Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Say My Name: SpaHa, SoBro...

This may already be old news but I just recently heard someone refer to Spanish Harlem as SpaHa. A couple years ago, I remember someone referring to the South Bronx as SoBro.

As a child of the late 70s and the 80s, I can remember when the streets of El Barrio or Spanish Harlem or East Harlem where littered with crack vials, drug dealers yelling "bajando" and drug addicts from corner to corner. The empty and trash littered lots that sometimes took up whole blocks, burned out abandoned buildings and homeless people.

Some changes, I guess you might call them gentrification, don't bother me. I don't mind the enormous, abandoned Washburn Wire Factory on East 116th Street being turned into a $150 million dollar shopping plaza to open in the fall that will house Target’s first Manhattan store above home Depot. It will bring jobs, stir the local economy and bring visitors to the community.

I am always shocked by the amount of new condos I see going up everywhere when I go back "home." But you know what? Those used to be empty lots or abandoned buildings. While I advocate for housing available to all, low income and middle income and above - I rather see those condos there than empty lots and homeless people sleeping in the streets. Then again, there is something vulgar about putting up condos in a community where on the average, the annual household income is around $21,175.

And while some community leaders decry the loss of the cultural community as a student of anthropology, I know that nothing exists in vacuum, that everything changes over time and is susceptible to outside influences and that in turn changes the progression of history. And sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The same tension felt when the amount of Mexicans on 116th Street outgrew Puerto Ricans is not that different from the Italians' reactions to the Puerto Ricans back in the 1920s-1970s. Or from the tension or resentment about the population shift toward young middle-class whites in the last decade. El Barrio was once Italian Harlem, what it becomes next is any one's guess. It belongs to no one.

Yet, I take issues with highbrow terms like SoBro and SpaHa. My gut reaction is both a sneer and tired chortle.

What bothers me the most about the terms is the coat of varnish or whitewash they seem to try to imply on a place, which I consider rich historically and culturally. People might come and go but at least the name of the place should stay, no?

But then again... "What's in a name [really]? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2), William Shakespeare

Home is where your heart is.


  1. I want to agree with you wholeheartedly...but I also find the gentrifying of neighborhoods like East Harlem, Brooklyn, and other typically more ethnic area really horrifying. They push out so many beautiful aspects of NYC culture in favor of a big mass market brand of white America.

    Why not coops, which are more affordable? Why not 80/20 housing, or even 70/30 in these cases? Why not more locally owned business (for all ethnicities)? Why not also play up business classes for neighborhood residents to also play a part in the gentrification of their own area?

  2. True... What's in a name? But Rosa's don't actually change their genetic make-up. Even over a couple of years they still look the same. These neighborhoods are forever changing, a name can tell the history. Keep changing the name along with the change of scenery and history will be lost.

    But I think about Clinton which was solely called Hell's Kitchen at one point.

  3. I've also heard parts of lower Spanish Harlem (below 106th street) referred to as Upper Yorkville. Don't think so!


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