In a community garden on 104 Street and Lexington Avenue in East Harlem, a mural of Frida Kahlo and Julia de Burgos, named “Soldaderas” and painted by Yasmin Hernandez, pays tribute to the similar struggles and histories of the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities in this New York City neighborhood also known as “El Barrio.”
A more modern struggle they face is displacement. As gentrification in El Barrio has become more prevalent, the neighborhood’s longtime Latino residents are being forced to leave.
A few steps away from the mural is the home of Minerva Cornejal, who migrated from Mexico 34 years ago and has lived in the same building since. “It has changed a lot,” Cornejal said of the neighborhood.
She has noticed younger white and Asian people moving in as a lot of local businesses have closed.
“Buildings are nicer,” she said.
Wealthier newcomers have been transforming New York City neighborhoods for generations, pushing out old-timers as the cost of housing goes up. What makes gentrification in East Harlem different, though, is that it is changing the historical reputation of a working-class neighborhood that has held up against such transformational forces for so long, says Andrew J. Padilla, East Harlem native and urban policy educator.
“What’s remained consistent for almost 200 years is [East Harlem’s] status as a working-class community. Gentrification is shifting this,” he wrote in an email.
In 2000, 53 percent of El Barrio’s population identified as Latino, 7.3 percent as white, and 2.7 percent as Asian. By 2019, those numbers had changed dramatically, with the percentage of white and Asian residents having roughly doubled while the Latino population had declined by 43 percent.
At the same time, the median rent also increased by almost 21 percent, up to $940 from $780 a month, according to New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.
“Gentrification didn’t come yesterday. It had been coming for a long time,” said Sandra Killett, a member of Community Voices Heard, a community-led organization in New York pushing for racial, economic, and social equality. “They don’t always have to be white folk—they are people who are willing to pay the rent.”
Controversial Tactics Used by Landlords
Cornejal remembers that when she first moved into her building in 1988, the majority of the 28 apartments were occupied by Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Central American families. Today, she estimates that there are only six or seven of these families left, and the new tenants only stay for a few months.
Landlords have used controversial and sometimes illegal practices to push out longtime tenants paying low rent. The most common, Padilla says, is cutting heat, water, or electricity and poor maintenance of the building.
Landlords also “bring frivolous housing court actions against tenants,” he said.
Cornejal knows this all too well. Fifteen years ago, her bathroom ceiling collapsed, and after many failed attempts of trying to contact her landlord to fix it, she stopped paying rent. A few months later, the landlord sued her and she was asked to show up to court.
“I said, ‘I’ll go to court, I am not afraid,'” she said.
She showed up with photos of the collapsed ceiling and the judge sided with her, asking management to fully repair the ceiling within two months, though that outcome isn’t common. She cites other problems the landlord has ignored: chipped paint, cracks on the walls and ceiling, rat and bedbug infestations—issues which Cornejal and her family have had to resolve on their own.
After years of failed attempts to push out Cornejal, the landlord finally offered her $70,000 to leave. She declined. The landlord persisted, increasing the offer to $75,000, but Cornejal hasn’t budged.
Not many people are as tenacious. The negligence of landlords can drive many tenants to the breaking point, especially if they are vulnerable.
Many residents in El Barrio are undocumented, do not speak English, or understand their rights as tenants, and they would rather leave their apartment than expose themselves to immigration authorities, says Richard Siegel, former director of social work and discharge planning at Metropolitan Hospital and a professor of social work at Hunter College.
“A lot of people don’t want to bring the legal system and the resources that are available in to advocate for them because there is more fear that it is not going to work and that it is going to backfire,” Siegel said. “They’re at a tremendous disadvantage.”
Is East Harlem the Next Manhattanville?
El Barrio has one of the highest ratio of public housing rentals: almost a third. And studies have shown a correlation between gun violence and public housing clusters,often believed to be a deterrent to newcomers.
“It ain’t stop nothing because the feeling is, ‘I’m going to move in and everything that I think is wrong is going to get fixed,'” said Killett, a Harlem resident of 27 years who has watched West Harlem become gentrified.
The New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, estimates $40 billion dollars are needed to repair units in desperate need throughout the city. With the new Permanent Affordability Commitment Together program, the agency is partnering with private developers to receive partial funding.
Located just north of Manhattan’s affluent Upper West Side, Manhattanville Houses recently became managed by a private company. This has increased fears that the same can happen to El Barrio and, therefore, speed up gentrification at a faster and wider rate.
“What would be the investment for me as a private real estate person to be the private manager for NYCHA?” said Siegel. “It has to mean that I am going to make money.”
El Barrio is Cornejal’s home. Although she loves living there, she has refused to leave as a form of rebellion.
“I don’t plan on leaving,” she said. “I plan on staying here until my last days.”
Yesenia Barrios is a freelance writer based in New York who specializes in immigration and mental health issues. Twitter: @YeseniaBC1230