East Harlem is in a housing crisis, according to resident Cathy Stephens. Stephens, who has lived in East Harlem for over 20 years, fears that the rising cost of rent will drive her out of her home on 113th Street. And she is not alone.
According to Community Board 11, about 55 percent of East Harlem residents live in units that are rent-stabilized. Many of these residents fear that developers will come into the neighborhood to build luxury apartments to replace their modest, less expensive housing. And they are now worrying that a new policy of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, (HUD) which claims to provide more choices for residents, will actually leave them with only one: Get out.
HUD is planning to streamline its 13 rental assistance programs into a single system during 2011. The system, based around rental subsidy funding instead of the public housing funding model currently used, aims to attract investment from private and other sources.
East Harlem has been a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood since the 1950s, earning it nicknames like el Barrio (“the neighborhood”) and Spanish Harlem. Now, though, the Puerto Rican identity that has defined el Barrio for decades is now changing—and so is it’s name.
Jose Martinez, 51, says that his son calls the neighborhood “Little Mexico.”
“I feel like I’m in Mexico,” Martinez said, pointing to the plethora of other Mexican businesses and restaurants along Lexington Avenue. Martinez, a part owner of La Fonda, a Mexican Restaurant on 103rd Street, chose the area because of the growing Mexican population but estimated that only about 40 percent of his customers are Mexican. The rest are from the Dominican Republic, other South American countries or other parts of the city.
New plans for First and Second Avenues would change the way East Harlemites drive, bike and ride the bus. Two designs were put forth by the Department of Transportation to improve bus services.
This month, members of the Community Board 11’s Public Safety and Transportation Committee were asked by the city choose which of the plans it prefers—the first provides metered parking while the other uses the parking lane to better accommodate traffic flow instead.
Design A provides a bike lane, three lanes of traffic, a lane solely for buses and another street section for parking. Drivers would lose two lanes to buses and cyclists.
In Design B, drivers would gain a lane for traffic, but lose a lane for parking. Adding lanes for cars aims to better accommodate East Harlem’s high volume of traffic. First and Second Avenues will mirror each other in all variations of the design.
Nicolette Natrin, 18, began working at Savoy Bakery on East 110th Street for convenience – she lives across the street – but has come to love the café for its important role in her neighborhood.
Owner Brian Ghaw, 29, has always sought to serve more than coffee at his store. He operates the bakery as a “mom-and-pop shop” where customers can come to vent and chat, drawn to the bakery just as much for the atmosphere as for the products.
Savoy is cozy and clean, its brick walls peppered with local artwork. Many of the hats on sale behind the counter were knitted in Savoy and the bakery’s first featured artist is also one of its next-door neighbors.