Spanish Harlem’s De Facto Border

Although New York’s public spaces were created as havens for contrasting identities to coexist, many have become exclusive areas for a select few elites. Due to the increase in cost of land and lack of space, the cultural border between the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem is shifting, as it is apparent in the Monterey Public Garden. As the Upper East Side pushed the border further, the massive cultural shift in Spanish Harlem became evident due to the revalorization of the community’s public spaces. This not only transforms the culture of their public spaces, but also creates inequality as a result of the interlocking systems of oppression.

For years, 96th street had served as the de facto border between Spanish Harlem and the Upper East Side. In the past few decades, the demographics of this area have evolved into something new. As the clear divide between the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem had waned, proof of the merger can clearly be seen within the local public spaces (Zimmer, 2016). This cultural evolution is explained by the shift in prioritization of these spaces in the public’s agenda. Lately, public spaces have been changing their areas financial, moral, and visual statuses (Zukin, 1998, pg.1). Financially, this can be seen through the change from locally operated businesses to the introduction of more corporate brands and franchises into the area (Jabbary, 2017). In terms of housing, because of the middle and upper-class’ search for cheaper rent, the ethnic enclave of Spanish Harlem has suffered. In 2016, East Harlem was labeled as having some of the fastest raising rent because of the 5.5% raise in median price for a single bedroom apartment (Nonko, 2016). The shifting demographics in Spanish Harlem are changing the culture of the community. Zukin argues that the culture of an area is reflected by the public spaces (1998). Recently this has shown how some cultures are being cast out of the area. This financial shift has affected the original inhabitant’s ability to remain in the area, which evidently is shaping the community’s current culture.

The case of the Monterey Public Garden is a prime example of changing financial, moral, and visual aspects of an area based on its public spaces (Zukin, 1998). Located on 96th between Lexington and Third Avenue, this public space is along the historical border of Spanish Harlem and The Upper East Side. This public space displays how private businesses have entered into the area and shaped the community. The Monterey luxury apartment building, located next to the public space, owns and operates the garden. This private ownership of the space has given the area new value and as well as a visual effect like Zukin describes. By creating a space connected to apartments with one bedroom apartments priced at $3,400 per month, an unspoken class and cultural barrier is formed (“Available”, 2017).  Because of this privatization, the space is used by a select few who feel comfortable enough to use the pristine gardens, consequently creating a divide in the community.

In addition, due to the creation of the Q line, access to Harlem has been made easier, allowing for newer inhabitants to flock to the area. Kanoria states, “The presence of the 4, 5 and 6 train service make connectivity to downtown Manhattan, and the Bronx easy” (2017). Due to the close proximity to these transportation hubs, predominantly white business men and women now walk along 96th street. In addition, the types of housing, businesses, and transportation have worked to evolve the financial and cultural aspects of Spanish Harlem. The dichotomy of the two merging cultures is evident when observing the foot traffic in front of the garden. Aesthetically, the garden works to create the atmosphere of a “good” neighborhood. The well-kept planters, and clean exterior uphold certain visual expectations for the area. This and the daily sweeping of the area by hotel workers, has created an unspoken rule of who can use the public space (Jabbary, 2017). While these new developments are arising, two blocks North are the last few ethnic stores displaying the African and Spanish culture which was once dominant in the area. With the regimes of public spaces described by Zukin, this area has morphed from what it once was.

Although Zukin’s ideas work to frame how public spaces have affected their surrounding areas, Susan Ruddick delves deeper into how an individual’s experience locally can mirror a national one. Ruddick describes how the “matrix of power relations” has created the phenomena of “interlocking systems of oppression”, or “intersectionality” (1996). Varying across time and space, intersectionality depicts “how the overlapping of multiple identities complicates the experience of discrimination” (Rosenbaum, 2017). The idea is that an African American woman with long dreadlocks in a predominantly White community will be ultimately aware of her identities within a public space more than a White man would (Ruddick,1996). When she enters a public garden, she immediately fills the roles of an African American and a woman; these identities now define her. The ideal public space would be a melting pot of identities that provides a unique social context, but this is a utopia that our society can only reach for. With certain groups benefitting from their public stereotypes and others feeling shamed for theirs, we cannot be this symbiotic melting pot. These interactions within public spaces work to form our identities, but in part become “relational constructs” as well (Ruddick, 1996, pg.9). This affects who enters and uses public spaces within an area. Once an area is no longer made up of a single dominant ethnic group, divides start to form and public spaces are no longer inclusive to all.

In society that survives off the interest of elites, different forms of oppression are created. Society’s experiences are based on context and individual identities which in part become the basis for oppression (Ruddick, 1996). These power structures morph depending on the context of situations. These occurrences, which are seen in public spaces, are mini models for what is going on in the world. The idea of “jumping scales” from local to national levels shows how deeply rooted these issues are (Ruddick, 1996, pg.10). Simple experiences in a local space can describe the happenings of others around the world. This affects the identities of people in a given community as they’re trapped into these “interlocking systems of oppression” (Ruddick, 1996).

In the case of the Monterey Public Garden’s, it is clear that certain identities and cultures are being amplified, while others are being oppressed. The rich Spanish and African American culture of Spanish Harlem are being toned down by the recent inhabitants. Ruddick describes how, “gendered and racialized identities function to constrain participation in the public sphere (1996, pg.1). This is seen throughout the garden which in itself, is an exclusive public space. With well-kept shrubs, and swept floors, the garden is the epitome of what the new inhabitants want Spanish Harlem to be. The area is used as a meeting place for White and Latino people around the ages of 30 to 50 (Jabbary,2017). The systematic role amplification is evident when examining the visitors. A Latino mother attempted to keep her young son quiet as he ran through the garden while a White man spoke loudly on the telephone while pacing around. (Jabbary, 2017). The ideas that a Latino woman needs to make herself as small and quiet as possible when in public is one of these “scripted” identities that Ruddik describes (1996). The notion that the White business man felt no need to make his presence unknown shows how the culture of the area has shaped their behavior. The Spanish culture that once was, is now becoming overshadowed by the White upper-class presence. Although many of the original residents are seen walking around the area, their presence is make unknown by the overwhelming abundance of new residents and companies that are erasing the former culture (Jabbary, 2017). Like many global cities, the cultural enclave is now becoming white-washed.

The dividing line between Spanish Harlem and the Upper East Side is diminishing, but the two area’s predominant cultures could never be more separated. This shift has created systems of oppression within the community’s public spaces due to the revalorization of the area. Potential avenues for further research on this shift would be to examine other public spaces in the area as well as further North into Harlem. The limits of this research were directly on the border of 96th street and a few surrounding blocks. It would be beneficial to explore further into Central Harlem as well as the demographics of the schools in the area to see the cultural shift in action.






















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Nonko, E. (2016, November 21). East Harlem rents are among Manhattan’s fastest-rising this fall. Retrieved October 29, 2017, from

Rosenbaum, J. (2017, June 29). Doing Better At Intersectionality. Retrieved October 29, 2017, from

Ruddick, S. (1996). Constructing differences in public spaces: race, class, and gender as

interlocking systems. Urban Geography, 17 (2), 132-151.

Zimmer, A. (2016, December 20). 17 Predictions for NYC’s Residential Real Estate in 2017. Retrieved October 28, 2017, from

Zimmer, A. (2011, August 04). Dividing Line Between Upper East Side and Harlem Blurring. Retrieved October 28, 2017, from

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