegal at Belluck & Fox after deciding that he didn't want to wait until he had completed law school and worked his way up the corporate ladder to start having an impact. Despite his limited filmmaking experience-he took one film course in high school-Padilla left the firm, moved back in with his parents, and devoted himself to telling this story.
"I felt film was medium could use right now. I thought changing the narrative and getting people involved was something I could do today."
Padilla is largely absent from the film, preferring to let residents share their experiences firsthand. But in the Q&A sessions he holds after each screening he urges viewers to take concrete steps to prevent the erosion of their communities, in East Harlem and in other gentrifying neighborhoods across the country. By joining community meetings, pushing city leaders to incentivize affordable development, and protesting parasitic development projects, residents can restore their sense of agency and ownership over the places they call home.
"The first step," Padilla says, "is to recognize that we are all engaged."