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East Harlem Filmmaker Turns Lens on Gentrification

By Jeff Mays | March 28, 2013 7:37am

HARLEM — Andrew Padilla's roots in El Barrio go back to when his grandfather first moved to East Harlem. Now, 60 years on, the filmmaker can barely afford to live there.

The gentrification and blurring of the line between the neighborhood and the Upper East Side, and its impact on longtime residents, are the topics of Padilla's new short documentary "El Barrio Tours."

"I wanted to understand the changes in my own neighborhood," said Padilla, 23, a Fordham University graduate. "You see friends and family move away and you wonder why."

The 30-minute documentary originally started as a look at the changes in East Harlem through the eyes of Padilla's grandfather, Jose Antonio Padilla Sr., who arrived in El Barrio from Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico.

In the 1950s, the Korean War veteran was able to get a union job that provided healthcare and find a place to live in the neighborhood's public housing complexes to make a good life for his family.

"They had healthcare. The ability to not have to pay 90 percent of their income in rent allowed me to have what I considered a middle-class existence," Padilla said.

When his grandfather, a porter for the New York City Housing Authority for 30 years, passed away, Padilla decided to turn the lens onto his own neighborhood as a tribute. On April 5, the film will have its East Harlem and New York City premiere.

"It brings together people from all walks of life in East Harlem to talk about what they are seeing," Padilla said.

East Harlem is undergoing tremendous change. New condos are rising and new restaurants are opening. The white population in the area increased by almost 5,700 according to U.S. Census statistics, while the Hispanic population declined by almost 2,500 people.

Many of the area's longtime residents can't afford to partake of the new amenities changing the neighborhood, Padilla said.

"People are moving here because we are 15 minutes from Midtown, but also because our culture is so marketable," he said, referring to the Puerto Rican community.

"We are selling culture but that culture is being pushed out. You are selling the image of Harlem that many people have in their minds but the people who created the culture are gone," added Padilla.

Padilla sees the new condos helping to raise rents and push longtime retailers out. At East 104th Street and Lexington Avenue, a row of stores, including a popular botanica, now sits empty across from a new residential building, pushed out by higher rents.

Claudio Caponigro, who owns Claudio's Barbershop, left his 15-square-foot location on East 116th Street when the landlord doubled the rent. Caponigro, a throwback to the time when East Harlem was a community of Italian immigrants, moved down the block.

A takeout Chinese restaurant was set to open in the space.

"Some people think gentrification is primarily about race but the main color is green," Padilla said. "Claudio has been here for 60 years. If he's not safe, working class people in this neighborhood aren't safe."

For a long time, many people thought East Harlem would be immune to gentrification because the neighborhood had one of the highest concentrations of public housing in the country.

Recent plans by NYCHA to build infill market-rate housing on two of its properties in East Harlem shows that's not the case.

The proposal only threatens to speed up the process of gentrification, Padilla said. NYCHA claims the plan will provide the money the authority desperately needs to repair and preserve public housing. NYCHA's plan is being received with anger by residents at the eight complexes in Manhattan where it is being proposed.

But the government can make policies that help people stay in their neighborhood and not just focus on developer tax breaks, he said.

Casablanca Meats, a butcher shop on East 110th Street between Lexington and Park avenues that the city helped owner Luis Perez expand into a $15 million mixed-use residential and retail project, is a good example of collaborative development, he said.

Perez stayed when the neighborhood wasn't doing well and should be able to benefit now that the area is on the upswing, Padilla said.

"We should subsidize the people who are here and have community roots," he added. "You help keep a sense of opportunity, then there's a chance for people to move up."

More than anything, Padilla wants the documentary to serve as a vehicle for people to discuss gentrification and engage with their neighbors about alternatives.

After each screening there is a panel discussion aimed at solutions. The film premiered last year at the San Diego Latino Film Festival and won best short documentary at the Puerto Rico International Film Festival.

"Hopefully this will be the begriming of a series of dialogues about gentrification that will give a voice to people being threatened because of displacement in East Harlem," said Marina Ortiz, founder of East Harlem Preservation, which is co-sponsoring the April 5 screening.

"We want to come away from the event with a plan and people who want to work on that plan."

The April 5 East Harlem debut is like a "homecoming," Padilla said.

"Gentrification seems like it happens quickly but it takes years. Hopefully I can inspire people to stake a claim and decide the neighborhood they want to live in and not have it dictated for them."

A free screening of "El Barrio Tours" will be held Friday April 5, at 6:30 p.m. at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, 2180 Third Ave., located at 119th Street and Third Avenue. RSVP here for tickets.