Living in NYC

What’s it like living in East Harlem in New York City

When my husband and I moved to East Harlem back in 2020, we didn’t know a lot about the area. Now, 4 years after we moved, I feel like I have some knowledge to share more about the experience of what’s it like living in this neighborhood – and I decided to summarize all my thoughts about the area. A true review with what’s good, what’s not, and addressing some concerns. I hope that it helps!

Where East Harlem is located?

Also known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio, East Harlem is a neighborhood of Upper Manhattan in New York City, located north of the Upper East Side and bounded by 96th Street to the south, Fifth Avenue to the west, and the East and Harlem Rivers to the east and north. The neighborhood has one of the largest Hispanic communities in the Big Apple,  with  Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, and Mexicans.

Not sure if that’s true, but during my research, I found out that, despite the name, East Harlem is not considered Harlem. I’m not sure why – but the truth is that while other Harlem areas have a strong African-American heritage, in East Harlem we definitely see the predominance of the Latin heritage.

Who are we and why we moved to East Harlem? 

For context, my husband and I are both Brazilians – now in their mid thirties – that immigrated to the United States in 2014. We’ve always lived in New York City – more precisely in the Upper East Side, for 6 years. The last apartment we were in was in a walkup pre-war building with no laundry. Although we had two bedrooms and it was an spacious apartment, the fact that the second bedroom faced an indoor dark area started to bothered us, especially because I work from home and was using it as my office. It got to a point that I moved my desk to the living room to get sunlight while working. So, that bedroom became pointless. Plus, I wanted to have access to laundry in the building or perhaps having a wash & dryer. So, when our lease was expiring, we decided it was time to move.

First, we looked for apartments in the Upper East Side – cause we loved the neighborhood. But finding an unit with 2 bedrooms, laundry, dishwasher, in an elevator building on a budget of $3000 – $3500 (remember this was 4 years ago), was impossible. So that’s when we started to consider East Harlem. In my searches, I would always find great units in this area for better prices. My husband was reluctant – but we did our homework. We walked around, I asked two female friends that had lived in the area to pick their brain about it and finally we started to visit some apartments here.

And we found a great deal: a real 2 bedroom | 2 bath featuring dishwasher, washer & dryer, elevator and lots of sunlight for… less than $3000. I’m not kidding. And there was no catch. Turns out it was such a great choice cause about 10-15 days after we moved, the world shut down and we spent a lot of time inside – and oh boy, I can’t even tell you how the space and the natural light were helpful during this period.

INSIDER TIP! We pay a lot in rent to live in New York City – and what if you could take advantage of that? Bilt is a program that allows you to pay rent with a credit card without incurring the typical transaction fees. Since you’re already paying a significant amount, why not get some perks? You can use your Bilt credit card to pay the rent and, through the Bilt Rewards program, you get points for each dollar spent on rent. These points can then be redeemed for various rewards like travel, shopping, or even a down payment on a home. And don’t worry about the landlord that only accepts checks – you can set up that on Bilt. So, it doesn’t matter if it’s a bank transfer or a check, Bilt got you covered.

Quick Math: If you’re paying $3,000 per month in rent, and let’s say Bilt gives you 1 point per dollar, you’d get 36,000 points per year. Depending on the redemption options, that could be a round-trip flight, several hotel nights, or hundreds of dollars in gift cards.

Bilt also gives points on other purchases – like dining and shopping!

Marcus Garvey Park is such a great spot to watch the New York City Marathon!

How we chose our area

As mentioned at the beginning, East Harlem starts after 96th St, so, it’s a huge area. When considering where to live, we decided to avoid any apartment that would made us to rely on the 4, 5 and 6 subway lines at 125th St station. Let me explain: before even thinking about moving to East Harlem, I would come to the area twice a week for probably 2 years while taking ESL classes at New York Public Library, located at 125th and Madison. So, I quickly learned about that subway station and the surrounding area. Unfortunately,  you will see drug addicts from the moment you get off the train at that station. It would make me feel unsafe and uncomfortable. And, unfortunately, for what I heard, this is a problem that has been happening for years and years. Sure, nothing ever happened to me – neither when we need to use that station, occasionally.  But we just decided that we didn’t want to deal with that on a daily basis.

In fact, after living for so many years in the Upper East Side, moving to East Harlem was kinda shocking. I’m saying this not to sound arrogant – what I mean is that for me it’s very clear that the city doesn’t care enough about people living in this area. The lack of cleanliness and the lack of investment in projects for the communities – come on, you don’t hear about new parks and other projects that would improve the quality of life of the people living here how you hear in other areas of Manhattan and even Brooklyn, right? These are just my observations as an outsider – please feel free to correct me (respectfully) if this is wrong.

Now, back to the area we choose. We would had three big areas, considering the subway stations: 103rd St, 110th and 116th. Over the past years, I noticed that the area around 103rd St is not only nice, with great restaurants, but it looks very calm and quiet – and another advantage would be the geographic location, near the Upper East Side. Back in 2020, we ended up finding great options around 116th St – and that’s where we ended up moving (I’m not gonna disclose Street and Avenue for safety reasons).

As a general advice, I would say to avoid avenues – because they tend to be more busy and noisy and prefer the cross streets, but I would also avoid the streets where the subway is located, because those tend to be noisy as well. And NYC, by itself, is already a very noisy city, so if I can find some peace, better. Another thing you should take into consideration is that the MetroNorth line is not underground after 96th St, and it uses and elevated railroad on Park Avenue – and I bet that can disturb whoever lives nearby.

What’s it like living in East Harlem

Overall, we have a great experience living here. The area around the subway station is always more busy – and sometimes it can be sketchy, yes, but honestly, we got used to it and we mind our own business. It annoys me – and makes me sad – that, unfortunately, we see some people selling and using drugs, I’m not gonna lie. But what we noticed is that it’s always the area towards Lexington Avenue. If you go East or West Lexington Avenue, it’s peaceful and nice.

With our dog, Dalbit, at Marcus Garvey Park.

What we like about living in East Harlem:

  • The rent prices – you can find great apartments for reasonable prices. An apartment like ours wouldn’t cost less then 5k in the Upper East Side.
  • The subway line – the 6 line is very convenient and connected to other lines. When we want to take the 4 or 5 Express, we just stopped at 86th St and transfer. Plus, we can always walk 10 min and catch the 2 or 3 lines at Malcolm X BLVD. It’s gonna take probably a decade, lol, but in the future the Second Avenue Subway – Q – is also gonna serve East Harlem.
  • The strategic location – we are just a few stops away from the Upper East Side, where there are so many great restaurants and retail stores. Plus, we are a short walk from main areas in Central Harlem and West Harlem, that have great spots as well. We are also near the MetroNorth Station at 125th St, which makes trips to the Hudson Valley so easy and convenient for us. Plus, we are not that far away from LaGuardia Airport.

East Harlem tips: restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores and more 

If you live in New York City, you know that convenience matters. Most of us don’t have a car in the city and we do everything by taking the subway or walking. And there are some things that are nice to have in a walking distance. Here are my recs and highlights in the East Harlem, mostly near the 116th St.

  • Groceries – there are a lot of grocery stores in the area, like City Fresh Market (where I always find Latin products, and I love it!). But, for me, one of the best things in the area is a treasure called East River Plaza, where you can not only find the only Costco location in Manhattan but also an Aldi location. We shop at both! We got a cart to shop at Costco cause it’s a walking distance for us. And if you are not familiar with Aldi, you are missing out. Think about it as Trader Joe’s cousin – they have a lot of own products as well, with GREAT prices! Just be patient – the they don’t have the most friendly layout for the products, so you have to pay attention to find the items. Tip: The Moser Roth chocolate bars are sooo good and cost only $2,49!

Happy kid after shopping at Costco!

  • Retail – you’re not gonna find a lot of famous retail chains in East Harlem – if you are willing to walk to the West Side there are more options. But at the same East River Plaza there’s a Marshalls location that it’s just gold. Always organized and not super crowded. Another great store is American Outlet – they have some locations in East Harlem and let me tell you… their prices are nuts, lol. I pay $5 for deodorants that cost $9 at the drugstores lol. It’s a convenient store with kitchen appliances, some beauty and hygiene products, decor items… Also highly recommend Urban Garden Center, a family-owned garden resource for plants, seeds, sod, tools, accessories & firewood, a paradise for plant lovers!
  • Gym – this is one thing I think there’s a lack of offers in East Harlem – other areas, like the Upper East Side, have so many gyms and workout studios… Anyway, we have some options. There’s a Planet Fitness at East River Plaza – their plans start at $15 per month and you can join for just $1 down when you use my exclusive link! The staff is really friendly, the changing rooms are always clean, you almost never find a broken equipment  – they could have more equipment, for sure, but, overall, it’s a very decent gym, a pretty good deal. At the beginning, I didn’t love the vibe, but I think it was on my head. Now, I just put my headphones and that’s it. Everyone mind their own business. There’s also a Blink location, but my husband didn’t have a good experience there and honestly the reviews are not so positive. Another clubs/studios in the are Harlem Kettlebell Club, Women’s World of Boxing, JDI Barbell and The Borough: CrossFit East Harlem. Not exactly in East Harlem, but Harlem Pilates has three locations in Harlem and one of them is not so far away from East Harlem, on 117th St. Love their classes! And finally, Splash Fit Swim Club hosts swim classes at 118th St, between Fifth and Malcolm X Avenue. Currently, my husband and I go to Planet Fitness and to OrangeTheory, at 86th St. Don’t love to take the subway to go to the gym, but I absolutely love the classes. OrangeTheory is gonna open a location in West Harlem – at 110th – and depending where you live in the area, can be convenient, especially by bike or a scooter. If you decide to join OrangeTheory, use my code 2D4SMU or click here.

Me having my first swim class at Splash Fit!

  • Coffee Shops and bakeries– I have to admit that I need to explore more coffee shops in the area, but I have some recs. SuperNice has delicious pastries – their donuts are just the best. On Saturday mornings, there’s always a line. This is just a grab and go place. Not so far away you will find El Barrista Cafe – their pastries are also really good and they have tables. If you are looking for a place to work, check Dell’Aria – such a great space, nice staff and good coffee! You can also have cookies at Janie’s Life Changing Baked Goods and the famous carrot cake from Lloyd’s Carrot Cake. Please don’t forget to try the best tres leches cake in New York City, at Tres Leches Cafe. I need you to trust me on this one! And make sure to grab the best mousse in the city from Mojo Desserts – they have a window at Café d’Anvers.

Mojo has the best mousse in the city!

  • Restaurants – Some of the places we really love in East Harlem are La Chula (Mexican – their burrito is so delicious!), Alison (American – such a cute spot and also great food), Bar Goyana (a Brazilian place, with delicious food and amazing craft cocktails), the new Café d’Anvers (Belgium, from the same owners of Bar Goyana), Santiago Beer Garden (Latin – their empanadas and yuca fries are amazing!) and also Patsy’s Pizzeria (for pizza, such an iconic place!). Another famous spot in East Harlem is La Marqueta, a public market that features some eataries like the famous Amuse Bouche Bistro. 

Bobby Wagner Walk – we love to bike in this area!

Randalls Island is such a great place to go during the Spring/Summer season!

  • Parks – besides the north area of Central Park – that features a lot of spots like the Conservatory Garden and even a public pool (under construction), there is also Marcus Garvey Park (it features a public pool!) and Thomas Jefferson Park. Both of these parks have dog parks – but I would say the one at Marcus Garvey is better, cause the other one is too close to the FDR and very noisy. Also, there’s also the Bobby Wagner Walk, which is a section of the East River Waterfront Esplanade that extends between 90th and 125th Streets, encompassing the East 107th Street Pier. With the waterfront views, it’s a very nice place to walk or run during the warm months. Finally, you can also take advantage of Randalls Island, especially in the summer. So much space to walk, bike and relax!

Central Park North

Check the map below with all the spots mentioned on the post!

And that’s a wrap! One of the topics my post is missing is schools and day cares, cause we don’t have kids – but I do see a lot of families in the area. If someone has something to share about this topic, please feel free to do it on the comments below. I hope this post can help anyone who is thinking about moving to East Harlem – I really wish I had access to something like this when I moved here, so I’m happy to talk about my experience!

I hope you liked this post and please leave your East Harlem recs on the comments!

No Comments

    Leave a Reply

    Iceland road trip in April/May – things you need to know RiseNY – NYC’s new museum and ride review You can go glamping in New York City: NYC Glamping review! Everything about World Spa in Brooklyn, NYC Food halls in NYC: explore the world without leaving the city Tips for traveling with only carry-on luggage in the summer Things to do in Rockaway Beach Things to in Governors Island NYC 4 parks that you need to visit in NYC Things to do in Coney Island