Blurring the Line Between Yorkville and East Harlem

Written by Daniel Fitzsimmons on . Posted in News Our Town.


Filmmaker hopes to start conversation about gentrification and identity

Andrew Padilla is only 23 years old with a single high school filmmaking class under his belt. But that hasn’t stopped him from making a documentary about gentrification in East Harlem on the Upper East Side.

Yorkville 4

The film, El Barrio Tours, has gained a fair amount of attention, picking up Best Documentary Short at the Puerto Rico International Film Festival and garnering an Official Selection in San Diego’s Latino Film Festival.

Padilla never set out to make a film on gentrification – its effect on community identity, people and small businesses – but the idea came from a desire to shoot a documentary about his grandfather, an immigrant who came to New York in the 1950s and was able to attain middle class status for his family. That project was derailed in 2011 when his grandfather passed away.

“I decided to do the film, but instead of centering around his life, to center around the life of the neighborhood, its past, present and where it might be going and leave that out there as a question so that other communities can wonder,” said Padilla.

Padilla’s film is a tour through East Harlem – El Barrio – that looks at the people and places that make a community: Businesses that have been around since the 1950s, neighborhood characters that look out for the kids, all elements that contribute to the history of a particular area.

“Growing up here, despite the bad in the neighborhood, there was always such a sense of community. You always knew the butcher, the baker and the coquito maker,” said Padilla in a promo video of El Barrio Tours. “And all of these people, they looked out for you.”

The landscaping is changing though. Padilla went on to say that as he got older he saw a lot of these people and businesses he knew move uptown, out of the city, and in some cases out of the country altogether. “I wanted to know why,” he said.

Padilla told a story of a game he played as a kid on the subway. He bet his friends that all the wealthy-looking people in the car would get off the subway before or at 96th Street, the line of demarcation between East Harlem and Yorkville on the Upper East Side. But now that line is being increasingly blurred, said Padilla, as more affluent developments and commercial interests encroach into East Harlem.

Padilla said that in November, five businesses on 104th Street – that had been in the area for decades – were forced to re-locate because their leases were up and the building owner wanted to raise rents to match those of nearby buildings, “human nature,” said Padilla.

One of the businesses that had been on 104th Street for 58 years moved up to 107th Street where there’s less foot traffic. Another one, Claudio’s Barber Shop, has been around “forever,” said Padilla, and despite a strong showing of community support to save it, still had to move.

“Claudio had people from all walks of life, colors, creeds, come out to try and protect his store and protect him and he still had to move to a space half the size,” said Padilla. “Both of them actually had to move to a space half the size, and they’re both struggling. It kind of goes to show no matter how long you’ve been in the neighborhood and what type of cultural capital you’ve been able to amass, it unfortunately isn’t enough.”

Padilla’s goal is to get people talking about not just how the issues are affecting their day-to-day lives, but what it means for the community they live in. He’d like to start a conversation in New York and elsewhere about alternatives to development and who a city’s resources seek to help.

“Even though everyone experiences gentrification in New York, and has experienced it throughout the country, we very rarely have a conversation over how it’s affecting us for better or for worse and if there are any alternatives in terms of development,” said Padilla. “I think that gentrification is development but development doesn’t have to be gentrification; that’s one way to develop an area, so I think it’s an interesting conversation we’re having.”

Some of these alternatives include subsidizing – giving tax breaks – to small businesses as opposed to luxury housing developments, which Padilla said the city spends over a billion dollars a year subsidizing.

“Lets subsidize small businesses and owners that have been doing the right thing in their community for a long while,” said Padilla. “Why should we spend so many of our resources, our hard-earned tax dollars, why should we be using that to subsidize outside companies to come in and do the work that our communities could and take jobs that our community could?”

A family in East Harlem.

A family in East Harlem.

Padilla said there are many stages to gentrification, and that the Lower East Side is an example of a neighborhood that’s about 10-20 years ahead of East Harlem in the process. The South Bronx is a neighborhood that he estimated is about 10 years behind East Harlem in terms of being gentrified.

“I don’t command people to agree with my position, I simply want people to talk about theirs, regardless of where that is,” said Padilla. “Because we can’t fully solve a problem if we’re not actually having an honest debate about it.”

Padilla said that the more affluent have a stake in the conversation as well, as increasing rents could force even them out one day.

“We certainly are on different levels of the ship, but we’re all on the same boat,” said Padilla. “Unless you’re in the upper, upper echelon in New York we’re all on the same boat and that boat is headed outside of the center of the city, as it is in most major cities,” said Padilla.

He recognizes the privilege and benefits that have been afforded him. Both his grandparents took advantage of public housing and had union jobs, which allowed their families to lead middle class lives. Padilla’s next move is to take El Barrio Tours’ concept to different cities, and initiate conversations about gentrification across the U.S. He recently raised $12,000 towards that goal in a fundraising campaign.

“There is no simple solution to gentrification, if there was someone would have done it and if I was saying I had it I’d be a used-car salesman,” said Padilla. “I can’t propose to have that, but there are things we can do to tip the scales in the other direction.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Andrew Padilla isn’t anti-gentrification. Padilla said he is anti-gentrification. Padilla also said the South Bronx is about ten years behind where East Harlem is currently in terms of being gentrified.

Trackback from your site.

..