The sounds of the FDR and the breeze from the East River hit you in unison as you land at the back of Thomas Jefferson Park. The gigantic greenery has been the centerpiece of the neighborhood for over 60 years. The park is massive, and is also a massive sports complex. At Thomas Jefferson Park, there are three baseball fields, four basketball courts, three tennis courts, four handball courts, a swimming pool and a soccer/football field. The pool, however, is a city relic and a virtually unchanged landmark. It was one of 11 elevated pools that opened in the city in 1936. There’s another piece of gorgeous greenery not too far away that is worth visiting during a morning stroll: the Conservatory Garden on 5th Avenue and 104th Street in Central Park.
One of the most interesting, colorful and passionate museums is right around the corner from your place, El Museo Del Barrio, was founded in 1969, and has evolved into a beloved addition to the art circuit in the city. The museum focuses on Latin-inspired art from Mexican masks to textiles from Chile. But overall the museum’s focus rests on artists and modern art from Puerto Rico. After years of moving around, the spot settled on its current location in 1978. The building that houses the museum was originally a fire station during the Nuyorican Movement and Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. It has received a facelift and expansion, its collections having grown to nearly 8,500 pieces of pre-Columbian and traditional artifacts.
The history of the city is readily visible through its art. One of the few preservations left in the city that honor the art form of graffiti is right here in Spanish Harlem. We’re talking about the Graffiti Hall of Fame, located in the playground of the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex. With the whitewashing and destruction of 5 Pointz in Long Island City some years back, this spot, founded in 1980, has taken the reigns for many talented street artists. The walls that surround the playground complex are filled with ever-changing art galleries, displaying 20 types of pieces on each side of the walls. The location has become an internationally recognized destination for artists who often visit for pilgrimage.
The history behind the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on 115th Street and Pleasant Avenue is astonishing. It opened in 1884 as the second Italian parish in the city. But the church’s annual feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel began in 1881 and each July, used to attract more than 500,000 people. The yearly event continues to bring together former and current residents to the procession, which has reached its 136th year. Lastly, take a peek (or bow) at the Blessed Virgin statue, showing the Blessed Virgin adorned with a gold crown. The Virgin has had several documented miracles. The sheer colossal beauty of the interior of the church is comparable to those of the basilicas in Italy. The hand-printed art of the Blessed Mother and Jesus Christ on the ceilings above the altar is a spectacle. Most of the woodwork and statues are original. Just a block east, you’ll come across the Manhattan Center of Math and Science. The building was originally Benjamin Franklin High School, and, with its recognizable steeple, easily a symbol of the neighborhood. The school also has a place in pop culture, given how it was a prominent setting for the movie ‘Serpico.”
Finding your first meal of the evening shouldn’t be too hard as Spanish Harlem is home to one of the most legendary Italian restaurants in the city’s existence: Rao’s. You may run into trouble trying to get a seat at the quaint restaurant, since its popularity means you’ll have to book your reservation months ahead. But once you get that coveted seat, you won’t be disappointed. The tomato sauce (or gravy) is the star that complements the spaghetti (or macaroni) like nothing you’ve ever experienced. It truly feels like having a dinner at an Italian family’s home. The restaurant has been a critical part of the neighborhood since 1896, and has attracted endless celebrities for the last 130 years. Today, there’s three locations around the country: NYC, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. If you can’t get a seat, then make your way to El Kallejon, Harley’s Smokeshack, and La Shuk. They are all viable and tasty options.
If you are looking for a good, tasty drink, make your way to Lion Lion at 116th Street between 2nd and 1st Avenues. The bar has been a well-kept secret (it’s located in the basement of a residential building) for a long time, the stylish craft cocktail spot known to and embraced by only the locals. Lion Lion specializes in tropical craft drinks such as hand-shaken daiquiris. As nights go by, you may also decide to check out some additional local options – Mojitos Bar & Grill, The Duck, East Harlem Bottling Company and The Lexington Social.