I’ve spent a lot of time in Latin America. I suppose I’m something of a “wannabe Latina,” so when I haven’t been south for a while, there’s something about Latin cities that I miss. It’s hard to describe what exactly that something is – an energy, a rhythm, an “onda” (“vibe”) as Spanish speakers would say — but it’s palpable, and for me, simultaneously comforting and stimulating.
For the last couple of weeks I’ve had a series of medical appointments for which I’ve needed to travel from New Jersey to the Upper East Side of Manhattan – 90th and Park, to be specific. NJ to NYC trips require some schedule padding to allow for the possibility of hellacious traffic, so I’ve found myself with some free time in that part of the world. I walked around the 90th and Park ‘hood a bit, and I can’t say I felt very comfortable there. There are doormen. Lots of them. There’s also a plethora of folks on phones with Bluetooth devices, people walking very small white dogs, and beautiful, impeccably cultivated flower boxes. It’s a lovely neighborhood in a lot of ways, but a bit sterile for my tastes. Definitely lacking in “onda.”
Walking a bit farther, I found myself in Spanish Harlem, or, “El Barrio,” as it is more commonly called these days, where the sidewalks are a little more cluttered, gardens a little less manicured, and loud public interactions a lot more commonplace.
I passed fruit stands, barbershops, bakeries, and best of all “botanicas”- herb and potion stores associated with various cultures’ traditional healing rituals. The muted and tasteful browns of the Upper East Side give way to brightly colored murals on the sides of aging buildings, and the well-manicured parks are replaced with chain-link fenced community gardens housing plant boxes built from scrap lumber and walkways made of broken ceramics. There are more “project-esque” apartment buildings lining the streets and fewer calculated storefront window displays. Puerto Rican flags abound, and the conversational soundtrack is more Spanish than English. “Now I feel more at home,” I thought.
Latinos – primarily Puerto Ricans – began to move into this part of New York City after World War 1, when many of the Italian inhabitants of the neighborhood started to move away. By the 1950’s they were the predominant ethic group (often referred to as “Newyoricans”) living in the area, which was commonly called “Spanish Harlem.” When I was growing up in New Jersey in the 70’s and 80’s, this was not a neighborhood to be exploring; in fact, it wasn’t even one to be driving through, lest you get lost in what was thought to be a den of street crime and racial tension. Like most of the rest of Manhattan, Spanish Harlem has been transformed, and the neighborhood’s currently preferred moniker – “El Barrio” – seems to reflect this rebirth. I felt completely safe wandering the streets amidst a great diversity of folks; that said, there were still a few corners where I walked a little faster. Just enough to make sure I was paying attention. Apparently young professionals are moving into El Barrio these days, to escape the exorbitant housing prices of other city precincts. That will of course, contribute to further change in this constantly evolving city.
In the meantime, however, El Barrio’s current denizens seem to be doing their best to express themselves in public spaces. Thanks to El Museo del Barrio’s website, I was able to find a handful of nearby mosaics, murals, and graffiti panels – including a “Graffitti Wall of Fame.”
More than half of the public art I found was done by someone named Manny Vega. His mosaics and paintings are playful, colorful, and fun, and they clearly reflect both the rich Latin mural art and ancient indigenous wall painting traditions. The biggest mural in the neighborhood is a fabulous building-sized work called “The Spirit of East Harlem,” originally painted by Mr. Vega’s teacher, Hank Prussing in 1973 and restored by Vega (who, word has it, met his mentor when Prussing was painting this mural by pestering him until Prussing let him grab a brush and help out) in 1998. There were less formal expressions as well – from impromptu door stencils to “yarn bombs” on trees and fences. Beyond visual art, El Barrio has produced a host of artists of other persuasions as well – Marc Anthony, Al Pacino, Tito Puente, and Tupac Shakur are just a few of them.
I’m still not sure I can identify what constitutes El Barrio’s “onda,” other than to say it’s a complex stew of ethnic and economic diversity heavily spiced with art, music, and emotion. Perhaps that is the appeal – the difficulty of nailing it down. In these days of using a mall’s anchor stores to identify a neighborhood’s socioeconomics (think: what you infer when you see an Apple Store), it’s refreshing to know you might have to work harder to get to know a place. You might say that you have to navigate the thorns to get to the rose. I’ve got one more visit coming up; we’ll see what I can sniff out.