Tenants of East Harlem


The Tenants of East Harlem

Russell Leigh Sharman (2006)

University of California Press

Russell Leigh Sharman is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at Brooklyn College. You can read more about him at his website.

This 244 page book tells the story of the East Harlem neighborhood of New York through a series of personal accounts given by seven residents, each presenting us with the personal views of different times, races and cultures in El Barrio. This is oral history work, where traditional academic writing meets real people with real lives, and it is they, rather than the author, who mainly tell the story. Issues of cultural identity, immigration, use of space and the more recent concern for those in the neighborhood, the gentrification of the area, are explored in a highly readable manner.

Why you might buy it:

A good book has you turning more pages than you intended to in the time you set aside for reading. This book does that. The characters here each reflect their distinct personalities through Sharmans writing and there are times when you may feel a genuine emotional connection with them. Extremely well written, that these are real peoples experiences and views makes this difficult to ignore for being ‘merely an academic’ take. Each person is given equal space to tell their story, and Sharman manages to connect each individual to the whole, unfolding picture – making for a seamless reading experience. The political messages are generally subtly interwoven within the text, but nonetheless strongly expressed.

Why you might leave it:

Whilst the book is about one of the most important spaces on the planet in terms of the development of Latin music, salsa in particular – East Harlem has been home and a performance ground for Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente – music does not feature particularly strongly. As a Latin music book purchase then, perhaps a luxury buy. The characters are merely single examples of each disparate and varied culture and as such it could be argued, and indeed is acknowledged, that they are not necessarily representative of such.



1. East Harlem
2. Pleasant Avenue: The Italians
3. 106th Street: The Puerto Ricans
4. 125th Street: The African Americans
5. 116th Street: The Mexicans
6. Third Avenue: The West Africans
7. Second Avenue: The Chinese
8. Urban “Renewal” and the Final Migration


Selected extracts (from):

1. East Harlem

Above, the skyline is a low-lying, seven-story maximum, occasionally disrupted by the towering public housing projects at 98th, 106th, 110th, 112th, and 125th streets. The lower buildings display an arresting array of color above the bacchanal of commerce at street level. Old tenements of green, blue, red, and white form orderly canyons, guiding the streets and avenues as they neatly dissect the neighborhood. Rising high above are the housing projects. The drab, muddy brick monoliths seem naked and unfinished, like foundation posts for some impossibly large building. And the taller, more obtrusive buildings not only disrupt the riot of color; they also disrupt the orderly grid of the older, smaller buildings work so hard to maintain. Organized around so-called superblocks, the housing projects razed micro-communities and closed off streets to create building complexes centered on green spaces. Heralded as a miracle of modern urban planning and a model for democratic housing, the projects were given names like Jefferson, Washington, and Johnson. But with no stores and no restaurants, the superblocks killed off the street life and quickly turned their green spaces into some of the most fearsome real estate in the city.

The steady march north past short blocks and narrow streets is arrested at 106th street, the first of the two wide, two-way streets that intersect the neighborhood. On the corner of 106th Street and Third Avenue there are telltale signs of relatively recent economic investment; KFC, Blockbuster, and a shiny new chain pharmacy. But there are also the indelible marks of the Puerto Rican community, the mid-century immigration trend that turned East Harlem into Spanish Harlem and El Barrio. La Fonda Boriqua sits just behind blockbuster Video, serving up Puerto Rican comfort food to the local literati. And just down the street, at Lexington Avenue, is the heart of Puerto Rican East Harlem.

2. Pleasant Avenue: The Italians

A flash jolts Pete from his reverie. He stands halfway, scanning up and down the sidewalk for its source. A mother with a disposable camera snaps another photo of her two children, and Pete settles back into his chair with a faint scowl.

“Somebody takes a picture of me, I don’t like it,” he says.

For another hour, Pete keeps one eye on the corner of 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue, where Rao’s Italian Restaurant sits half a block away. He smiles at passing children or waves hello to their parents, but there is a restlessness about him. Twice he lunges out of his chair midsentence, without warning, and takes a few furtive steps toward the corner. “I’m waiting for a guy,” he explains halfheartedly as he settles back down. Finally, another lunge, and he is scampering down to the corner. Five minutes later, he emerges from the garden-level restaurant at the corner carrying two brown paper bags.

“What’s in the bags, Pete?”

“So where are we?” he asks, blithely ignoring the question.

Pete’s secrecy only adds to the mystique of Italian Harlem after the tenements came crumbling down. Those Italians who did not join the exodus out to Long Island or New Jersey seemed to consolidate around Pleasant Avenue and its connecting streets, a last stand against a relentless enemy. Rao’s Italian Restaurant, from which Pete appeared with his brown packages, became the celebrates headquarters of Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, and as East Harlem settled into the 1960’s and 1970’s, Italian Harlem settled into a stigmatized association with organized crime.

3. 106th Street: The Puerto Ricans

Jose is at home here, not just in La Fonda Boriqua. Born and raised in East Harlem, there is no place he feels more comfortable. He has spent no more than seven years outside her boundaries, and each has indelibly marked his allegiance to El Barrio. “Going downtown” still means a string of stores on 86th Street, and even when he must travel long distances he refuses to fly – as if afraid such efficient transportation could take him too far away.

“Hey Jose! Como le va?” A round, clean-shaven Puerto Rican, one of the owners of the restaurant, greets Jose with a firm handshake.

“Bien, gracias. How have you been?” Jose shifts awkwardly into English, still unsure of his Spanish. “Listen, I’ve got those pictures and I’ll get them to you in a couple of days.”

“No problem, yeah, that’s okay,” replies his friend as he backs away to greet other customers.

Jose adjusts his glasses to study the menu, reading over the list of Puerto Rican delicacies such as roast suckling pig and sopa de mondongo, a soup made from a cows stomach lining. A young waitress interrupts his meditation and asks in hip, slurred Spanish if he is ready to order. Jose does his best to flirt in a language he stopped using several decades earlier, and finally settles on soup.

5. 116th Street: The Mexicans

Maria turns on the tired and beaten television and plays with the antennas until Univision can be seen through a bearable amount of static. She takes a seat in her own barber’s chair, crosses her legs and waits as the chatter of a morning news program fills the shop.

A young man pushes the front door. “Vic here yet?” he asks. His oversized white T-shirt hangs down around his knees, and his eyebrows arch beneath the perfectly flat brim of his all-black Chicago White Sox cap. Maria shakes her head, and the young man sits down in one of the garish red metal chairs to wait.

In a few minutes, Maria will be joined by Victor, a Puerto Rican barber who shares the space. The both pay the owner, a local Puerto Rican, a percentage of their earnings to use the shop. The young man will wait for Victor, who will trim his quarter inch of hair and meticulously trim his pencil-thin beard, all while comparing notes in music, movies, and women. A small crowd will gather around Vic, their voices rising, their language becoming more coarse. Maria will try not to hear.

In the chaos, she will have her customers, mostly Mexican, mostly unauthorized, undocumented migrants. A few will have just arrived, full of stories about the crossing, the load houses, the long car trip to New York, or maybe even landing at JFK. Maria will offer advice, share her stories, and wish them luck. Vic will put some salsa music on the stereo that will drown out Univision, but Maria will be too busy to mind.

For now, though, it is just Maria, her television, and the young man sulking by the front door. For now, she is alone.

8. Urban “Renewal” and the Final Migration

But the effect of gentrification on people already living in those allegedly blighted communities is not value-neutral, and it is rarely positive. For example, one of the clearest indicators that gentrification has taken root in East Harlem is the attempt by real estate brokers and developers to rebrand the neighborhood. Documented by Arlene Davila in her book Barrio Dreams, this process has a direct impact on the cultural claim Puerto Ricans have maintained on the neighborhood since displacing the Italians more than sixty years ago. Despite local movements to promote “El Barrio” and “Spanish Harlem” as distinctive labels for the community, real estate listings in city newspapers have conspicuously avoided those terms. At least as early as 1981, developers have tried to push the 96th Street boundary northward, referring to properties as far as 106th Street as “Upper Yorkville”. It is a thinly veiled attempt to dissociate East Harlem from its own history and present the neat grid of streets as a cultural void waiting to be filled with “qualified” applicants. In the socially and politically loaded terms of gentrification, developers and brokers market 96th Street as a real estate frontier, hoping to draw intrepid homesteaders into the northern wilderness.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

Philippe Bourgois
“An excellent contribution to the history of East Harlem, history of ethnic immigration and social inequality in the United States, and finally to understanding the phenomenon of the ethnically and class segregated U.S. inner city.”

Nancy Foner
“The Tenants of East Harlem is an excellent and absorbing book on the way immigration and ethnic change have affected East Harlem and its residents. Through engaging, and often extremely moving, life stories of several residents of the community, Russell Sharman provides a window into the processes of change in this well-known New York City neighborhood.”

Times Literary Supplement
“Sharman uses certain streets (106th, Pleasant Avenue, 116th) and a series of ‘life stories’, to make [East Harlem] come alive with the sounds of hope and fear. [He] lets his informants speak in their own voices about the traditional concerns of urban anthropologists: race, gender, poverty, mobility, identity and class… These case studies are an opportunity for the general reader to understand the changing face of Manhattan and its resilient people and economy.”


One response

14 09 2008
Richard Blondet

I recently purchased this book based on having discovered its existence via the Abstracto webpage. It was an interesting read and some of what was described did in fact relate to me as a former resident. I did, however, find some inaccuracies. Or at least what I personally found to be inaccurate. Particularly about Pleasant Avenue. While there is still a small community of old time italians who reside in that area, the avenue is dominated by Puerto Ricans. Our family lived on 117th Street and Pleasant Avenue and I can remember there being more Boricuas than “Eye-talos” way back when. Not that this is off any significant importance, but the author of the book somewhat implies that East Harlem is divided into specific ethnic areas. In my opinion, East Harlem has a distinct ethnic ‘face’ within specific time periods, rather than geographical areas. For example, the book is entitled the “Tenants of East Harlem,” but it seems as if the focus is more on what, or rather who, is visible OUTSIDE the tenement buildings and projects surrounding the area. Many of the ethnic groups you might see running the businesses or outside the stores selling clothes or other items don’t necessarily reside in the area.

With regards to the so-called “Italian section” of Harlem, one thing I do recall is that while Tony Salerno was probably a patron of RAO’s (a place where it is very difficult to obtain a reservation as it is usually booked years in advance and some tables are reserved permanently to a select few celebrities, wiseguys, journalists, politicians and law enforcement types) the restaurant itself was not his headquarters or where he held court regularly. That spot was a place called The DePalma Boys Social Club, not far from RAOs. This is where “Fat Tony” would meet with other neighborhood mobsters like the sweet ol’ Mr. Vincent Carfaro who would often give out quarters to the neighborhood children so they could buy italian ices from the italian ices guy on 1st avenue, and the boss of the neighborhood itself whom everyone knew only as “Mr. Gribbs.”

Still and all, the book provides a window into the world of a select few residents and many of their concerns, fears and hopes are those that many outside off the community can relate to and share. It would be great if all of these faces could join and turn East Harlem into a cultural utopia that New York as a whole was once known for, but is now eradicated thanks to the Corporate Disneyfication of most of the island of Manhattan below 96th Street.

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