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Operation Impact

By Jose B. Rivera

By Sarah Elizabeth Garland.
The implementation of a new police initiative to increase security in the southern half of East Harlem this year has coincided with a stream of middle and upper class newcomers that is blurring the lines between the Upper East Side and El Barrio. The newest residents of East Harlem are mostly white and Asian, young, and single, and are bringing with them gradual, but noticeable changes to the economy and culture of El Barrio. Many long-time Puerto Rican, black, and Mexican residents are happy to see their neighborhood becoming safer, but many are worried it will be at a price they cannot afford to pay.

The police department implemented Operation Impact in selected precincts throughout New York in January of this year based on comparisons of crime statistics. According to Detective Walter Burns, the 23rd Precinct, covering the southern half of East Harlem, and the 19th Precinct, in the Upper East Side, were chosen because they had a higher rate of overall crime.

According to precinct Compstats, however, rates of violent crime in the 19th and 23rd Precincts have gone down 15% in the past two years, while violent crime has climbed 15% in the northern half of East Harlem, which makes up the 25th Precinct. To explain why the 25th Precinct was excluded from Operation Impact despite its much higher rate of violent crime, Burns explained that the program “was designed to have an impact on overall numbers.” He denied that the increase in police presence had anything to do with the changing demographics in the lower half of East Harlem.

The program has been effective, something that older residents are simultaneously cheering and worrying about as they foresee the oncoming gentrification of their neighborhood that may eventually force them out. Officer Chris, who declined to give his last name, was moved to the 23rd Precinct three months ago when Operation Impact started. “Crime’s definitely gone down, violent crimes are down, major felonies are down, because there’s a lot of cops in the area.” He described the people he has encountered on his new beat as mostly black, Mexican, and Puerto Rican, but added, “There are a lot of young, white college kids.”

The young white college kids are multiplying and breathing life into new stores, hair salons, and restaurants popping up among Mexican taquerias and De La Vega murals. “It’s going to be a great neighborhood. The neighborhood’s getting better everyday,” said Daniel Steinberger, the co-owner of Dinerbar, a new restaurant-bar on East 102nd Street and Lexington Avenue that caters to the young, “hip” crowd arriving in the area. He continued, “There are more stores opening up, more people moving up into the neighborhood, restaurants, less violence. A lot of young people, it’s affordable housing.”

When Steinberger moved to the area 13 years ago, he remembers drug-saturated, gang-controlled streets that forced him to sprint to the safety of his locked apartment. “You know when I moved up here in ‘88, you couldn’t walk up here. I was a rough kid, but when I went to the door I had to have my keys ready, to get in the door. I mean, there were crack vials everywhere, all over the streets,” he said, adding that now, “It’s a lot safer.”

Other long-time residents recall similar scenes from East Harlem’s past. On East 100th Street, Jos´┐Ż de la Vega and his friend Tony Lopez reminisce about their childhood in front of a newly renovated building flanked with vacant lots full of weeds and soggy cardboard boxes. De la Vega has lived most of his life in Harlem since his family moved from Puerto Rico when he was two months old. “Back in the days when I was a little kid, there was a lot of mugging, you couldn’t walk with a leather jacket, you couldn’t walk with a Levi’s jacket, they would take it from you,” he said.

De la Vega is thrilled that violence is decreasing and welcomes the new faces in the area. He said, “I like it, because now it’s a mix of Hispanics, black and whites. And I know we’re getting along real fine, and there’s no violence.” He commented that rents are going up however, and that many low-income Hispanic and black residents may not be able to enjoy their new sense of security for much longer.

“A lot of landlords, the word is getting around,” said De la Vega, “They’re starting to rent a lot of apartments to the people from downtown because those people are willing to pay that rent and can afford the rent.” Lopez is the superintendent of nine buildings on East 100th Street. Lopez said, “Before, the owners, they didn’t fix the buildings. Now they start fixing it, making it brand new.” De la Vega nodded, adding, “The Hispanics, they’re moving them out to the Bronx.”

Carmen Hernandez Alvarez, an immigrant from Mexico City, who works at a Laundromat on 3rd Avenue and 101st Street, has mixed feelings about the changes she is witnessing. She is glad to see more police when she gets out of work after she was assaulted leaving the Laundromat last year. She is concerned, however, that the increase in police presence is symptomatic of changes that may not in the end benefit the Mexican community in El Barrio.

“Yes, it’s changed a little, for precisely the fact that the economy is down, and everything is going up. We Mexicans go to places that are cheaper,” she said, “Those who come are the ones who have enough to pay the amount of rent that they’re now charging around here.”

Other Mexican immigrants are already feeling the pressure of rising rents as far up as 116th Street. Silvia Pineda, who came to New York from Guerrero, Mexico in 1989, has seen East Harlem change from a mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood to a center of the growing Mexican population in New York. “I like this place, because here we are almost the majority, there are a lot of Hispanics and Mexicans,” she said, adding, “It’s changed, because before there was a lot of drugs and now you don’t see as much.” She is afraid she and her family will not be able to stay in the neighborhood, however.

Pineda pays $872 in rent right now, but her husband is the only one working while she takes care of their three children. In a good week working his construction job he earns only $200, but most of the time he makes less. Although they split the rent by sharing their two-bedroom apartment with another married couple, Pineda believes they may be evicted soon because they have not been able to make rent for the past two months.

“He [her landlord] has said to us that if we leave, he can rent the apartment for $1500,” she said, “And he’s done it before, because those who lived next door, he threw them out and now he’s renting it for $1500. Who could pay that, can you imagine? Only those who have a good job, that are born here. I think that with their salaries they can afford it, they have a profession that is enough to pay that much, but for us, we can’t afford it.”

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