Tucked into a cozy little corner, where the Harlem River and East River meet on the northeastern side of Manhattan, East Harlem is a neighborhood steeped in rich culture and tradition. The area originally held the honor of being New York’s first Little Italy, due to the large wave of Italian immigrants who flooded the region in the late 1800s. It wasn’t until the 1930s when a new wave of settlers from Puerto Rico brought with them the nickname “El Barrio,” or “the neighborhood.”
Since that time this lively little borough has spawned Latin music greats like Ray Barretto and Tito Puente. While maintaining its Italian heritage through traditions like The Giglio Society of East Harlem and dancing the Giglio on St. Anthony’s feast day each August, a practice they have continued since 1908.
Oh the Food!
El Barrio’s Italian flair also lives on through institutions like Patsy’s, a pizza parlor that opened in 1933 and used to be frequented by legends like Joe DiMaggio and the Rat Pack. Francis Ford Coppola would often use Patsy’s as ambiance for his work on The Godfather. Rao’s, established 1896, is another Italian mainstay, with pasta rumored to be so delicious that regulars sometimes rent out “their” tables if they weren’t going to be dining there on a given evening.
And the Art…
East Harlem is no stranger to the cultural scene. El Barrio’s first- and second-generation children became musicians, playwrights, and poets who used art to form their identities and banded together with others from their homeland to start an art revolution. One of the significant institutions to come out of this movement is El Museo del Barrio. This cultural learning center boasts an enviable collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, and a gallery of contemporary Latin American and Caribbean art.
Not far from El Museo, sits the Museum of the City of New York, which houses the city’s living history. Travel north a spell and you’ll hit the National Jazz Museum, established 1997, which holds not only lectures but live performances as well.
A Resilient Community
While East Harlem has experienced its fair share of crime problems, the community unifies through cultural activity and neighborhood events. The Dana Discovery Center at the top of Harlem Meer offers activities such as a holiday tree lighting, catch-and-release fishing, and a pumpkin sail. Just a few years ago, the Los Muros Hablan (the mural speaks) festival had mural artists from NYC, Puerto Rico, and Latin America decorate local buildings with amazing, intricate murals.
From it’s incredible array of food – Latin, Italian, and everything in between – to charming staples like Claudio’s Barber Shop (and its 80-something year old owner), it’s easy to see how El Barrio has persevered through decades of change and challenges. There’s no doubt that between the art, the music, the food, and the rich ethnic history, this charming neighborhood has something to offer everyone.