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A lot of attention is paid to West Harlem, or what many people traditionally consider THE Harlem, thanks to its rich history rooted in places like the Apollo and up-and-coming hot spots like the Studio Museum in Harlem and Marcus Samuelson’s renowned restaurant, the Red Rooster. But east of Fifth Avenue, there’s a history just as deep, and the neighborhood is at that fragile stage where it could easily be thrust into a wave of gentrification at any time.
Defined as the area bound by Fifth Avenue and First Avenue from 96th to 125th Streets, East Harlem is commonly known as Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio by locals. What many people unfamiliar with the neighborhood don’t know, though, is that this area got its start as Manhattan’s first Little Italy. And if you’re the type of New Yorker who doesn’t venture above 86th Street, you’re likely unaware of the slew of new developments sprouting up in East Harlem thanks to a 2003 57-block rezoning.
East Harlem was settled in the late 19th century, quickly followed by an influx of Italian immigrants when transit lines connected the neighborhood. Southern Italians and Sicilians were the main groups to move into the area that became known as Italian Harlem and was the first part of Manhattan to be referred to as Little Italy. It was where the Genovese crime family was founded, one of the Five Families of organized crime in New York City. By the 1930s, over 100,000 Italian-Americans lived in the crowded tenement buildings of East Harlem, three times that of the Lower East Side’s Little Italy. Today, only Pleasant Avenue remains an Italian community, but each year the residents host the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, this location being the first Italian parish in New York City, and the “Dancing of the Giglio,” the first Italian feast celebrated in New York. […]