Markets, murals, and a Woody Allen exclusive
El Barrio, also known as East Harlem or Spanish Harlem, is one of the largest predominantly Latino communities in the city, a melting pot of cultural histories spanning Puerto Rican, Latin American, and Caribbean roots. It also includes the old world Italian district of the city's 1930's past and a number of historical Italian establishments to boot. Come here on a summer weekend and there are likely to be street festivals of some sort, Puerto Rican tunes blasting from boomboxes attached to people's bikes, and groups of locals catching up on all the gossip at the corner bodegas.
Despite its wealth of cultural history and diversity, El Barrio still struggles with the social and economic strife that defined its past. In the 1970's and 80's, it was the quintessential symbol of New York's urban decay: drugs, poverty, and violence ravaged the neighborhood. Empty lots, burnt out buildings, and street conflict were the norm. Today, the skyline is dominated by the contrast of one of the most concentrated areas of public housing development in the country as well as an influx of new condos and other investment. El Barrio's future is yet to be written, but things are looking up for the neighborhood and greater Harlem, which even has its very own biotech incubator now (hello Harlem BioSpace!)
To start the day: chicken and waffles at Amy Ruth's
Because why not kick off your Saturday morning with a double dose of fried deliciousness? Amy Ruth's is one of those Harlem soul food institutions, right up there with Red Rooster (Central Harlem) and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (West Harlem). Stop by for the classic chicken and waffles with maple syrup or try any of a number of equally unhealthy and delicious alternatives. Half a block from the 116th street 2 / 3 station, this is a great spot to start your exploring.
Post brunch wandering: the Graffiti Hall of Fame and other beautiful murals
Your first spot for beautiful murals is right outside the doors of Amy Ruth's. This amazing painting below is to the right of the restaurant and is one of my favorite in the neighborhood. So much of the man's face and its cubist forms remind me of Picasso's famous Demoiselles D'Avignon. One of the great parts about street art like this is the license it has to completely remix styles old and new.
Since the loss of the beloved 5 Pointz street art hot spot to commercial development, the city has been looking for its new favorites. The Graffiti Hall of Fame, while not quite as accessible or as extensive, is a great lesser known spot for a concentrated selection of impressive wall murals. Situated in a walled and chained in ring around the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex, the purpose of this space was to create a safe and permanent environment for street art. Stop by any day of the week to see views of the 20+ pieces from around the complex.
You can find this beautiful bit of wall on 105th and Third Ave. Known as the "Dos Alas" mural (or "Two Wings"), it references Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodríguez de Tío, whose 1893 verse “Cuba and Puerto Rico are two wings of the same bird" is painted on its side. One of the iconic representations of the Puerto Rican presence in this neighborhood both today and historically, the piece depicts the Latin American rebels Che Guevara and Pedro Albizu Campos. Its history and symbolism are so important to the community, in fact, that its 15 year old paint recently needed a face lift and inspired other local artists to come out and touch it up. That's what you call a community effort.
Across the street from the East Harlem Cafe on E 104th, you'll find the amazing full size “The Spirit of East Harlem” mural, a solid fixture of the neighborhood for more than 30 years now. This piece is such a big deal, in fact, that when part of it was defaced in 2009 a neighboring community organization sponsored a neighborhood-wide debate on the merits of street art. Regardless of your street art politics, this one is quite a site to behold and certainly an excuse for an afternoon dose of caffeine.
And finally, we come to perhaps the most famous mural in pop culture: the Keith Haring Crack is Wack mural, painted in 1986 on the opposite side of a handball court at 128th and 2nd Ave. Restored by his estate in late 2007, the mural was actually preserved by the very Department of Parks and Recreation that would have been responsible for addressing its illegal creation. Talk about some historic irony and definitional confusion.
This piece, among others, is a sure reminder of the raging crack cocaine epidemic in the New York of the 80's and the remnants of the social strife of that time that still leave their scars on the neighborhood today.
Markets galore: La Marqueta, the Urban Garden Center, and too many seasonal events to count
Originally opened by Mayor LaGuardia in 1936 as the Park Avenue Retail Market, this space became known as La Marqueta as the neighborhood's demographic transitioned into predominantly a Spanish Harlem. Food and dry goods were sold to all parts of Harlem and South Bronx neighborhoods by a total of 500+ vendors in the 1950's and 1960's hay day of the space
Today, the vision for the space is to be a smaller scale Chelsea Market of sorts - a destination for the neighborhood's culinary creatives and a top notch modernized retail space where food businesses can thrive. Most known for being the home of Hot Bread Kitchen (the purveyor of baked goods for a social cause), this is a fun spot to stop by, especially on the weekend when things are a bit more bustling. Find it under the Metro North tracks at East 116th street and check out their Facebook page for special seasonal events like the summer artisan markets with live music.
Right across from La Marqueta under the Metro North tracks, you'll find the Urban Garden Center: your go to spot for air plants and all sorts of organic greenery. Better yet, go on an afternoon when they're sponsoring a special cookout event with La Marqueta. For example, this weekend as I'm writing this, the agenda reads: "El Boar-rio presents Harlem Seoul (Pig Roast Korean style); Music + Plants + amazing food; under the tracks at 116 and Park Ave." Sounds pretty great to me.
Your weekend dose of Central Park: the northern end
Central Park is always beautiful, especially when you can move beyond the hyper touristed areas. This corner of the park is home to the Harlem Meer, a gorgeous lake surrounded by Canadian geese and water reeds. Definitely a great spot for an afternoon stroll.
Harlem's portion of the "museum mile": Museo del Barrio and the Museum of the City of New York
If its not obvious already, I'd say I'm a bit of New York history nerd. Even for those of you that aren't, there is plenty to love about the Museum of the City of New York. The interior is stunning and it's right along the park, a stone's throw away from all of the other museum mile establishments. My favorite of the permanent exhibitions is a 20 minute video that speeds through the history of the city, starting with the purchase of "Manahatta" from the Lenape tribe for $24 by the Dutch settlers. A multi-media 3 screen experience, the video is probably the best rapid history of the city I've seen.
The temporary exhibitions over the past few months have also been awesome. Rising Waters recently exhibited a series of photographs of Sandy taken by pedestrian photographers - a really beautiful and well done exhibit. Also recently, the museum featured "City as Canvas", the graffiti of the Martin Wong collection. A fun one to be sure.
El Museo del Barrio is a bit smaller than some of the neighboring museums, but has a number of impressive collections celebrating the neighborhood's diverse Latino history. I love this place because its more than a museum but also a cultural center for the community. Musical performances, film screenings, and other events are a great excuse for people to come together and to celebrate the neighborhood's home grown talent.
One of my favorite sections of the permanent exhibits is the series of photos of this neighborhood and its diaspora to the South Bronx. More than any other media I've ever encountered, these photos capture the painful past of the community with true weight. Burning buildings, empty lots, and the loss associated are all tragically present in this collection of black and whites.
Rao's: a Woody Allen haunt and one of the most notoriously impossible reservations in NYC
As the NYT says, Forgetaboutit. This 100 year old Italian neighborhood institution has 10 of the most exclusive tables in the city, two of which are regularly frequented by Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. Simple Italian cooking, a doting staff, and one seating a night apparently are the magic recipe. I haven't cracked the reservation code yet, so we'll rely on Hal Rubenstein who says it best:
Two years you wait for a table. Then finally your cousin gets off his butt and calls his dentist whose brother-in-law CPAs for a guy whose stepfather once dated the line cook's sister. While you wait—and you will—listen to the names of the regulars pouring through the door and understand why it takes civilians so long to get into Rao's. Is it finally worth it for a bowl of ziti, some roasted peppers, baked clams, and a flat of lasagna? Yeah, it really is. Rao's is a part of New York you thought had disappeared. — Hal Rubenstein via: NY Mag
In case you're not Woody Allen, a more casual Puerto Rican scene at La Fonda Boricua
This neighborhood establishment is the go to for the sit down variety of Puerto Rican eats. Known for their Mofongo (a mashed plantain based dish) and of course Arroz con Pollo, La Fonda Boricua is the spot for a good dose of local comfort eats.
Mapping your trip