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Spanish Harlem: A New York City Neighborhood with a Changing Reputation - 2002-08-21

New York City's historic Harlem neighborhood is one of the most important cultural centers for African Americans in the United States. But Harlem is also home to more than 100,000 Hispanic Americans, mostly from the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, which has U.S. commonwealth status.

The sweltering heat from record-high summer temperatures in New York City does not stop four retired men from playing their daily domino game outside on the streets of Spanish Harlem.

They grew accustomed to the heat growing up on the tropical island of Puerto Rico.

It is not unusual for people to gather on the streets of Spanish Harlem, which many Hispanic residents call "el barrio," or "the neighborhood" in Spanish. It is also referred to as "East Harlem," because of its physical location.

Jose Rivera is the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, who settled in Spanish Harlem about 50 years ago. "When you grow up here, you are used to the dynamics of the people mixing, the noise, music and the cars. And when you do not see that somewhere else, actually, compared to this place, every place else will seem dead," he said.

The neighborhood's working class community expresses a festive Hispanic flavor. Puerto Rican flags hang from open windows. Spanish music and lively conversation fill the outdoors into the late evening.

Despite its name, about one-third of Spanish Harlem is African-American. And while most of the Hispanics, who make up more than 50 percent of the population in the neighborhood are Puerto Rican, Mexicans are moving in, opening restaurants and shops bringing in new cultural and musical styles. Although members of the mixed community in Spanish Harlem coexist peacefully, some Hispanic residents say that the African American part of greater Harlem, "black Harlem" gets all the attention.

New York artist and Spanish Harlem native, James de la Vega is trying to change that. He is known throughout New York City for drawings and messages he creates on city sidewalks. But he returns home to Spanish Harlem to sell his work and to beautify the streets, once falling apart and covered with graffiti.

"You see people interacting on the streets with each other. There is a lot going on here. But it is also a tough place. There's a toughness about these streets also. One of the reasons I try to preserve the concept of Spanish Harlem is because Harlem always gets positive attention. And then Spanish Harlem almost gets squashed in this whole thing. So I try to promote a positive image for these streets," Mr. de la Vega said.

Jose Rivera is also eager to promote a positive view of "el barrio," which he calls the "orphan" of Harlem. During his spare time he creates an Internet Web site dedicated to cultural and political activities, challenging Spanish Harlem's reputation as a dangerous neighborhood.

Recently, crime has dropped in Spanish Harlem due to an increase in police presence and community activism. But illegal drug dealers and users can still be spotted on Spanish Harlem's streets.

Ironically, its negative reputation has, in some ways, benefited the community by keeping housing prices low. Mr. Rivera predicts change is on the way. "We will be displaced sooner or later. I think we will, because of the housing market. It is sad. But for now the reputation has kept people away and it has let us live here for about 40 or 50 years. It is not a great thing to say. We would like to stay here. It would be nice. To stay here to buy homes, besides being renters, become homeowners and have a bigger investment in the community," Mr. Riveria said.

Mr. Rivera works as a liaison between Spanish Harlem and an organization that promotes economic development throughout the area, called Upper Manhattan. The group helped bring new shopping complexes and middle class housing to Spanish Harlem. But residents, like Mr. Rivera say they cannot afford to buy the new expensive homes. They also worry about rising rents as housing costs soar throughout the city.

Iris, a home caregiver who did not want to give her last name, says she can barely afford the $800 per month she pays for a one bedroom apartment in Spanish Harlem. But she is determined to stay in the neighborhood.

Iris moved back to Spanish Harlem after a year in Puerto Rico. She found island life boring. "I've been here all my life. I'm a city girl. I'm an East Harlem girl. I lived in Puerto Rico, but I would rather live here," she said.

Talk also turns to rising rents at the daily domino game. But for now, the retired residents of Spanish Harlem say they are not going anywhere. After all, "el barrio" is home. They have their community, their culture and the rest of New York City just around the corner.