NFT New York El Barrio

El Barrio

El Barrio, also known as Spanish Harlem or East Harlem (just don't call it "SpaHa"), is a neighborhood that is alive with history and culture--Puerto Rican, African American, Mexican, Italian, Dominican and increasingly's really one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. It's not uncommon to find people playing congas on the street or riding tricked-out bicycles with Puerto Rican tunes blasting from their radios. You can feel a real sense of community in the bodegas and on the streets as residents chat up their neighbors and warmly greet one another with "Papi" or "Mami." In the summer locals crowd into Thomas Jefferson Park and the abundant community gardens provide locals with the perfect chill out spots. Exploring this neighborhood is highly recommended.

But it's not all pretty. East Harlem has been through some tough times in the past few decades to say the least. And unfortunately, to a lot of New Yorkers, it is still a place to avoid. See more.

>Keith Haring's "Crack is Wack" Mural is a symbol of the urban decay in the 1970s and '80s when drugs, poverty, and violence ravaged the neighborhood. Burnt-out buildings were the norm and social problems skyrocketed. Today concrete housing projects dominate the landscape (some very unique like Taino Towers) with a few vacant lots here and there, but crime is way down and rents are creeping up.

In recent years the neighborhood has rapidly changed with new condos sprouting up everywhere (some even with doormen), a growing Mexican population moving in (check out 116th Street between Second and Third for amazing food and groceries), and even a touch of suburbia with the gigantic Costco that opened in 2009.

Before the Puerto Rican migration, Italians used to call East Harlem home. In the 1930s there were tens of thousands of immigrants from Southern Italy living here. The Italian legacy has almost entirely disappeared with the last of the great bakeries closing a few years ago. Today there are only a few remnants left including the gorgeous Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (the first Italian church in New York), the Virgen del Carmen Shrine, and restaurants like Rao's and Patsy's Pizza.

Underneath the Metro-North viaduct is another remnant of the old neighborhood, the historic public market La Marqueta. Established by Mayor LaGuardia in 1936, this place was the hub of shopping activity for decades with over 500 vendors. Now it only has a few businesses left selling Puerto Rican delicacies like bacalao. But it is slowly being revived by the city with new vendors selling everything from baked goods to garden supplies. In the meantime, locals pack the public plaza (that looks more like a cage) between 115th & 116th Street on Saturdays in the summer for live music and dancing.

To see the neighborhood in full party mode, head here for the second weekend in June when the Puerto Rican Day Parade is in full swing. On Sunday the parade strolls down Fifth Avenue, but on Saturday Third Avenue and 116th Street come alive for a full-on Puerto Rican party--live music, barbecues on the sidewalk, and lots of Nuyorican pride.

Camaradas is your one-stop hot spot for drinks and live entertainment from old-school DJs to Latin grooves. Mojitos has a friendly bar to knock back a few drinks. The Duck is an uptown country dive that's as weird as it sounds; requisite women-dancing-on-bar vibe.

Patsy's pizza really is the "original" New York thin-crust pizza. The slices from the take-out window are the best in NYC. Unless you know the Mayor, Rao's is another New York restaurant you'll never see the inside of. 116th Street is a budget culinary wonderland. Try Taco Mix, Sandy, or El Nuevo Caridad.

Casablanca Meat Market is always packed, and for good reason with excellent homemade sausages. For do-it-yourself projects The Demolition Depot is a gold mine (but where do they get this stuff?). Latin music fans swear by Casa Latina Music Store. There's even a touch of suburbia in East Harlem with Costco.


On Our Radar:

Posted By:  Craig Nelson
Photo:  Craig Nelson

Sandy Restaurant
Have you heard the news? This nagging recession isn't going away anytime soon like we all hoped. So unless you're a banker or oil executive, you're probably on the look out for cheap eats in New York. And if you happen to work for an indie travel publisher, then this means you need to find really really really cheap eats. Up in East Harlem is one of our long time go-to spots for a hearty lunch. Each day brings a different line up of $6 specials like a chicken leg or oxtail stew with a heaping pile of yellow rice, red beans, and plantains. If you need to go cheaper try a ham and cheese sandwich for $3 or if you a few extra dollars lying around splurge on the lechon asado or pernil--both very tasty pork options. And if you can't make it at lunch time, no worries. They stay open until 2 am for all your Dominican fried food late-night cravings.

Posted By:  Layne Mosler
Photo:  Layne Mosler

The good thing about Cuchifritos is that the food stays fresh because it turns over quickly--it's always crowded with Puerto Ricans craving a taste of home. Even though there are no tables, it's the kind of place where you can eat and run--or eat and linger at the counter while chatting with the stranger next to you. Red neon, furious fluorescents, and Coney Island-style staff uniforms create a festive backdrop for a artery-clogging fritters and delicious tropical juices like jugo de parcha (passion fruit). Among the deep-fried delicacies, alcapurria--crispy yucca flour stuffed with flavorful mixture of beef and peppers--is a winner. Saffron rice and gandules (pigeon peas flavored with sofrito, salt pork, and adobo) are great, too, and you can order just about every part of the pig here, including ears and feet.

Posted By:  Dave Cook
Photo:  Dave Cook

Mi Mexico Lindo Bakery
In an old-school Mexican bakery, the goodies don't hide behind glass. Do like the locals do: Take a tray and a pair of tongs, and help yourself from the towering wheeled racks and the enticing displays by the window. There's little English spoken here, and the individual trays don't indicate the names of all these baked goods (let alone the ingredients or even the prices), but every time I visit, I find something tasty–most recently, an airy sugar-dusted twist with a hidden vein of chocolate. I've never found anything that costs more than two bucks, and under a dollar is not uncommon.

Posted By:  Craig Nelson
Photo:  Craig Nelson

Patsy's Pizzeria
So everyone has their favorite New York pizza—DiFara’s, Arturo’s, Totonno’s, and so on. We could argue all night long (over pizza and beer of course) about the ultimate pizzeria. But when it comes to grabbing the perfect slice in New York, unfortunately, the pickings are pretty slim. In fact, there’s really only one option—Patsy’s in East Harlem. Patsy’s keeps their take-out business simple (translated: run down), and that’s the beauty of it. There’s a soda machine, one chair, a tiny counter to stand at, and a tv tuned to Telemundo. Oh, and they only offer one type of slice—cheese. That’s it. Don’t even think of jumping on the M15 if you’re in the mood for arugula and shaved pecorino. Fresh pies come out of the oven non-stop to feed the hungry workmen who double park on First Avenue and the locals who run in for an afternoon snack. Grab a slice, and taste the nice char from the coal-fired oven that blends perfectly with the sauce and cheese from the legendary Patsy recipe. The grand total to achieve pizza bliss? $1.50. I’ll take a dozen, please.

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Restaurants (27)
Nightlife (5)
Shopping (44)
Landmarks (8)