Whose Barrio The Film



Apartment Lost, Home Found

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

NY Times Published January 2, 2009

ABOUT two years ago, an episode occurred on the brownstone block of Sixth Avenue, right smack in the middle of Park Slope, where I had lived for three years with my girlfriend, Laura, that would be a portent of our impending doom. A 40-something woman whose house was two doors down occasionally got very drunk and threw tantrums in her front doorway or backyard. She’d be calmed down, and then go back inside to her enormous German shepherd.
One night Laura and I were finishing the last of a cheap bottle of pinot noir when we heard someone ringing the buzzer of our building. It was our neighbor, wearing a look of near-total desperation.

This time she seemed to be at the end of her rope. She had progressed far beyond the wailing outbursts that usually occurred on Saturday nights, interrupting people’s dinners of wild Norwegian salmon carted home from the Whole Foods on Union Square or the Fairway at Red Hook.
As it turned out, she had locked herself out of her house, and it would take the police to get her back in. But instead of the usual defiance on her makeup-smeared face, she wore a look of defeat. The crises were coming with increasing frequency, and within weeks of this incident, she was selling her building to a young family. The rumored price: $1.6 million.
The sale seemed to set off a domino effect on the block. Stoop after stoop was being repaired, sandblasted and repainted. The old house belonging to the unstable woman down the block was being gutted, and the sound of construction crews rattled on all day, shaking the floorboards of my home office.
I myself was not immune to moves around the city. It seemed as if I’d spent my whole life doing exactly that. I’d grown up in the Bronx, in the middle of white flight, and spent my adolescence in a strange ambivalence as my white neighbors fled the neighborhoods my Puerto Rican family was usually one of the first to move into.

After coming back to New York after college in the early 1980s, I lived in the far East Village, in a classic run-down tenement on a block inhabited by poor Latino families, drug dealers and art school punks. Over a period of 15 years I watched as the neighborhood was transformed from combustible politically charged bohemia to a beer-soaked, hookah-ridden playground for moneyed 20-somethings.

In 1999, an acquaintance mentioned that he wanted to give up his Park Slope digs, and suggested that I check them out. I moved into a four-story building with one unit on each floor, few enough to exempt the place from rent-stabilization laws. I was aware that I might be forced to move if my landlord sold the building. But the 1 1/2-bedroom unit with nice wood floors on a quiet block was so pretty, and the rent, $1,200, still affordable.

About two years ago, Laura and I started getting hints that we ourselves might have to move, even though our landlord, Jay, had been assuring us that he wasn’t interested in selling. The fact that he would no longer be offering us a lease and had changed our rental status from month to month didn’t mean anything, he insisted. He just wanted to keep his options open.
A few months later, Jay told us he was going to begin to “explore” selling the building. But not to worry, he insisted. If he actually received an offer, he promised to put in a good word for us.

A few days later Jay showed up, sweeping the area in front of the building as he usually did, meticulously organizing the garbage and the recycling for the next day’s pickup. He was putting the building up for sale, he told us, just to see what the market would bear.

Soon, an agent from a real estate broker on Seventh Avenue came by with a middle-aged couple in tow. The pair entered cautiously, looking around the living room and kitchen as if they were first-time buyers. Laura and I wondered what they were wondering. Knock out a wall here, revamp the plumbing there? Build a deck from the second floor that would extend to the garden?

After a while the visits from the real estate broker ceased, and we began to relax and conclude that old Jay would hold onto the house after all. He’d lived there once, in our very apartment, something he’d told me with doting pride one day while spattering the detritus of a blocked-up sink all over his white tennis instructor uniform. The building seemed to be nothing short of his baby; he often refused to call plumbers or people to grout the bathroom tiles because he loved getting his fingers dirty in our apartment.

Then, in June 2007, we got the letter. “The referenced property,” we were informed, “is in the process of being sold. The new owner expects the building to be delivered empty.”
The buyers, we quickly found out, were the middle-aged couple, the first suitors. It turned out they had a storefront real estate office right up the block from us.

By Thanksgiving of 2007, the sale was finalized. We got a letter from the new landlords instructing us to call to “discuss our tenancy.” I hoped to negotiate a reasonable rent, but they were firm that the new figure would be $2,600 — a $1,000 increase. They agreed to let us stay through the holidays.

We started looking at a few apartments in the Slope and elsewhere in Brownstone Brooklyn, but found them smaller than the one we were living in and more expensive.
We also looked in East Harlem, a k a El Barrio, where we were shown several apartments by young, fresh-faced real estate agents extolling the virtues of an “up-and-coming” neighborhood. Although we saw nicely redone apartments with exposed brick and attractive kitchens, out in the hallways, we saw family after family of Mexican immigrants pouring from their apartments, many in obvious need of repair. Young bohemian types shouted across the hallways to their friends, seemingly oblivious to the stark inequity of conditions in their own building.

Taking part in this carousel of displacement, Laura and I concluded, would have been too painful. And so we continued to look.

Finally, some friends from Puerto Rico did something that in the long run would offer a solution to our problems. After doing considerable research and pounding the South Bronx pavement, they purchased a four-story century-old Romanesque Revival row house on a historic block in Mott Haven. When they asked us if we’d like to move in, once the renovation was done, we jumped at the chance.

Sometimes, as we waited for our apartment to be ready, while living temporarily in East Harlem I went back to Park Slope. I’d look around the neighborhood, breathe the clean air, gaze at the beautiful trees and decided that I didn’t miss it at all. I walked up the block to Seventh Avenue to discover a new restaurant serving vaguely Latin food with entrees that were about $17. It was called Barrio.

We’ve already begun moving into our new Mott Haven home, which is almost ready. Still, it is hard for me to escape the irony. Here I was, 20 blocks away from Melrose, where I was born, 35 years after white flight had pushed my parents across the Bronx like the terminal moraine of the big glacier that came down during the Ice Age. It seemed as if the whole world had spun on its axis and plopped me down into a place that maybe this time will feel a little more like home.

Ed Morales is director and producer, with his partner, Laura Rivera, of “Whose Barrio?,” a documentary film about the gentrification of East Harlem.

Photo and text taken from The New York Times
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The Gentrification of East Harlem

© All rights Reserved Ed Morales - Laura Rivera - NYC 2009