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City Living: East Harlem is accessible spiced with culture

east harlem

east harlem Credit: Check out our photo tour of East Harlem below. (Nancy Borowick)

With a vibrant and artistic culture you can’t find a street in this uptown Manhattan neighborhood that doesn’t speak to its loud and proud Latino community.

East Harlem, famously known as El Barrio, has a rich history of art, music and Puerto Rican culture that can be seen on a stroll around the neighborhood.

Puerto Rican flags anchor many community gardens, colorful murals decorate the tenement cityscape, and Marc Anthony Salsa tunes celebrate it in cars and bodegas.

Locals say they love the neighborhood’s accessibility, its fabulous food and affordable rents.

“There are still good deals in East Harlem,” Coldwell Banker AC Lawrence real estate Billy Briggs said. “You can get a studio apartment on 103rd Street for $1,400 a month.”

Many of the new residents coming into the area are students and new families, Briggs said.

East Harlem is situated in the northeast section of Manhattan.

It can be accessed via the FDR Drive to the east, the Lexington Avenue subway line, and many buses.

In the 1600s, the Wecksquaesgek Natives were the first settlers in the area known today as East Harlem.

Later, according to, it was settled by Dutch settlers led by Peter Stuyvesant who converted it into a farming community and named it Nieuw Haarlem, after a town in Holland.

In 1664, the British invaded, settled in the town and changed its name to Harlem. Today East Harlem has undergone a new migration of people to the neighborhood.

Though Puerto Ricans and African Americans predominantly populate it, new residential developments have attracted Asian and Europeans immigrants to the area because of its affordability and accessibility.

“In the morning on their way to work I see French, Spanish and Chinese from my building’s entrance,” Raphael Benavides, founder of the East Harlem Merchants Association, said.

He moved to the nabe from Long Island 11 years ago, when he purchased a condo on 109th Street at the old Luigi Galvani School, where he also owns the Poet’s Den Theater and Gallery.

People are moving into East Harlem not just due to it’s affordable living prices, but also because of its restaurants and vibrant Latino culture, Benavides said.

El Barrio provides the culture of an outer borough with the allure of saying you live in Manhattan.

“Everybody wants to say I live in New York New York,” Benavides said.

Find it:

East Harlem, famously known as El Barrio, is located in the northeastern section of Manhattan. From the east it’s bordered by the East and Harlem rivers, to the south 96th Street, from the west Fifth Avenue and to the north it ends at 142nd Street.

The basics:


In addition to a few trains and numerous buses, the FDR Drive runs along the East River. Here you can connect to the Edward I. Koch Bridge to Queens, uptown to The Bronx or to Randall’s Island.


4, 5 Lexington Avenue express to 125th Street

6 Lexington Avenue local to 96th, 103rd, 110th, 116th and 125th streets


M1, M2, M3, M4, M15, M35, M60, M96, M98, M101, M102, M103, M106, M116, Bx15, Bx33


NYPL, East Harlem, 112 E. 96th St., 212-289-0908

NYPL, 224 E. 125th St., 212-534-5050 (Closed for renovations until Oct. 2014.)

Post Office

USPS, 153 E. 110th St. 212-860-1896

USPS, 167 E. 124th St. 718-726-1369


The 23rd and 25th Precincts patrol East Harlem. The 23rd Precinct serves the area north of 96th Street and the 25th precinct patrols from 115th to 124th street. While crime in both precincts is down on the whole, according to its CrimeStat report, as of Oct. 13 there were 302 grand larcenies (including 29 stolen cars) in the 23rd Precinct so far in 2013, up from 245 (24 cars) in the same time span in 2012. In the 25th Precinct, there were 293 grand larcenies (40 cars) in 2013 as of Oct. 13th, up from 262, 27 cars, in the year to date in 2012.

To eat

There’s no shortage of great places to eat in El Barrio. If you prefer dishes that beat “Meatloaf Mondays,” drop in on any one of these spicy ’stablishments for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

East Harlem Cafe, 1651 Lexington Ave. This popular artsy cafe offers great breakfast and lunch bites. And in the spirit of Harlem Renaissance, unleash your inner Raul Julia and recite your poem on open mic night at 6 p.m. every last Wednesday of the month. 212-996-2080

Joy Burger Bar, 1567 Lexington Ave. Top your Munch, Midi or Maxi burger with any of several lively sauces. 212-289-6222

Café Ollin, 339 E. 108th St. This quaint country style restaurant’s bright décor and friendly service compliments their budget-friendly prices. Wash it all down with some tasty Sangria. 212-828-3644

To party

Camaradas El Barrio, 2241 First Ave. Come see their live bands, dynamic DJ’s or peep some of the local art featured in their gallery. With a great selection of draft beers, wines and Latin-inspired cocktails you’ll satisfy your culture craving. 212-348-2703

El Kallejon, 209 E 117th St. Meet your friends for drinks at this lively Tapas hot spot. 646-662-6835

ABV, 1504 Lexington Ave. This intimate gem historically has live music on Mondays, but is taking a break for football season. Happy Hour kicks it from 5-7 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. 212-722-8959

To shop

Between The East River Plaza shopping complex, the shops along 125th Street, and Third and Lexington avenues, East Harlem has plenty of shopping. Here are a couple of stores we recommend.

Goliath, 175 E. 105th St. Some of the most stylish streetwear you’ll find in New York City. Formerly a popular sneaker store, their gear is unique but they have something for everyone (hot tip: celebs like to shop there). 212-360-7683

Perfect 10, 1878 Third Ave. This local boutique features clothes for women and infants. Their styles are very trendy and include a nice selection of shoes, boots and affordable sweaters. 212-828-6454

La Casa Azul Bookstore, 143 E. 103rd St. Promising to promote "knowledge, art, creativity and culture," this bookstore carries distinctive literature and arts and fosters culturally-based programs. 212-426-2626

To do

El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Ave. This East Harlem institution has carried the torch for Latino art since 1969. They have a stunning collection of pre-Colombian artifacts complimented by modern photography, sculptures and prints waiting to be explored.

The Museum for African Art, 1280 Fifth Ave. This internationally-known foundation is recognized for organizing and presenting distinctive creations of African art. It will soon relocate to a new 90,000 square foot building at Fifth Avenue and 110th Street, where it will join the other museums on Museum Mile.

The Central Park Conservatory Garden, 1055 Fifth Ave. This incredible space is divided into three illustrious gardens: French, Italian and English. Each features distinctive fountains complimenting an array of tulips, yew hedges and crabapple trees.


The East Harlem Arts Community is confused about when it will be able to make use of the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, founded in 1996, at 106th Street and Lexington Avenue, which was closed two years ago but reportedly reopened in June.

However, community members say no one has been informed about how they can get access to the space.

Representatives from the Economic Development Corporation said it more recently came to an agreement with the Hispanic Federation that a coalition of cultural groups called the Julia de Burgos Art Alliance will manage the 160-person theater and several other multi-purpose rooms in the center. They said the JdBAA signed a lease a few weeks ago.

Luis Cordero, a local activist and founder of the Puerto Rican Institute for the Development of the Arts, said the community is running out of patience and artists have staged “guerilla theater” outside the building in protest.

"We just want our space. We want to put on performances in the theatre. We want to put open mike poetry in the community space we own and that's it," Cordero said.

He said locals feel the city has not been forthcoming with the community throughout the entire process.

"I've heard from others who were active on this back in June. There’s been no official announcement yet," Cordero said.

The NYCEDC declined to comment on the community’s complaints.

Real estate

The market in East Harlem is on an upswing as new developments sprout on the empty lots that peppered the area.

To rent

1325 Fifth Ave. Newly renovated two-bedroom, two bath, granite kitchen, marble bathroom, doorman; 1,150 square feet: $2,800 per month.

207 E. 117th St. Three-bedroom, two bath in a multi-family home with bamboo flooring, an open kitchen/living/dining area; 1,100 square feet: $3,200 per month.

160 E. 105th St. Two bedrooms, one bath, fully-furnished apartments with queen-sized beds and walk-in closets, utilities included; 1,100 square feet: $3,000 per month.

To buy

309 E 108th St. #5A Three-bedroom, two-bath; 1,300 square feet: $860,000

1635 Lexington Ave. #4C Two-bedroom, two-bath condo; 1,121 square feet: $866,800

319 E. 105th St. #1C. Two-bed, one-bath condo; 721 square feet: $485,000

Looking for a home in East Harlem?

Coldwell Banker AC Lawrence,

Halstead Property,

Q&A with Pedro Rivera: Longtime resident

Pedro Rivera retired 18 years ago. In his last three years of employment he worked as a grave maintainer in a cemetery. He is 82 years old and moved here more than 60 years ago from Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. He never married and has no children, but has 11 siblings.

What do you love about East Harlem?

I love that we have a lot of Puerto Rican people here.

Why did you move here?

Most of my brothers and sisters moved to Ohio, but I liked New York because most of our people were coming here to live.

What do you feel needs improvement in the community?

The people here need better politicians, better services and more public housing.

What do you see changing in East Harlem in the next five years?

El Barrio will become more gentrified. 

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