Saturday, December 12, 2009

Notes on El Barrio

On a cold, brisk day, I left my cozy little apartment in SoHo, hopped on the 6 train, and traveled up to Spanish Harlem, known as El Barrio to its residents, and "SpaHa" to yuppies and others people who consider themselves "trendy" (in the name SpaHa itself you can see gentrification working...).

My trip started by traveling to the infamous Museo del Barrio, on 5th Ave. There is a HUGE difference between 5th Ave Spanish Harlem and the rest of the neighborhood. For the six blocks on 5th Ave I walked, I felt as if I was just on the Upper East Side. It's right on the Park, the buildings look the same, the street signs say "Museum Mile." Everything was very plain, crisp, and stark, in true Upper East Side style. Current debates about el Museo del Barrio are about the fact that the residents of El Barrio feel as if the el Museo is abandoning them, and no longer reflects the neighborhood. Just walking by el Museo, you can see and feel what they mean.

The rest of El Barrio is scattered with projects, Bodegas, liquor stores, small family run restaurants, and walk-ups. The number of projects within such a small area that I walked around was amazing. Everywhere. They were just everywhere. And then surrounding them is nothing-ness. No grocery stories. No libraries. No shops. No doctors offices. Just more projects. All I could think of was isolation.

Even with that though, El Barrio has a fantastic feel about it. Everywhere you look, there are Puerto Rician or American flags. And not just one, numerous. Hanging from the same window or banister. Pride on display. Families were out buying Christmas trees. People were sitting out of the street or on their stoops, playing music and socializing with each other. Even though they have been isolated from the rest of Manhattan, the residents seem unscathed. I can only imagine how much harder life must be up on 103rd, but morale is clearly up and not going anywhere. My favorite thing I found was a mural on a wall on 117th with the words "La esperanza es comolas galletas de animalitos... no sirve de nada si no se lleva dentro..." ("Hope is like animal crackers... It doesn't do any good if you don't carry it inside of you"). Even with all the projects, the lack of resources or access to resources, the residents have hope. And good taste in cookies.

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