The Tenants of East Harlem

The Tenants of East Harlem

The Tenants of East Harlem

The Tenants of East Harlem

Synopsis

Rich with the textures and rhythms of street life, The Tenants of East Harlem is an absorbing and unconventional biography of a neighborhood told through the life stories of seven residents whose experiences there span nearly a century. Modeled on the ethnic distinctions that divide the community, the book portrays the old guard of East Harlem: Pete, one of the last Italian holdouts; José, a Puerto Rican; and Lucille, an African American. Side by side with these representatives of a century of ethnic succession are the newcomers: Maria, an undocumented Mexican; Mohamed, a West African entrepreneur; Si Zhi, a Chinese immigrant and landlord; and, finally, the author himself, a reluctant beneficiary of urban renewal. Russell Leigh Sharman deftly weaves these oral histories together with fine-grained ethnographic observations and urban history to examine the ways that immigration, housing, ethnic change, gentrification, race, class, and gender have affected the neighborhood over time. Providing unique access to the nuances of inner-city life, The Tenants of East Harlem shows how roots sink so quickly in a community that has always hosted the transient, how new immigrants are challenging the claims of the old, and how that cycle is threatened as never before by the specter of gentrification.

Excerpt

Located in a somewhat infamous corner of upper Manhattan, East Harlem is hemmed in by 96th and 125th Streets, Fifth Avenue and the East River. It has always been distinct from the better-known Harlem, at least in the eyes of its inhabitants, though it has not always been considered a specifically Spanish Harlem. Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews, and African Americans all took up residence before the arrival of Puerto Ricans. But the Puerto Ricans staked the most recent claim, overwhelming every other ethnic group by sheer numbers so that East Harlem became Spanish Harlem, which would fight a losing battle with the other Harlem for municipal attention and economic development.

By the 1980s and 1990s East Harlem had become one of the most stigmatized communities in the city. With the introduction of crack cocaine to the informal urban economy, 40 percent became the magic number for . . .

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