You probably know this famous refrain from the iconic Aretha Franklin pop classic ‘Spanish Harlem‘ which has been covered by countless others, including Neil Diamond, Herb Alpert and The Mamas and The Papas.
But…Fun Fact! The song was originally recorded by Ben. E. King, the writer and composer of an arguably even more iconic pop classic, ‘Stand By Me’, a melody that has comforted many a human during times of struggle.
Did you know? ‘Spanish Harlem’ was actually written by Jerry Leiber, writer of classics like ‘Hound Dog’ and the legendary Phil Spector, the man behind the famous ‘wall of sound’ and girl groups like The Supremes.
Enough about great songs. You’re reading this article to learn if East Harlem is safe. But wait, weren’t we talking about Spanish Harlem? Yes, indeed, we were. East Harlem is Spanish Harlem. Another oft-used nickname for East Harlem is El Barrio.
That’s because East Harlem is home to the largest Latin American population and Hispanic communities in New York City, primarily Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban and Mexican Americans. A large portion of the Asian-American population has also migrated up to East Harlem, growing exponentially since the turn of the millennium. Mix in the wave of young professionals and artists relocating there in recent years and well, that’s one diverse tortilla!
Where Is East Harlem
East Harlem is where the Upper East Side meets Harlem, with a twist of spice on the side. East Harlem sits, or salsas, just north of the edge of Ninety-Sixth Street. It continues up to one hundred forty third street to the north. To the west, East Harlem is bounded by Fifth Avenue and to the east, the East River. Additional boundaries bordering Harlem are Central Park North, and the Harlem River.
Harlem is famous and renowned around the globe. It is the birthplace of arts, culture and movements that have influenced the world. Harlem is a big place, spanning across Manhattan. Best to understand Manhattan first. Manhattan being, of course, the most recognizable of the five boroughs that make up New York City, a group that also includes Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.
Manhattan is the borough everybody equates with their image of New York City, the image seen in numerous TV shows and films from Sex and The City to Seinfeld. It is basically split into two parts: the East Side and the West Side. North and South follow naturally.
So, basically, Manhattan is easy to navigate because it is a grid. A grid composed of crisscrossing avenues and numbered streets. Until you get downtown, below Union Square, where it can start to get a little confusing.
Harlem has a long and distinguished history filled with brownstones, tree-lined streets and artistic and cultural heritage. The Harlem Renaissance. Jazz. But did you know? Harlem was originally a Dutch Village, named after a city in the Netherlands (Haarlem).
Current Safety Climate in East Harlem (as of February 2024)
New York City, including East Harlem, has seen a significant decrease in crime rates in recent times. In June 2023, the city experienced a 16.8% drop in shooting incidents compared to the previous year. This decrease in violent crime is part of a citywide trend, with a 24.7% reduction in shooting incidents in the first half of 2023 compared to the same period in the previous year. Additionally, homicides fell by 3.1% during the same month. The NYPD’s gun-violence reduction strategies, which include making historic numbers of gun arrests and seizing firearms, contribute to these declines.
The overall index crime in New York City decreased by 3.9% in June 2023, with drops in several major crime categories, including rape, robbery, and burglary. However, grand larceny auto saw an increase, driven by specific vulnerabilities in certain vehicle models. The NYPD has been focusing on addressing these issues through targeted measures.
Insights from Local Law Enforcement and Community Leaders
The New York City Police Department’s Community Affairs Bureau plays a pivotal role in enhancing safety in neighborhoods like East Harlem. By partnering with community leaders, civic organizations, and residents, they work to build trust and develop solutions to local challenges. Community Affairs provides enrichment, diversion, and intervention programs, particularly for young people, to prevent youth crime.
The Community Outreach Division within Community Affairs develops partnerships with communities and introduces them to NYPD programs and services from other city agencies to improve the quality of life. This division remains closely connected with community members, fostering understanding across diverse groups.
The Crime Prevention Division informs community members and local businesses about crime trends and preventative security measures. This includes providing advice on safeguarding property and personal safety tips for a variety of environments. Additionally, the Youth Strategies Division of the NYPD works to reduce youth crime by identifying “at-risk” youth and creating diversion and educational programs. This proactive approach is designed to address the roots of youth crime and prevent it before it happens.
In the realm of education, the School Safety Division collaborates with the Department of Education to ensure a safe and secure learning environment for students in public schools throughout New York City, including East Harlem. These initiatives and the concerted efforts of law enforcement and community leaders underscore a multifaceted approach to maintaining and improving safety in East Harlem.
A Brief Trip Back To The Future
East Harlem, initially rural, began urbanizing in the late 19th century with the construction of transit lines and residential developments. By the 1860s, enclaves of German, Irish, Scandinavian, and Eastern European Jewish immigrants had established themselves. The Jewish population was particularly significant, numbering around 90,000 by 1917. Italian immigrants arrived in the 1870s, setting up a neighborhood that expanded as more immigrants arrived. These communities formed distinct ethnic pockets, which began to converge, creating a diverse tapestry of cultures.
East Harlem was actually the first part of New York to be called ‘Little Italy,’ a community that is now situated downtown. Naturally, the mafia had its hands in a lot of sauce pots in East Harlem back in those days.
The neighborhood started its morph into Spanish Harlem after the First World War, the result of Puerto Rican and Latin American migration into the western parts of East Harlem. By nineteen fifty, the Puerto Rican population had ballooned to over sixty-three thousand.
Historically, East Harlem has grappled with numerous social challenges, including high crime rates, unemployment, and health issues like asthma rates far exceeding the national average. It also has a significant concentration of public housing. The area has faced issues like drug abuse, homelessness, and a substantial jobless rate, the highest in New York City. Over time, these concerns have evolved, with initiatives and community efforts aimed at addressing and mitigating them. There has been some gentrification in recent years, and in 2016, the city looked into rezoning to further catalyze change.
Statistics Tell A Story
As always, it helps create a clearer picture to take a look at the statistics and demographics of the neighborhood.
Demographics and Population
- Total Population: Over 120,000
- Gender Distribution: 55% female, 45% male
- Primary Adult Demographic: 18-64 years old
- Seniors vs. Youth: Higher percentage of seniors compared to children and teens
- Families: 23% are families with children
Ethnicity and Community
- Ethnic Composition: Nearly half Hispanic, one-third African-American, with the remainder being white, Asian, or mixed
- Community Cohesion: Over 75% report a strong sense of community
Income and Economic Status
- Median Income: $44,000 annually
- Economic Classification: Low-to-middle income neighborhood
- Income Distribution: One-third earn $45,000 to $149,000, almost half earn less than $25,000
- High School Education or Less: Nearly 50%
- Higher Education: 14% with a Master’s degree, 20% with a Bachelor’s degree, 20% with an Associate’s or trade degree
Real Estate Dynamics In East Harlem
One advantage of East Harlem is that you are close to Central Manhattan, without having to pay for an arm and a leg and two organs and your first and second-born children for a studio apartment.
An extraordinary ninety-three percent of residents rent their dwellings in East Harlem. The average rent isn’t so bad. Around one-thousand one hundred dollars is the median rent. The average home value is under a million. Eight hundred fifty nine thousand dollars, to be exact.
The neighborhood is categorized as densely urban. About half the residents pay less than a thousand dollars a month to rent their place of residence. Only about twenty percent of residents say housing is affordable. Additionally, forty percent of residents say the exteriors of homes is good or excellent and fifty percent say the same about the interior quality of homes.
- East Harlem presents a dynamic real estate market with varying trends. The median sale price as of September 2023 stood at $493K, which marked a decline of 17.1% from the previous year. Similarly, the price per square foot decreased slightly by 1% to $881.
- In contrast, a report from September 2023 indicates that the median sold price was significantly higher at $821,500, with a price per square foot of $881, showing a remarkable month-to-month increase of 44.1%.
- Listings in August 2023 showed a median home price of $725K, trending down by 3.3% compared to the previous year, and the price per square foot was reported at $910.
- Earlier in May 2023, the market seemed to be warming up, with home prices up by 2.0% year-over-year, reaching a median of $780K. However, homes were taking longer to sell, averaging 153 days on the market, an increase from 120 days the previous year.
- The varied data points suggest that East Harlem’s market is complex, with fluctuations in pricing and sales durations. These discrepancies may reflect the transitional nature of the neighborhood, seasonal market changes, or differences in the types of properties being sold during these periods.
- Designated as a buyer’s market, East Harlem’s real estate landscape offers opportunities for potential buyers, with lower prices and a longer average time for homes, indicating a slower-paced market that favors buyers over sellers.
- The number of transactions also offers insight into the market’s activity. There was a substantial year-over-year increase of 38.9% in the number of transactions as of September 2023, reflecting a more active market despite the lower median sale price.
In summary, while the real estate market in East Harlem has seen some decline in median sale prices and a longer time on the market for listings, the area remains active with an increase in transactions. The buyer’s market designation suggests that there may be favorable conditions for those looking to purchase property in this culturally rich and evolving Manhattan neighborhood.
Urban Development and Its Impact on Safety in East Harlem
Urban development in East Harlem, as in other modern cities, is deeply intertwined with factors like population movement, public policy, investment, and the flow of private capital, all of which are influenced by notions of race, class, place, and scale. Scholars note that while neighborhoods change slowly, they are becoming more segregated by income, leading to gentrification, displacement, and cultural shifts that can affect the safety and social fabric of a community.
Community-Led Urban Planning
Community-based organizations are recognized as pivotal in improving residents’ lives and connecting them with the broader neighborhood. Collaborative urban planning, which involves alliances between public, private, and community sectors, is seen as a solution to the inefficiencies of traditional urban planning. This method aims to mend institutional gaps and promote polycentric governance, leading to more resilient and safe urban environments.
East Harlem Initiatives
In East Harlem, this collaborative approach has led to the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, which includes comprehensive strategies for housing, zoning, land use, and community services. The plan’s emphasis is on preserving affordable housing, promoting new housing with permanent affordability, and creating job opportunities. A focus on improving infrastructure, such as the expansion of the Second Avenue Subway, is expected to enhance community health and safety.
Impact of Zoning on Safety
The East Harlem Neighborhood Initiative has rezoned the area to allow for the creation of nearly 2,700 new homes, with a significant portion designated as affordable housing. By strengthening East Harlem’s role as a transit hub and job center, the initiative aims to foster economic development and improve the urban design to enhance pedestrian experiences, potentially reducing crime and increasing safety.
Infrastructure and Community Facilities
Investments in infrastructure and community facilities are central to the East Harlem Initiative. This includes leveraging the existing transportation system and ensuring that community facilities meet the demands of growth in transit-accessible locations. The approach goes beyond zoning to encompass economic development, workforce, and community health, all of which contribute to a safer and more thriving East Harlem.
In summary, East Harlem is experiencing a transformative era of urban development that directly impacts safety and community well-being. By engaging community members in the planning process and focusing on inclusive, collaborative urban development strategies, East Harlem is paving the way for a safer and more integrated neighborhood.
Transportation In East Harlem
Parking can be a problem in East Harlem. Only one fifth of residents polled say parking is readily available. Fortunately, the subway is not. East Harlem is served by a number of subway and bus lines operated by the MTA, or Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
The One-Hundred Twenty-Fifth Street station is a major hub. Not only can you grab one of the East Side subway lines, such as the four, five, or six, but you can also transfer to the Metro North Park Avenue line, the MTA’s suburban commuter line.
As mentioned earlier, the advantage is being so close to Central Manhattan. The Lexington Avenue line – the four, five and six – will connect you with almost any other part of the Big Apple that you want to get to.
FYI: The six train is the local, a stop every eight blocks line, whereas the four and five are express trains that make fewer stops, mostly at hubs where you can transfer to other lines.
Plenty of buses abound as well, primarily the M103. Trade secret: You can also get there by ferry!
What To Do In East Harlem?
There is lots to do in East Harlem.
As noted earlier, East Harlem has a lower rate of college-educated residents in comparison to the rest of the city. Luckily, the New York Public Library operates two branches in East Harlem. Go on, educate yourself!
As mentioned previously, many of the landmarks in Harlem are designated historic places. Go see them! They include the Apollo Theater on the west side and the Langston Hughes house, where the famous poet worked on the top floor.
There are some museums in East Harlem, to pair with that library trip. They include the Museum of the City of New York, an art and history museum. Also, Museo De La Barrio, the oldest museum dedicated to Latino art in the USA. The museum specializes in Latin American and Caribbean art with a focus on Puerto Rican works and culture.
But perhaps the most interesting museum in East Harlem is the Graffiti Hall of Fame. East Harlem may have a high poverty rate, but from poverty comes great art and East Harlem is covered with interesting, colorful murals.
At the Graffiti Hall of Fame, street artists from all over the world drop in to create and contribute new pieces. The Graffiti Hall of Fame is in the schoolyard of the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex and has existed since the eighties, the golden age of graffiti.
Is East Harlem Safe?
You might not be sure since you have already read here that it is a low-income area with housing projects and poverty. None of the great stuff about East Harlem matters if it is not a safe place for you and your family. Well, it’s time to answer the question posed in the headline.
East Harlem is not as safe as other parts of Harlem. However, there has been a decline in crime, thanks to increased policing.
East Harlem is served by two precincts, the twenty-third and the twenty-fifth precincts. Both report a lower rate of crime now than in the nineteen nineties. Both record crime falling between sixty and seventy percent.
The violent crime rate in East Harlem is more than twice the national average. Harlem in general is safe at night, but East Harlem can get a bit sketchy, and you will want to keep your wits about you. Don’t leave yourself vulnerable. Walking alone at night in East Harlem is not recommended.
One thing to look out for in East Harlem is youth gang activity, which is linked to much of the crime.
Practical Safety Tips for East Harlem Residents and Visitors
- Walk confidently, projecting awareness of your environment.
- Opt for taxis or Ubers rather than the subway late at night.
- Avoid engaging with strangers or making unnecessary eye contact.
- Stay vigilant and conscious of your surroundings at all times.
- Steer clear of desolate, poorly lit streets and areas around housing projects. If you sense danger, seek refuge in a nearby store or public place.
Emergency Resources and Contacts
While specific emergency contacts have not been listed, the general advice for any immediate danger or emergency in East Harlem, as in any part of New York City, is to call 911. For non-emergency assistance or to report suspicious activity, you can contact the local precinct. Staying in populated areas and maintaining vigilance on public transportation are also essential safety measures.
Residents and visitors should also be mindful of personal belongings, keeping wallets and phones secure and out of easy reach to prevent pickpocketing. It’s crucial to blend in and not appear as an obvious tourist, which can make you a target for theft or scams.
A Word Or Two From The Residents
Overall, residents seem to like the neighborhood. They report that it is quieter than other parts of the city and close to transportation. They also enjoy the diversity and the cuisine.
They do say it is a little dirty and poorly lit. Also, sometimes there are loud parties in the park, but they consider that an inconvenience, not a safety issue. Other than that, residents say that the neighborhood is very family-oriented and people tend to look out for each other. Most residents say they never felt unsafe. They say not to worry because it is flooded with cops, and there are signs of gentrification.
Is East Harlem Safe: Conclusion
Of course, when in New York City, safety is partly in your hands. There are certain measures you can take to protect yourself that apply not just in the Big Apple but in any major metropolitan city.
- Try not to stand out as a tourist.
- Don’t keep your wallet or phone in your back pocket.
- Stick to populated areas.
- Keep your guard up on the subway.
Now you’re ready to sink your teeth into the juicy diversity and rich culture of East Harlem. Stay safe!
Born and raised amidst the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple, I’ve witnessed the city’s many exciting phases. When I’m not exploring the city or penning down my thoughts, you can find me sipping on a cup of coffee at my favorite local café, playing chess or planning my next trip. For the last twelve years, I’ve been living in South Williamsburg with my partner Berenike.