The East Side of Central Park in New York City has two notable neighborhoods: The cluster of old money wealth known simply as “The Upper East Side,” or the slightly smaller stretch just above it – “East Harlem.”
East Harlem resides along the same subway line as the Upper East Side. Board the 4, 5, or 6 green line and you’ll either be taken directly to the designer, appointment-only stores that sell gold covered pencil skirts or you’ll be taken to the neighborhood colloquially known as “El Barrio.”
The Upper East side is one of the wealthiest and WASPiest places in the world. The sidewalks are disturbingly clean and the businesses uninviting.FOOTNOTE: Footnote The apartments are probably penthouses and they’re likely filled with Wall Street executives and plastic surgery addicts. The only reason one who does not live on the Upper East Side would ever actually want to visit the Upper East Side is to go to the museums. Museum mile is that 5th Avenue stretch full of fine art institutions, and by fine art I of course mean art that is so expensive that if you were to touch it you would be shot on the spot. While shoving through a mile’s worth of tourists and the typical fifth avenue “my shih-tzu has a nanny and eats filet mignon” crowd can be worth it to see some of the most expansive art collections in the world, nearby East Harlem has its own collection that can surely compete.
The Spirit of East Harlem, Hank Prussing, 1973
One of the neighborhood’s most well known murals is the above shown The Spirit of East Harlem. Hank Prussing began painting this mural in 1973, not finishing until five years later. Prussing intended to reflect the community in his work, depicting people such as Bodega owners, families, teachers, and other people considered to be vital parts to this colorful community. The materials for the mural were provided by local store owners. Later, the mural was defaced; however, a housing organization called HOPE commissioned Manny Vega Jr. to restore the piece.
A portrait of Pedro Pietri sponsored by HOPE and painted by James de la Vega
In addition to The Spirit of East Harlem, HOPE community inc. has sponsored a number of redevelopment projects in East Harlem revolving around the community’s Latin American heritage. While their primary focus is affordable housing, the organization also seems to recognize the role that cultural patrimony plays in community cohesion and development. These portraits, in a sense, reclaim the streets to more adequately reflect the people who walk them.
Another East Harlem mural by James De La Vega
Freedom and Emancipation of the Natural World by Mexican muralist Sego can be seen on the corner of Madison Ave. and 103rd street.
The Graffiti Hall of Fame can be found on 106th street between Madison and Park Avenues in the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex.
The Graffiti Hall of Fame was founded in 1980 by Ray Rodriguez, and has since served as a continuously changing canvas to which other graffiti artists can add. The Complex houses four schools and the graffiti hall of fame surrounds the playground. Such a space serves a few distinct purposes: it makes art accessible to students who may not otherwise have access to it and it validates the art by preserving a form many do not consider to be a valid form of representation.
East Harlem is an art collection that refuses to be confined by frames. The neighborhood oozes color, character, and a vibrant history one must contemplate when confronted with murals of such massive stature. Even those that are small in scale carry larger implications. That is, they carry the weight of representing a neighborhood with historical and present complexity. East Harlem is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, and it would be problematic to idealize the violence that the economic oppression in the neighborhood has created. But, the artwork in the neighborhood seeks to combat violence through representation and reclamation.
A woman sits in front of a mural by Manny Vega honoring Julia De Burgos
Of my soul
It lives in the restlessness
In the disorder
In the inbalance
Of things dynamic,
In the silence
Of the free thinker
Who lives alone,
In quiet exile.