En español | The cool, bright air of New York City hits a gigantic mermaid, stars, and men sprawling up a brick wall. The four-story mural, “The Spirit of East Harlem,” is one of several along Mural Row in Spanish Harlem. It resonates with Manny Vega, a lifelong neighborhood resident and an apprentice to artist Hank Prussing when he created “Spirit” in 1973.
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“I came out of high school and asked Hank for a job,” says Vega, as he cuts bits of mosaic tiles in his studio. In 1997, when the paint started fading and peeling, Vega painstakingly restored the mural. “A lot of people in that image used to live in the building,” he says.
The murals splashed throughout El Barrio—the affectionate term for Spanish Harlem—attest to the area’s revitalization. Long gone are the tough times of the 1960s and 1970s, when many New York neighborhoods, including Spanish Harlem, were crime- and poverty-ridden. Now real estate prices are climbing, and locals grumble about creeping gentrification.
A thousand sensory experiences make the neighborhood fun to visit—from Reggaetón dancing to the aromas of food and perfume. To savor it all, you don’t need to hike the entire area, which runs from 96th Street to 125th Street along the east side of Manhattan. Nor do you need to spend a lot of money.
But it certainly pays to bring an empty stomach—and to wear comfortable shoes.
Begin your walking tour at Mural Row at the corner of East 104th Street and Lexington Avenue, down the street from the East 103rd Street stop on the Lexington Avenue subway line.
“The murals were done as a way to give a sense of pride to the community and a way to teach outside the classroom,” says James De La Vega, who created some of the murals, including a portrait of legendary Cuban singer Celia Cruz.
You’ll see some of that pride in a tiny gem nearby, the Modesto Flores Garden, which features Poetas Con Café’s open-air poetry jams on second Saturdays from June through September.
Across from Mural Row, Exotic Fragrances stocks more than 1,000 natural fragrances and essential oils. The same block—Lexington between East 103rd and 104th streets—also emits the aromas of Mexican eateries. Among the most notable is El Paso Taqueria (try the carnitas estilo Michoacán), a favorite of Carolina González and Seth Kugel, authors of Nueva York: The Complete Guide to Latino Life in the Five Boroughs.