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By Jose B. Rivera

East Harlem, Saturday, November 27, 2004. I recently entered a new local eatery and started a conversation with the owner.  He was a neatly dressed man.  Who was taking care of all the details of running the place while speaking to me. And he did not hail from East Harlem.  But I could not tell if he was Italian, European or just another New Yorker with a slight accent.  He could have come from Brooklyn.  It was hard to tell. I told him who I was, that I ran a local web site and that I may be interested in taking photos of the place to highlight on East Harlem.com.  He responded by saying that the area is now being called ‘Spa Ha’.  “It’s what the Real Estate agents are calling it”, he said. 

I was taken by surprise by his response.  I have heard the term ‘Spa Ha’ before, when Mr. Henry Comas, had a comedy company by that same name.  When used in that context, it was cute.  But to hear an outsider say ‘Spa Ha’ did not sit well with me. This outsider didn’t spend his whole life time in the community.  He was not here during the riots of the 60s and 70s.  He was not here during the initial outbreak of AIDS, nor was he here during the crack epidemic of the 80’s.

All I know is that he is now here during the good times.  He is here to take advantage of an opportunity.  Having money, he is here, not out of love for our community, but to profit from it.  To make more money. And not having had a stake in the community,  a stake of the heart, he frivolously decides that it needs a new name.  Never bothering to ask us, the community residents, how we may feel about such a thing.

Commercial Interest
Spa Ha is being used by commercial interest in the selling of our community.  Look in the real estate section of the newspaper.  People may not want to move into or invest in East Harlem, but they will run to take advantage of an opportunity in ‘Spa Ha’.  I wonder if they believe that it’s like SOHO?  The problem is that the term ‘Spa Ha’ seems to be working.

People are moving up here like crazy.  Sometimes these newcomers look at us as if saying ‘What are you doing here?”  Most of the time they just rush on by.  But how long will it be before I am the sore thumb, sticking out and not belonging in my own community because it’s very character has changed?  It’s good to have fresh faces in the community, but this is getting scarry. Am I about to be squeezed out by their ability to pay higher rents?

Money Driven
We are being told almost daily that this community is going to change, that the change has begun and that we most likely will not be part of it’s future.  Rents are going up to the point that we must begin to think about moving north to the Bronx.  It’s like guarding a fort during an attack, surviving, winning the battle, but then being ask to leave.  We were good enough to defend the fort, but not good enough to live in it. All because landlords, real estate agents, speculators, and investors want even more than they already have.

What About Us?
We are all renters here in El Barrio.  The landlords, real estate agents, speculators and investors are home owners.  It seems that their need for money is more important to them then our need of a place to live and a community in which to raise our children.

We must develop strategies to ensure that we can stay in the community and keep the Hispanic flavor of it alive.  This is the cradle of the Puerto Rican migration, the birth place of salsa, and a community full of history and tradition. I believe that is worth another struggle.  The struggle to stay.

I don’t know about you, but the next time someone tries to call East Harle, El Barrio, Spanish Harlem, ‘Spa Ha’, I will tell them where to go.

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