Urban Design Studio I: Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation, Columbia University

Site Profile: East Harlem | Manhattan

Category : BLOG · No Comments · by June 6, 2017

An aerial view of the neighborhood

East Harlem refers to the area of Manhattan to the east of Central Park to the river’s edge, and from 96th St to Martin Luther King Blvd. This semester, we will expand our area of study south to 90th St.

This neighborhood goes by many names, including Spanish Harlem and El Barrio. This references the strong Puerto Rican community who came to live there after WWII. The Puerto Rican community continues to make up a large portion of the neighborhood’s population, which also includes African American, Mexican and Chinese communities. Since the onset of the area’s urbanization, it has been home to new immigrants to the city and country – an identity it continues to hold dear to this day. Learn about East Harlem’s culture and traditions at the Museo del Barrio. This is a brief history of the neighborhood.

Income Levels. Source: http://www.oasisnyc.net

Race and ethnicity. Source: http://www.oasisnyc.net

East Harlem has a long waterfront that stretches along the East River, but does the neighborhood get to draw all the benefits it can from it? It is dominated by the FDR Drive, a six lane parkway constructed in the 50s under the direction of Robert Moses. Public is able to access the waterfront for leisure, walking and biking in the East River esplanade, but access this space require people to cross the FDR via sparsely spaces bridges. The shoreline is also peppered with infrastructural elements, the sanitation barge terminal is a contentious example of this.  At 116th St, the East River Plaza – a complex of big box stores and a massive parking garage – give the area oddly suburban amenities. Who is this shoreline for and who should it serve? The shoreline also poses risks: due to low lying topography, the neighborhood is vulnerable to floods and storm surges. During Superstorm Sandy, water reached as far inland as Lexington Ave. All of which make resilience a critical design consideration when thinking of the future of East Harlem’s waterfront.

Land use. Source: http://www.oasisnyc.net

Harlem’s urban fabric, 1934

The neighborhood is predominantly residential and commercial, with a number of large institutional sites mixed in. It has a diverse urban fabric, that mixes townhouses from the late 19th century, tenement buildings from the 20s and 30s, public housing from the 50s and 60s, and modern buildings that grew in the wake of a rezoning in 2003.

Left – public housing from the 60s Right – tenements from the 20s

Like all of New York, the neighborhood is becoming more expensive; rents and land value are rising. The fact that it is in Manhattan,  its proximity to the Upper East Side and Central Park, and its good transit all make East Harlem a particularly ripe for gentrification.  To be sure, the last 10 years has seen a certain change in the neighborhoods population, as wealthier people buy its townhouses and new condos are built. But it also has key assets that help to maintain social equilibrium and equity: public housing, affordable housing, and a strong network of community groups and organizers. The city is currently looking at rezoning of part of the neighborhood, and a principal goal of this is to expand the amount of affordable housing.

Public housing and other subsidized housing. Source: http://www.oasisnyc.net

Transit. Source: http://www.oasisnyc.net

General Links:

To see demographic information mapped: Social Explorer (click on the link to the right that says “Search Database”):


For New York City information such as zoning, transportation, and landuse use OASIS Map: http://www.oasisnyc.net/map.aspx

East Harlem Info:

Learn about CIVITAS and their role in rezoning efforts in East Harlem. CIVITAS’ blog also has great information about their ongoing work relating to the East River Esplanade


Learn about the city’s current rezoning efforts in East Harlem:



An example of a big transformative development: the East Harlem Media, Entertainment and Cultural Center (MECC):