‘When Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a public-access center for cable TV, expanded to the East Side last year by taking over a decommissioned firehouse at 175 E. 104th St., it sent a signal that East Harlem was ready for prime time.
2½-year restoration of the firehouse kept the historic shell but completely retrofitted the interior with production equipment and high-definition studios for use by area residents. But more importantly, it gave the neighborhood access to technology that has long eluded it.
“This studio is squarely aimed at breaking the digital divide,” said Daniel Coughlin, MNN’s executive director.
The restoration, however, is also a metaphor for much of what’s happening in the neighborhood these days, as East Harlem becomes increasingly gussied up while its residents struggle to avoid the pitfalls of gentrification.
As development creeps north of 96th Street—the historic dividing line between Spanish Harlem and Yorkville—residents and business owners worry the cultural heritage that so keenly defines the neighborhood will erode. Many locals say they don’t want to see a replication of the gentrification on the Lower East Side.
“We need places that are owned and operated by people who know what the community wants and who are answering the call for things that reflect their culture and history,” said Marina Ortiz, executive director of East Harlem Preservation, a advocacy group that promotes the neighborhood’s heritage.
Aurora Anaya-Cerda, a West Coast transplant, opened La Casa Azul bookstore in East Harlem in a two-level brownstone at 143 E. 103rd St. 10 months ago. She was initially inspired to open her store by what she couldn’t find—anything dedicated to Latino literature—and as she developed programming around her customers’ requests, she realized a greater need.
“There’s nothing that supported the literary arts in the way I was hoping to find,” she said. “We have locals who come in and say ‘we’ve been here for generations and haven’t had a space like this.’ It is a mission to be part of the community, but a major component of that is to be receptive to the community.”
The store has grown into a cultural gathering spot that has hosted 200 events such as children’s workshops, cooking classes, readings and film screenings.
The balance between new development and such organic, community-based growth is but one issue here as multigenerational shops are replaced by polished retail spaces.