I finished walking East Harlem and it was an interesting experience. It took two weeks to crisscross the whole neighborhood and I was lucky that I double-backed on several streets so I got a more detailed experience. There was a lot of interesting architecture and some wonderful restaurants, bodegas and bakeries along the way to experience. I got to walk the parks at different times of the day and I finished the walk when the schools were closed for Spring Break, so I got to see the neighborhood come to life with families out and about.
My first day of the walk, I could not have asked for beautiful weather. It was clear, sunny and in the 60’s. It was perfect outside weather. After a busy morning at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen (they had me working the hurried bread station and you would think that the homeless were at Starbucks with all of their requests), I took the number 6 subway to 110th Street to start the walk of East Harlem, now known as ‘Upper Spanish Harlem’. I have never seen so much renovation and building going on in one area which is changing the face of the neighborhood.
I started my walk up the Avenues and travelled on the north to south part of the neighborhood the first afternoon. I walked 3rd Avenue, 2nd Avenue and 1st Avenue and revisited Pleasant Avenue and the surrounding streets. It’s an interesting mix of commercial and housing space that houses a diversity of businesses.
Before the area was known as ‘El Barrio’, a Spanish neighborhood of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Dominicans, it had the city’s first ‘Little Italy’ from the turn of the last century to about the late 1950’s to early 60’s when people moved out to the suburbs. There are still traces of the neighborhood left with some churches, businesses like Rao’s and Patsy’s still going strong and the streets named after famous Italians.
Pleasant Avenue off 120th Street in East Harlem
The area around Pleasant Avenue is going through a tremendous renovation as all the brownstones look like they are getting snatched up and being updated and a much younger crowd is beginning to move in. The biggest change that I saw that was attracting this crowd is the new Target Mall that was refitted into an old factory space between 118th-116th Streets. This mall has attracted everyone from the housing projects to the college students from the other side of the island. On a late Friday afternoon the place was mobbed.
In 2019, the area gained designation as a National Historic Landmark district. The new district is centered between East 114th and East 120th Streets near First and Pleasant Avenues, covers roughly two dozen blocks. The area contains some of the oldest buildings in the district includes churches such as Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on East 115th Street. This district has some of the most important designs of tenement housing in New York City. The area is concerned with the coming of the extension of the Q subway line to 125th Street of losing these sights. This area has seen its share of immigration from being an Italian to a Puerto Rican community and wanted to preserved this culture. This area has been designed as the “East Harlem Historic District and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places (The Spirit Westsider 2019).
The Historic district of East Harlem
I started the afternoon at the Blue Sky Deli (See review on TripAdvisor and DiningonaShoeStringinNYC@Wordpress.com) on the corner of 1st Avenue and 110th Street (2135 1st Avenue), home of the now cult-like ‘Chopped Cheese Sandwich’, which has become the rave of the internet as the hipsters enter Harlem. I have never seen such a debate over a sandwich so I saved my appetite from my morning at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen (another busy day)and dove into the experience.
Blue Sky Deli (Haijj’s) at 110th Street and First Avenue; ‘Home of the Chopped Cheese’
The ‘Chopped Cheese Sandwich’ is basically a double cheeseburger that is chopped up. It is two hamburger patties cooked on a flat grill with two slices of American cheese on top, cooked with onions and peppers and topped with chopped lettuce and tomato. It is then tucked into a hoagie roll and then pressed. With ketchup and mayo to finish the sandwich, it is heaven on earth. I took my sandwich and a Coke into Jefferson Park on 111th Street and watched the neighborhood kids play soccer and do track.
The famous ‘Chopped Cheese Sandwich”
The sandwich is a great blend of flavors and for $4.25 is a great deal. I know that comment gets a debate and rebuttal on the internet but when you are on a budget it is well worth it. Blue Sky Deli, also known in the neighborhood as ‘Hajji’s’, is known as the ‘home of the chopped cheese sandwich’ and is well worth the trip to this part of Harlem.
On the first day in the neighborhood, kids were just getting out of school and the streets were mobbed with children and parents or grandparents picking up their kids. After a relaxing lunch, I walked through the commercial district of 1st Avenue ending up back at the Wagner Houses at the edge of the neighborhood between 120th and 124th Streets.
The one thing I can tell you about walking around the Wagner Houses is that there are police there all the time. In the courtyards, by the schools and in the commercial district. I don’t know who was watching me more, the guys that looked like gang-bangers or the police trying to figure me out. Between them and the bodega owners with the wondering looks on their faces, it seemed to me that people were just trying to ‘figure me out’. I just keep quiet and smile a lot.
Wagner Houses at 120th Street
Talking about commercial real estate, I have discovered that developers will build anywhere to make money. One developer is in the middle of construction of a luxury building on the corner of 1st Avenue and 120th Street right on the edge of Wagner House complex. Its almost as if they are mocking the residents that live in the projects. That and who would want to buy these things. As I walked by the construction site, one senior resident said to me “They are not even that well built.” I commented that living in the Wagner Complex was safer than these homes that are put up quickly and that it will last longer. She just smiled and gave me a funny look.
I even went back to visit the Pleasant Finest Deli at the corner of Pleasant Avenue and 120th Street as the kids were getting out from school again across the street. I guess the tinted glasses through them off as they gave me strange looks as well like ‘what was I doing back?”. They were polite but in a formal way as I was buying a bag of chips. Maybe I was just picking up on it.
Walking on 1st Avenue has its advantages as you start to pass the last of the Italian businesses in the neighborhood. Pasty’s Pizzeria (2287 1st Avenue, See Review on TripAdvisor) being the most famous. This is worth the stop. The pizza is excellent and at $1.75 a slice is a great deal. I haven’t tasted that fresh of a tomato sauce in a long time. There is a sit down place but stop in for a slice and just walk with it. On sunny day there is nothing better. Everyone else must have thought the same thing as I saw slices walking down the street.
Patsy’s East Harlem
I took a break and relaxed again in Thomas Jefferson Park on 114th Street and watched the soccer teams play. This is a nice park that I misjudged the first time I walked through it. Yes, the park does need some work but it is used by the whole neighborhood. From the hoopsters to the hipsters, I saw all types in the park playing sports, working with team competitions and parents of all sorts just relaxing with their kids. Over the three day period that I walked the neighborhood, residents just spread out, brought their lunches and snacks and relaxed.
Thomas Jefferson Park in East Harlem
To save some time and the fact that the kids were out, I walked the length of 1st Avenue down to 96th Street to the new Q subway line and doubled back and walked 102nd, 105th, 106th and 110th again to the Harlem River. This is scary stuff and a word of advice to readers, please avoid this section of the city. All along 1st Avenue in this section by the river are all housing projects especially the very dangerous East River Projects.
As I walked down both 105th and 106th Streets (the side streets on either side), I did notice that Citybike was located on both sides as well as luxury condos were across the street and next door to the projects. That’s well and good but when you glance into the parking lots at 106th, you see what is happening and I swear that I may have stopped a drive-by shooting from a guy who was watching the basketball players a little too closely. Either during the day or night, avoid these two side streets as they are considered two of the most dangerous blocks in the city (along with Lexington Avenue from 123rd to 124th Streets). Please stay away.
As I walked back up 1st Avenue, I noticed that surrounding these projects are many luxury condos and new stores. It is a strange mix in the same neighborhood as you can see that the neighborhood is transitioning. Still it is not the safest part of the city.
Needing to walk off a sandwich, a slice of pizza and two bags of chips, I crossed 110th on the way to 2nd Avenue. As you walk up 2nd Avenue, you pass the rows of brownstones and prewar housing that in some cases is falling apart mixed in with sliver luxury homes and new restaurants. The lower part of 2nd Avenue is quirky until you hit 112th Street and then you are back in the Jefferson projects. To cover 113th Street, which is two small cul-de-sacs, you have to walk through the projects.
This is when I really discovered how short-changed people in the housing projects are by living here. Talk about being treated like caged animals. All the lawns are fenced in, the parks are sterile with little life due to the equipment in them, garbage that is piling up in dumpsters or in the grassy area flying around in the wind and sitting areas that are damaged.
Because 114th Street stops at Lenox Avenue by the Martin Luther King houses and does not start again until you exit from the Thomas Jefferson Houses by the Jefferson Park, you have to walk through the heart of the housing projects and you begin to see a lot. Maybe it is home to a large portion of the population up here but by the designs, they are almost warehousing people in this section of the city.
Thomas Jefferson Projects in East Harlem
There is some light to this with pocket parks off to the side of 112th Street and the Robert Wagner Playground at 120th Street. There was some life from the kids in the community as well as you see it in droves in Thomas Jefferson Park. There was some sunshine in that when you walk through the housing projects in that some residents have set up raised vegetable gardens and have planted flowers along the borders of some of the playgrounds. Kudos to these residents for bringing a personal touch to a sterile environment.
Walking both 2nd and 3rd Avenues you may have to really look but community pride does exist in these small gardens and in the community gardens on the side streets all over the area.
Between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, as you walk to the 120’s, this area is also in a state of transition with a branch of the SUNY campus and housing, most of East 125th Street being knocked down and eco-friendly housing between 124th and 125th Streets across from the Wagner Houses. As you get closer to 125th Street, the whole area is being knocked down and rebuilt as is the whole shopping corridor of 125th Street. If it has not already been knocked down or renovated, it is about to be or planned to be. In about five years the whole block will look like Times Square.
The biggest renovation that I saw was the Taino Towers around 122nd Street. The whole place is being ripped apartment and renovated. It is considered Section 8 housing but after the renovation I can see it will go mixed-use and change the neighborhood again. It is a nice complex and will interesting to see one they renovate the theaters and add a health club.
The Taino Towers under renovation
Like most of this section of the neighborhood above 120th Street, the area is mostly commercial and from previous walks in the neighborhood above 125th Street is where the bus stations are, dealerships are located and more City buildings are rising.
My second and third day in the neighborhood, I walked the side streets. Since I had already covered 125th, 124th, 120th,116th, 114th and 110th at length, I walked the rest of the blocks in one afternoon. Who knew it was take six hours and all the interesting things I saw along the way. I started the afternoon rounding 110th Street and stopping once again at the El Chevere Cuchfrito at 2000 3rd Avenue this time visiting the bakery (See review on TripAdvisor).
Unlike some of their counterparts around the neighborhood, El Cheveres bakery is really good and very reasonable. I had a glazed filled doughnut for $1.00 and it really hit the spot. The glaze was so thick you could cut it with a knife and there was a large selection of baked goods. A definite spot to stop when visiting the neighborhood just for the pastilitos alone. The food here is really good and cheap. Just come knowing a little Spanish. They appreciate it even if its bad.
I walked the side streets this afternoon to finish the neighborhood. There are a lot of interesting sites along the way in East Harlem. I started on 115th Street and I seemed to hit every bakery in the area. My first stop on the journey was the market under the Park Avenue underpass, La Marqueta, at Park Avenue and 115th Street to try Hot Bread Kitchen Bakery (See review on TripAdvisor), which had been written up many times but was never open when I visited the market.
Hot Bread Kitchen Bakery
I tried two of their Mexican Chonco’s, which is a buttery-brioche type of muffin with either a vanilla or chocolate topping. Needing my carbs for the long walk I brought one of each ($2.00 each). Well worth it. The best part is your helping the bakery train people for a new profession and they do an excellent job.
I left the market to explore the rest of 115th Street and there are some interesting sites along the way. You have the Rondale Pleasant Community Garden at 437 114th Street that stretches to 115th by the church is an active community garden with flowers and vegetable beds. I could only see it from a distance at a distance as the gate was locked but great care I could tell went into maintaining it.
Across the street, the famous Italian church, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is located. This church is noted for the famous dance each August when the Giglio Society does their famous “Dancing Giglio” dance carrying a giant statue of the Virgin Mary on their shoulders (along with a band). That is enough for another trip up to the neighborhood in the summer.
Dancing of the “Giglio” in East Harlem every August
I had also wanted to visit the National Museum for Catholic Art History which was on 115th Street in part of the church complex but it had closed a few years earlier for lack of attendance and funding. So I criss-crossed back to Park Avenue making various stops to look at churches and note menu’s on restaurants I wanted to try in the future.
I revisited 116th Street to look over restaurants I had seen on previous days. The street is the main shopping and restaurant drag for this part of SoHA and runs pretty much the whole length of the island. It has an interesting places to eat so if you have the time take the time to walk around.
I spent most of the afternoon snacking around the neighborhood wanting to try many of the bakeries and small restaurants I came across. There are loads of reasonable places to eat for under $10.00 and if you are visiting remember to have about $10-$20.00 in ones as most of the these places do not take credit cards.
One of my stops lead me to Bermudez Bakery at 1875 Lexington Avenue right off 116th Street (See review on TripAdvisor). I don’t know what I do that freaks people out so much but one of the guys who was inside called his friend from around the counter who was speaking jovial Spanish to everyone else took one look at me and spoke in more formal English. He could not have been nicer but when I turned around, all the other men inside had left the bakery. I thought that was weird.
The baked goods are excellent though. I has a flaky pastry with a mango jelly but the best was their apple turnovers. They are so good and they melt in your mouth. This bakery is a must go to. It may look dumpy on the outside but the product speaks for itself.
The pastries here are really good!
I crossed over to 117th Street and walked from Park Avenue to the river. Outside St. Paul’s Roman Church just off Park Avenue you will find an Altar to the Virgin Mary that is very interesting. Take some time to read the plaque and look over the building. It is such a beautiful church.
Walking further down the street at the corner of 117th Street and the corner of 3rd Avenue there is an interesting mural on the side wall of a Payless Shoes store dedicated to the Island of Puerto Rico. This colorful artwork shows the strong roots of the neighborhood in the island as well as the pride these residents feel. Really look at the detail work.
The neighborhood around Pleasant Avenue, which was the former Italian enclave is changing again as all the brownstones and apartment buildings are being sandblasted and renovated back into shape. Home to Rao’s Italian restaurant and Patsy’s original pizzeria, these blocks are still visited by tourists and residents looking for authentic Italian food. Pretty much outside these two business and the relationship to the churches most of the Italian heritage of the neighborhood is gone.
Between 118th and 119th Streets along Pleasant Avenue the neighborhood has created the Pleasant Valley Community Garden with a large flower garden and raised vegetable gardens in this full block garden. Many people were out that afternoon working in the garden and waved over when I was looking it over. The residents take immense pride in the garden and it will be interesting to see what it looks like in the middle of the summer.
Pleasant Valley Community Garden
As you turn the corner on 119th Street, on the wall of River East Elementary School, the kids have painted the most interesting mural that lines the wall of the back of the school. Look over the colorful interpretation of robots. The kids painted a very whimsical mural as only kids can do.
The kids were out in full force that afternoon playing games and doing sports as they off for the spring break and I guess the parents needed to keep them occupied. All sorts of activities were keeping the kids busy and I noticed a large police presence in the neighborhood while all of this was going on. I made another pit stop for a Coke at the Pleasant Finest Deli on the corner of Pleasant Avenue. I swear those owners are always giving me funny looks when I walked in like I am going to bust them or something.
The last part of the walk I covered 121st to 123rd Streets which is lined mostly with businesses, schools and many new apartment buildings that are going up around the new SUNY College. Most of 124th Street in this area has been rebuilt with a new eco friendly apartment building across from the Wagner Houses, so new businesses are opening to cater to those residents as well as the whole area from 2nd Avenue to river is being ripped up and rebuilt with a renovation of he park and the extension of the esplanade along the river (the esplanade currently stops at 124th Street and is closed off with fencing). When this park is done, it should look spectacular with new lawns and the pool opened.
Word of advice if you are going to walk near Lexington Avenue between 123rd and 124th Streets, this is considered one of the two most dangerous blocks in Manhattan with two rehab clinics and a shelter on the same block. There were three police officers hidden in a doorway in between the block and when I stopped for a Coke in a bodega on the corner of 123rd and Lexington Avenue, there were some pretty shady characters hanging out on the corner. This block is best avoided at anytime of the day.
I double backed down 123rd Street and cut down 1st Avenue and 120th Street to the Wagner House Playground and saw the impressive statue of Robert Wagner Sr., who the houses were named after. Frankly, I don’t think anyone notices it or knows how important the man was in New York politics helping with housing and social security. That and being the future Mayor of New York’s father.
Robert Wagner Sr. Statue by the Wagner Houses
My last stop was for a snack at the Jamaican restaurant, Jam Hut at 2327 1st Avenue (see review on TripAdvisor) for a beef patty. These large beef patties are freshly made and rather large. Again the owners gave me a rather odd look when I ordered my food.
You think no one had ever seen a 6:3 white male in the neighborhood before. I have now spent over a month in East Harlem. You think they would be used to seeing me walking around at this point.
Places to Visit:
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