My hometown: East Harlem, New York City. It has problems.


New York City is huge.  There are over 8 million residents and well over 20 million people come through NYC everyday.  New Yorkers are labeled with one tag, New Yorkers.  There is some borough  allegiance but that is fading (sorry Brooklyn, you lost your juice) What is forgotten is the neighborhood allegiances that we hold.  The city is really broken down into tiny fiefdoms, measured by blocks, housing projects and parks. East Harlem is my slice of New York.

El Barrio (its other name – translated from Spanish as “The Neighborhood”) is bordered on the south by 96th street, with its northern border being 125th street.  On the east its bound by the East River and on the west, Madison Avenue.  Within this large swath of northeast Manhattan there are sub-divisions based on public housing projects.  Each project is its own fiefdom and community.  

Growing up, the kids I knew from El Barrio boasted about the toughness of their housing project. It wasn’t uncommon to hear “Yo, fuck Wagner (houses), Carver will house your shit” That might not be exact but something along those lines.  I always felt left out of those debates because I lived in a tenement, we didn’t have the size to boast so we resorted to simply boasting about our block, 102nd street.  It wasn’t much but its what we had.  

Fast forward to today and El Barrio appears to have the same feel. Much of the physical structures are the same and asthetically, it hasn’t changed in my 36 years. The same housing projects are there, the same nickle and dime stores are around, the same poverty is everywhere. Oh sure, there are some minor signs of the New York 90’s – 2000’s revival but not too much.  A few national chains, a few new condos (mostly on 1st avenue, decidedly not my turf) but mostly the same. 

The sameness hurts me.  I want to see progress! I want to see weath growing and new different types of stores, nightlife, anything that will show that El Barrio is moving forward.  Why can Williamsburg explode but not El Barrio? Why can the Meat Packing district explode but not El Barrio? Why is Hell’s Kitchen slowly becoming Clinton Hill, with barely a sniff of its hellish reputation but not El Barrio? I have my thoughts and I’ll list them out:

– The environment and architecture

Large swaths of public housing with there brown monolithic structure. The streets that they cut off from traffic and the setting of buildings off the corners.  What you live in matters.  What it looks like matters.  The look types of buildings in a neighborhood matter.  Without the bones to change,  a neighborhood can never recover.

– The derelict buildings

Walk down Third Avenue on the east side of the street and look across at the buildings on the west side – what do you notice? Store fronts, with boarded up apartments.  We have a single slum lord who prevents development of mixed use buildings. Mixed use is important.  What happens today is that when the stores close,  there is no life on the streets.  Having mixed or a living neighborhood is essential to change. People need to live, stores need to be open and a street should be alive as many hours as possible.

– Poor education

I don’t have the numbers but just from looking around at the numbers of teen mothers and kids around during the day, that something is amiss with El Barrio’s education. This is a city problem but it affects every neihborhood.

– Poor health

There are very few healthy food options. Which can contribute to getting sick. Sick people, lead to missed work, lead to missed school, lead to poverty. I know, it sounds insane but its a fact. 

– Filth and dilapidation.

This is not the fault of the residents or a an indictment on them. The neighborhood suffers from neglect by the city.  The subway stations are rotting. (specifically 103rd Street which floods). The street lights are dim or out, garbage is on the street which leads to rats running around, which lead to illness. Everything is connected. Not a place to feel awesome about.

– Apathy and defeat a.k.a. ghetto mentality

All of the above make it hard for the residents of El Barrio to feel there is a way out or a chance.  Their physical environment, health and general well-being is dragged down so their spirits naturally are dragged down.  Having grown up there, that feeling of helplessness seeped into my ethos. The feeling that you aren’t good enough, that the world doesn’t care about you and why should you give a fuck. I am not saying everyone feels this way, but the desperation is on peoples faces. The poor face a hurdle that is never discussed, the mental hurdle of feeling like anything you do matters in the greater scheme of things.

I understand I am not offering solutions just yet,  but I will.  Mark my words I will. Stay tuned.  What do you think we should do to help El Barrio?


Originally appeared from

By Laurent Courtines

I'm here and I am ready to go. Been doing my homework and I have things to say.

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