An Interview with Ed Morales... Whose Barrio?

Ismael Nuñez
Puerto Rican Sun

East Harlem - El Barrio Laura Rivera and Ed Morales are two respected journalists known for their writings on East Harlem. Ed Morales a Bronx native has written articles which have appeared in the Village Voice, NY Times, and for the last 7 years has a column on Latin Music in Newsday, and author of books Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in America, and The Latin Beat: The Rhythms and Roots of Latin Music, from Bossa Nova to Salsa and Beyond. Laura Rivera is a reporter for Newsday, El Diario / La Prensa, and has worked in her native Puerto Rico as an on-camera reporter for WJPR Channel 6. Morales was inspired by “Spanish Harlem on his mind” an essay published in 2003 in the NY Times; Rivera wrote a thesis on gentrification in East Harlem. They combined their talents producing, directing, and writing a documentary on the effects of this issue on the community. The documentary will make its premiere at the NY International Film Festival on August 2, 2009 at the Clear View Cinemas at Screen 7 at 12pm. The community was one of the first Latin communities here in New York City has fallen victim to raising rents, new buildings not suitable for the working class, and businesses forced to close/or relocate. You will hear from activists, artists, elected officials, and groups combating this emotional issue as to “Whose Barrio?” – who is it for?

Why East Harlem: What was it about the community that got you into doing the movie?
First of all, my parents came to New York from Puerto Rico and they met while living in East Harlem. I have had several relatives who have lived there, and I still have an aunt who lives there. In 2002 I wrote a story for the New York Times about gentrification of East Harlem because I'd heard from some friends who were living there and were upset about it. I also consulted with Arlene Dávila, who was in the process of writing a book about gentrification of East Harlem. The story interested me because I had lived through gentrification of the East Village (Loisaída) in the '80s and '90s and I was frankly surprised that the same thing could happen in El Barrio. In 2007, while a Revson Fellow at Columbia University, I took a course on making a documentary and I asked Laura Rivera, who was writing a Master's thesis on gentrification in El Barrio to be a co-director and co-producer.
This documentary is it mainly about gentrification or the daily lives of people dealing with this issue?
Whose Barrio? The story focuses on a few different situations. One is the contrast between José Rivera, a long-time resident of El Barrio who feels like gentrification will price him out, and James García, who is relatively new to New York and moved to the neighborhood from Battery Park City because he felt like it offered “more space for less dollar.” The film also focuses on Movement for Justice in El Barrio, Hope Community, and the debate over the East 125th Street development project, which was approved in October 2008.
I noticed in the earlier previews of the film hardly didn't get a chance to interview some of the white tenants coming into the community/buying property. Did you want to interview them or did they refused?
We interviewed one white tenant briefly on camera. We felt we wanted to avoid an emphasis on race, so we focused on James García to represent the point of view of the “gentrifier.” In this way we could show that gentrification is first and foremost a class issue, even though race is clearly involved.
So in doing the film did you get a chance to interview business owners, tenants about what is going on?
We did interview several tenants but not as many business owners. We tried to focus on dramatic situations to make the film a little more exciting. Not everyone that we interviewed wound up getting into the movie.
So what was the whole budget for the film like?
We did almost all the work on the film ourselves, except for some camerawork and some sound editing, for which we brought in some outside people. Taking into account our labor and the equipment we bought, as well as tape stock, I would estimate that the budget of the film was about $35,000.
Were you able to include several well known born and raised in the area?
People who appear in the film include Aurora Flores and Dylcia Pagán, who grew up in El Barrio, Mariposa and Vagabond, who are artists that have done a lot of work in the neighborhood over the years, and Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Councilwoman who represents El Barrio. U.S. Representative José Serrano and Taller Boricua co-founder Fernando Salicrup make brief appearances. Several of James De La Vega's murals appear.
There's festival/parades in the neighborhood will they be effected by the gentrification taking place? Got a chance to interview any of the organizer s of these events?
We didn't focus on the festivals and parades that are held. Arlene Dávila's book “Barrio Dreams” talks about how the neighborhood's cultural identity is something that the city and real estate developers want to preserve, at least on the surface. So I don't expect that parades like the Three King's Day celebration and the National Puerto Rican Day event on 116th Street will be affected. It's just that people might have to be brought in on buses to make it happen.
Before anything can you tell me a little bit about yourself. Born/raised did you grow up in East Harlem. Any famous resident you admire from the neighborhood?
I was born in the South Bronx but I grew up in the East Bronx. I have been a print journalist since 1988 and I was a staff writer at the Village Voice for 5 years. I have written for the NY Times, LA Times, the Nation, Rolling Stone, Vibe and many other outlets on a freelance basis. I was a touring spoken word performer for Nuyorican Poets Café Live from 1993-1995. I wrote a Latin music column for Newsday from 2001-2008. Of course I admire Tito Puente and Rafael Hernández, who lived in El Barrio, and was inspired by the Young Lords' activism in the neighborhood. I think Taller Boricua is one of the key cultural institutions of the New York Puerto Rican community.
Some people who are moving in are started to call the area SP-HA for many residents (like myself) are not happy with that.
I agree that it's an irritating name. I resented when real estate developers called Loisaída “Alphabet City” in the '80s and '90s. Names like that are created to erase the memory of communities that already existed and don't fit into the cool, exclusive gentrified area developers want to create. It's dismaying that so many elite types move into a neighborhood like El Barrio and say when they moved in there was “nothing” there, ignoring the thousands around them who have created a living, vibrant community that has survived years of marginalization and poverty.
There's bars, new condos, how if or have any effect on the children growing up when they see these developments yet nothing for them to enjoy themselves.
What will happen is that kids growing up in El Barrio will begin to experience exclusion earlier in life, rather than when they try to enter the working world. Of course exposure to “different” people isn't by definition negative – sometimes I think young blacks and Latinos in Loisaída may have been inspired to be more interested in the visual arts as a result of that gentrification in that neighborhood. But most likely they won't be able to afford to live where they grew up when it's time for them to be on their own.

See Whose Barrio on Youtube.