When the real estate market was booming, the dreaded “G” word caused anxiety in East Harlem, a journalist who documented the tension told Fordham students on Sept. 29.
Ed Morales, who has covered New York City for more than 20 years, discussed gentrification and whether it has displaced the Puerto Ricans who once populated East Harlem.
“We all know about gentrification,” said Morales, whose parents met and married in East Harlem, also called Spanish Harlem and El Barrio. “It’s been a problem for as far back as I can remember.”
Morales was a guest speaker at a class on “Hispanics in the USA” at Fordham College at Lincoln Center. Clara Rodriguez, Ph.D., professor of sociology, said she invited Morales because a documentary he co-produced, Whose Barrio?, fit with the topic students were researching in her class.
“[The documentary] focused on the economic shifts that occurred in these neighborhoods and their cultural impact, as opposed to the way in which it is more generally perceived—as racial or ethnic shifts,” Rodriguez said.
Morales showed excerpts from Whose Barrio?, which explores gentrification in East Harlem, where the median household income is slightly more than $22,000.
“Downtown is moving uptown,” Morales said in the film. “Big changes are coming—what some people call development and others call gentrification.”
Shown at the HBO New York International Latino Film Festival in 2009, Whose Barrio? was co-produced with fellow journalist Laura Rivera. The film follows two East Harlem residents—Jose Rivera, a middle-aged man of Puerto Rican descent who was born and raised in El Barrio, and James Garcia, a 20-something seventh-generation Mexican American who bought a condo in one of the area’s new buildings.
While Garcia advocates for an upswing in the neighborhood’s “quality of life,” Rivera said wealthier newcomers were forcing him out. “You can’t live here and expect to buy a home unless you’re making outrageous amounts of money,” Rivera said in the film.
At one point, Garcia railed against longtime residents, who he said are afraid of change and perhaps comfortable living amidst crime. Morales said this isn’t so.
“Community leaders have always asked for more policing,” Morales said. “Unfortunately, it seems to come only after the neighborhood is gentrified.”
Before the neighborhood became “hot” for gentrification, Morales said his own friends of Puerto Rican descent who were coming out of academia and other professions moved to El Barrio in an attempt to keep “a cultural presence.”
“They were rather idealistic,” he said. “Their goal was to save and buy in the area, which I thought was great. But then the skyrocketing real estate market happened and they could never save enough.”