Diversity in the City: Sandra Elia Martinez

As a Black, Master of Urban Planning student at Hunter College, I am interested in the specific ways that people of color experience cities and how planning intersects with race and gender. I’m also interested in exploring ways that vulnerable populations can be actors in creating more sustainable communities rather than being objects of sustainability research and planning.

This series of interviews with New Yorkers of color seeks to both explore these issues and to capture personal narratives of individual experiences related to community equity and sustainability.

Name: Sandra Elia Martinez

Neighborhood: Spanish Harlem (El Barrio)

Occupation: Case Planner at NYC Mission Society

My Hood

Why do you live here?  I have lived in Spanish Harlem my whole life.

What makes your hood so dope? Besides it being the infamous El Barrio, the diversity of people, culture and history of Spanish Harlem are all contributing factors on what makes it so dope. Spanish Harlem is home to many prominent Latin artists, poets, and writers. It has a rich mix of immigrants, but is home to many Nuyoricans, who consider Spanish Harlem their very own little Puerto Rico. Spanish Harlem is one of the few neighborhoods left in Manhattan left that take you on a cultural rollercoaster. Every building, corner, mom and pop restaurant to the elders playing dominos in front of the Bodega, has a story behind it that contributes to the history of Spanish Harlem.

What makes it wack? It’s hard to say what makes my neighborhood “wack,” because I would live here forever, if it was not for the rent increasing minute by minute. However, I would have to say that the gang activity and the occasional gun fires donate to my neighborhood being “wack.”

Do you feel safe here? I do feel safe in my neighborhood. While others may have there reservations about my Spanish Harlem, I embrace the good and the bad. I feel safe, because I grew up in the neighborhood and know most of the people who live there. In addition, growing up in Spanish Harlem I quickly figured out what my safe boundaries were and weren’t.

My Food

How many times of week do you cook? Well I have to cook every day, because I’m a vegan and my neighborhood is not very vegan friendly.

Does your Neighborhood have a supermarket in walking distance? Yes, there are two supermarkets located three blocks from my apartment.

If so, does it offer fresh produce? The supermarkets do not have the greatest amount of fresh produce. Organic fresh produce are not offered at all; for organic produce I would have to go to Union Square  and shop at Whole Foods or wait for the farmers market.

How many bodegas are in walking distance? If it’s one thing that Spanish Harlem as a lot of his Bodegas. There are about 5 Bodegas in walking distance from my apartment.

Does your bodega offer fresh produce? No

How many fast food restaurants are in walking distance from where I live? About 5 in walking distance.

How many liquor store are in walking distance from where you live? There are two liquor stores in walking distance.

My Community

Do you consider your community gentrified? Yes! My neighborhood is becoming  gentrified. There are many high rise luxury condos and apartment buildings being developed for the wealthy.

Who are the gentrifiers? What are the signs of gentrification? Spanish Harlem is becoming extremely gentrified and it’s very disheartening. It’s even being referred to as SPAHA to attract more affluent people, while removing the negative connotation that’s comes from calling its original name Spanish Harlem. Spanish Harlem is home to many tenement buildings, not reaching more then 6-8 floors, (besides the few Project buildings spread out throughout the neighborhood). However, lately it is becoming home to many high rise luxury buildings. Not only, are these building owners asking an unreasonable amount of money for rent in an already low and fixed income neighborhood, but these high rise buildings are taking away the authenticity from Spanish Harlem. In addition, many mom and pop restaurants and local bodegas have been forced to close because of commercialism. Currently, big name cooperation’s are investing in Spanish Harlem because of the presence of major Real estate developers. Many people have been forced to move out, because of the increase in rent, and watch their once beloved Spanish Harlem, turn into the commercialized SPAHA.

Does gentrification matter to you? Gentrification in East Harlem is a very hot topic issue for me. I feel as if one of my favorite places is being destroyed right in front my eyes. I have worked with a local organization in the past called Community Voices Heard, which is an org that is continuously fighting to improve and sustain public housing in New York City. Last year I accompanied the organization to Washington D.C where we held a protest and attempted to speak to Congressman Charles B. Rangel about the need for affordable and sustainable housing for not only Spanish Harlem, but New York City in general.

While, I understand that change is inevitable, it should not come at a cost where people are being displaced from their homes and can’t afford their rent. People may argue that before Spanish Harlem was El barrio it was also home to the Irish, Polish, and Italian. While this is true, however, it has always been an affordable place where new found immigrants can come together to share their experiences and build a strong sense of community. Therefore, while others see gentrification as change that is simply occurring, I see it as the displacement of families and the cultural evacuation of Spanish Harlem.

My Green

What the does sustainability mean to you? Sustainability means to me that our actions and decisions today do not affect the opportunities for us in the future. I do care for sustainability because the way we treat our ecological systems affects all of us today and our future generations. We all live on this earth, and have to work together to preserve its beauty. We have to learn how to use our resources wisely and work to create a greener environment.

Would you consider yourself “green”? I do consider myself “Greenish,” I always remind myself to recycle, unplug electronic devices when not in use and buy from the farmers market as much as I can.

Do you compost? Why or why not? No, don’t have the equipment to compost.

Come back on February 28th for the next installation!

If you would like to be profiled in “Diversity in the City”, send an email to: mopierre@hunter.cuny.edu.



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