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!
But is it safe? Good question. This article will answer it! Read on…
From The East To The West
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. But that’s a story for another article.
Fortunately, Harlem is uptown! Basically, Harlem starts at ninety-sixth street and extends partly into the Bronx, ending at one hundred fifty-fifth street. Harlem is bounded by the Hudson River to the west and to the east, Fifth Avenue. Additional boundaries bordering Harlem are Central Park North, the Harlem River and the East River.
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.
Many buildings, structures and places in Harlem are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Near East
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.
A Brief Trip Back To The Future
More fun facts!
Sure, it’s Spanish Harlem now, but did you know there was a rose in Italian Harlem first? That’s right! Before becoming Spanish Harlem, East Harlem was known as Italian Harlem.
First, it was public transportation that stimulated the growth of the neighborhood, making it accessible as tram and subway lines were constructed. The Italians, who started settling in the neighborhood in the eighteen seventies, dominated the sandwiched together community of fractured and segmented ethnic groups – Italians, Germans, Irish and Jewish.
East Harlem was actually the first part of New York to be called ‘Little Italy’, a community which 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.
Statistics Tell A Story
As always, it helps create a clearer picture to take a look at the statistics and demographics of the neighborhood.
East Harlem has a population of just over one hundred twenty thousand residents. There is a slight dominance of male to female. Females constitute fifty five percent of the population, with males comprising forty five percent.
Almost two-thirds of the population fall in the eighteen to sixty four demo, although there is a slightly higher percentage of seniors than children and teens. Twenty three percent of the residents in East Harlem are families with children.
Hispanics dominate, comprising almost half the population. Another third are African-American. A small but significant portion of residents are white and the rest are Asian or mixed. A whopping more than three quarters of residents say the neighborhood has a good sense of community.
The median income in East Harlem is forty-four thousand dollars per year. East Harlem is classified as a low-to-middle income neighborhood. About one third of residents make between forty five and one hundred forty nine thousand dollars a year, and almost half make less than twenty five thousand.
Almost half the population possess only a high school degree or below. Fourteen percent have a Masters Degree, one-fifth have a bachelor’s degree, and another one fifth have an associates or trade degree.
Through The Roof
One advantage of East Harlem is that you are close to Central Manhattan, without having to pay an arm and a leg and two organs and your first and second born children for a studio apartment. That’s the trade-off.
An extraordinary ninety three percent of residents rent their dwellings in East Harlem. The average rent ain’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 dense 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.
Half the residents say there is a good variety of homes, but sixty percent say there are some unsightly abandoned or vacant properties dotting the landscape.
Do be aware that East Harlem is home to a great concentration of public housing projects.
The top tip for those new to El Barrio, from residents surveyed, is to be friendly but to mind your business.
Okay, But How Do I Get There?
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, 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!
Where To Eat In East Harlem?
What is there to eat in East Harlem? Plenty! Here’s a brief tour of delicious treats in East Harlem.
One of the biggest controversies in East Harlem is who has the best pizza! Sam’s Famous Pizza? Or Patsy’s Pizza?
Sam’s is, of course, famous. But so are New York City slices. Best in the world! Most say it is the water that gives the dough the unique consistency and flavor. But don’t forget the sweet sauce! And the cheese count. And the toppings! Of which Sam’s offers many. Plus at Sam’s you can enjoy a true square Sicilian slice!
Patsy’s, open since nineteen thirty three, is the last remnant of Italian Harlem. One advantage it has over Sam’s is the steadfast coal oven melting all that mozz into a gooey mess!
Mountain Bird is a pillar of French cuisine operated by a husband and wife team. It’s sophisticated with reasonable prices. New Dolphin Fish Market is a fish market but it’s also
a fry house! Don’t worry, they don’t serve dolphins. That’s just a name. They serve humans.
One of the few Moroccan restaurants in New York City is in East Harlem. It’s called La Shuk and it’s not too expensive and features outdoor seating.
Of course, the neighborhood offers a nearly complete sampling of Latin American culinary delights and treasures.
Mexican? Okay. Try a Salchipapas from Delicias Mexicanas and wash it down with a tropical fruit drink. Or simple street food can be enjoyed at Mexican Street Stand which offers tacos, gorditas and other tortilla type treats. Take that, Taco Hell!
Now you want some Mexican dessert? Swing into the ultra authentic Don Paco Panaderia.
Dominican? No problem. Got you covered. Sandy Restaurant has a rotating rotisserie roasting chicken and pork and you can even swallow some tripe soup! For not so forbidden Puerto Rican pleasures, get your fried pig parts at Cuchifritos Frituras.
Finally, the Hot Bread Kitchen is worth supporting. They offer a program which teaches immigrant women how to bake.
For authentic Southern Italian, visit Rao’s restaurant, which has been in business spanning three centuries, having opened in eighteen ninety six. Fun Fact! Jay-z’s ‘D.O.A. (Death Of Autotune)’ was filmed inside Rao’s. Rao’s has since expanded to locations in Las Vegas and Hollywood.
Besides the dining out, there is a flip side. It is also a common complaint that East Harlem can be a ‘food desert’. This is because it is a low income area which lacks access to fresh meats, fruits and vegetables. Therefore it has a low consumption rate of fresh food, which causes related health problems.
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 to live. Well, 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 fith 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.
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. A lot of crime depends on location, they say, and if you are minding your own business.
A Top Tip Or Two
Or five. There are some things you can do to better guarantee your safety in East Harlem. Here they are:
- Walk with confidence, like you know where you are going.
- Taxis and Ubers are a better option than the subway after ten.
- Try not to make eye contact or engage with strangers.
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Avoid dark empty streets and housing projects. If you feel threatened, duck inside a store.
Rich Culture, Rich Contributions
Sure, East Harlem suffers from some social problems and is not as safe as other parts of Harlem, but, as pointed out a few paragraphs back, from these great struggles emerge great art and contributions to the culture of the world.
Most notably, East Harlem has left lasting impressions on the music genres of salsa and Latin freestyle. The sound of El Barrio was adapted by the globally popular Fania All-Stars and became the sound of the Latino pride movements of the sixties and seventies.
There is even a term bestowed upon the community where the sound was born and the people who created it: ‘Nuyoricans’. The Nuyorican’s experience is typified by the Ruben Blades song ‘Numero Seis’, the lyrics of which depict waiting for the six train at the El Barrio station.
To learn more about Ruben Blades and the birth of the salsa scene, check the 1985 film ‘Crossover Dreams’, which is mostly set in Spanish harlem.
Besides Blades, the neighborhood produced Tupac Shakur, whose socially conscious lyrics were composed on the streets of East Harlem. Marc Anthony developed his Cuban musical styles there.
Reaching farther back, you find Bobby Darin, Ronnie Spector and actor Burt Lancaster. And we’re not done yet. Tito Puente. Al Pacino. Erik Estrada. Langston Hughes. And one of New York’s most revered and respected former mayors, Fiorello Laguardia, who has a whole airport named after him!
A Central Perk
Yes, that is a shout-out to the classic New York set sitcom ‘Friends’ and the coffee shop where many of their hi-jinks were hatched.
One thing that is great about East Harlem, especially according to residents, is the proximity to Central Park, which borders parts of Harlem.
Central Park is one of the most famous, and most beautiful, parks in all of the world. Amazing concerts and performances like ‘Shakespeare In The Park’ at the Bandshell happen there. You can go boating, hiking, or just chill in Strawberry Fields, a meadow named for one of Central Park’s most famous fans, John Lennon of The Beatles. Bring a frisbee!
Central Park was completed in eighteen seventy six and welcomes over forty two million visitors a year.
Top Tips Part Two
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!
Native New Yorker. Travel addict. Hardcore thinker. Analyst. Pop culture fanatic. I live in Queens with my wife Linda and our dog Clemenza.