East Harlem—also known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio—located in northeastern Manhattan, has long been a destination for immigrants settling in New York City. Once a hub for recent arrivals from Germany and Italy, the neighborhood became a primarily Puerto Rican enclave after World War II. Andrew Padilla, a 23-yearold filmmaker who was born and raised in El Barrio, sought to document a new phenomenon taking place in his neighborhood: gentrification.
El Barrio Tours, Padilla’s 28-minute documentary short, focuses on the changing demographics in an area once considered immune to gentrification due to the high number of public housing projects. The film, which won Best Documentary Short at the 2012 Puerto Rican International Film Festival and the 2013 Peoples’ Film Festival, documents some of the area’s most dramatic changes over the past decade.
View a slideshow of El Barrio below:
Padilla’s vivid and moving film underlines what happens to a close-knit community when its long-time residents are forced out. “When I was growing up,” Padilla says, “you knew the butcher, the baker and the coquito-maker, and these people looked out for you, [but]… as I began to get older, I realized that these people were moving away and that new people and businesses were taking their place.” The filmmaker himself was forced to leave his apartment due to rising rent and now sleeps on his parents’ couch.
Padilla highlighted iconic members of the community, such as Claudio Caponigro—affectionately known as “Claudio the Barber”—who moved his shop after 60 years when he could no longer make rent. Not even its iconic status as one of the last vestiges of East Harlem’s Italian past (supporters recommended it for landmark status in a proposed East Harlem historic district) could save Claudio’s barbershop.
Padilla, who had no formal training in film, hoped to produce more than just an exercise in nostalgia. He aimed to start a conversation about the unintended cost of gentrification. “You see the neighborhood getting better because gentrification is a form of development and it is seen as progress,” Padilla says, “but this type of development is not in the best interest of working and middleclass families.”
The film premiered at the San Diego Latino Film Festival, and Padilla has since screened it in neighborhoods throughout New York, such as in East Harlem, the Lower East Side and the Bronx, as well as in San Diego and San Juan, Puerto Rico. His hope, he says, is to spark a dialogue between “the gentrifiers and the gentrified.”
Such dialogue may help spur the creation of vibrant mixed-income, multicultural communities that can preserve the history and residents who live in these neighborhoods. With the success of his first documentary, the new director plans to focus future film projects on similar neighborhoods in transformation around the country in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, and Detroit.
View the trailer below:
All photos courtesy of Andrew Padilla.