Gentrification, in an attempt to summarize an entire socioeconomic trend with the potential to afflict thousands of residents within these neighborhoods into an objective single sentence, is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as:
: the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents
Illustrating gentrification through text may capture the macro-affects it brings, such as using statistics reflecting on population, analyzing business and economic trends, and tracking visible changes to the neighborhood. But it is impossible to see the affects of gentrification on a micro-level scale, to the people who are actually afflicted by the changing neighborhood, more specifically, their changing home, unless you are an expert at that specific area and are able to reflect on the area before and after this transformation.
Gentrification was at first, an insidious speculation amongst Spanish Harlem, with minute, almost unnoticeable changes. (ie. A new restaurant, or a new bar) It wasn’t until one day, a a construction site that has been there for so long that it eventually just became a part of that block to those who saw it each day slapped a huge banner advertising a new luxury condominium building to enter the neighborhood. Soon, the tiniest snowball of one single fancy building within an entire neighborhood rolled down a hill almost as steep as the one on 102nd and Lexington. Maybe the first building posed as an experiment to see how its residents and the neighborhood would react, but its apparent success soon signaled similar additions to the neighborhood so rapidly I (someone who has lived through the changes, and saw the process of constructing what stands in Spanish Harlem today) barely had time to realize what was to happen in the forthcoming years.
The buildings, and restaurants are the only catalysts for the changes in gentrification that lie beneath the surface. The demographic has brought changes to the population living in Spanish Harlem, as well as making Spanish Harlem a trendy area of New York.
A harmless nickname
The term “SpaHa” is coined as a new nickname for Spanish Harlem.The nickname is catchy, clever, and harmless, as it abbreviates SPAnish HARlem into two syllables. The nickname follows the same fashion as popular districts such as SoHo, NoHo, all areas tourists flock to for their visits to New York, but more substantially noticeable, is the population which is predominantly Caucasian. The moniker’s origin caught on in 2010, when I specifically remember AMNY- a daily newspaper free and distributed all throughout subway stations in New York featuring an article about the rise of SpaHa as Manhattan’s fastest trending neighborhood. Pre-existing nicknames for areas in New York such as SoHo (South of Houston), DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), TriBeCa (Triangle Below Canal), are all popular locations with many sites to visit and activities that make them unique in their own way. SpaHa’s nickname being generated in 2010 reflects the changing attitude New York has about Spanish/East Harlem. This patch of land has always been rich and embedded in its Puerto Rican and Mexican roots, but it wasn’t until the luxury buildings catering to trendy and wealthy populations started popping up did New York deem us worthy to have a catchy nickname.
There were many reactions, but the one that captures the neighborhood best would be confusion.
Omar DeLeon, 32, a construction worker in Queens, is of Mexican descent, and has lived on 103rd street and 3rd avenue for over 15 years. DeLeon’s family and many other relatives have lived in Spanish Harlem for many years as well. “You see a nice, expensive building with lots of rich people living there next to a loosie (cigarettes sold in single amounts, “loose” cigarettes” sold illegally and without government awareness) spot. There are places up here (restaurants, bars, etc) for white people, and then there are places for all the other people (native Spanish Harlem residents). You don’t see them mixed except out on the street.” When asked what changes he thought were to continue happening to Spanish Harlem, DeLeon responded, “It’s called El Barrio (Spanish for The Neighborhood), but you don’t even see that many Spanish people around here anymore. Everything’s also getting more expensive (he gives casual examples of restaurant foods, bar drinks, supermarket groceries, deli snacks, etc..), soon its gonna be too expensive for a lot of people to live here like whats happening already, more and more people are going to get pushed out to cheaper places to live like Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx.”DeLeon spent his days as a young adult with friends in the neighborhood daily. Spanish Harlem provided him with more than just shelter at night, but it was where he found happiness amongst friends and family, lingering the local restaurants and bars as a regular and an expert on the area. His three year old daughter, Rosa, is expected to grow up in Spanish Harlem as well.
Gentrification breeding racism
Gentrifying changes to neighborhoods, not exclusive to Spanish Harlem, are often awkward because they are very visibly displaced in locations where these new sites clearly do not belong. The new buildings springing up are home to the upper class, mingling directly with families of four or more on welfare struggling to get by. Gentrification happened at such an exponential pace its hard to not see it as a ticking time bomb at times, waiting to implode. Tensions have grown out of gentrification, against moving people out of their homes to make way for the upper class, so a feeling of deep rooted resentment grows out of a feeling of injustice on behalf of the community that is being torn apart and forced to make way for a new one. Coalitions against gentrification, most notably, El Barrio Tours of Spanish Harlem have spoken out against the gentrification to the neighborhood, but from the standpoint of the residents moving into the new buildings, it can be understood as being unwanted and excluded from the community they have just moved into. The Spanish community has expressed ongoing discontent at the rise of caucasian population in their neighborhood, but an anger that originated from what was being done to the neighborhood is now being taken out on the next closest thing to the real estate corporations, big businesses, and others who are responsible for making these plans a reality, the people who have moved into the neighborhood. It will definitely be a while before parties on both sides of the gentrification lens can harmonize.