Two sights illustrate the gentrification that has crept into New York’s East Harlem: On one block in the neighborhood, known as El Barrio by its largely Puerto Rican residents, a Starbucks has opened and welcomes white newcomers and Latinos who choose the trendy cafe over the old corner bakery. Up the avenue, the Salsa Museum attracts tour buses full of outsiders eager to discover the neighborhood’s musical gift. It seems that El Barrio has become known as a “cool” place to visit and live.

The Starbucks and the tour buses, both unthinkable in the area until a few years ago, provide context for Ernesto Quiñonez’s new novel, Chango’s Fire. Much has changed since the author’s first novel, Bodega Dreams, garnered acclaim upon its release in 2000. That book was set in an East Harlem where the hulks of apartment buildings burnt down for profit still laced the streets. They had done so since the 1970s in many New York neighborhoods, as a physical reminder to residents that their community and even their lives were expendable to authorities and absentee landlords alike.

By the time Quiñonez’s latest novel was published a mere four years later, much of the arsonists’ work had disappeared from East Harlem. In its place is gentrification, and Quiñonez is there to breathe life into this troubled phase of his neighborhood’s history. As in his first book, he does not simplify events; there are no clear good and evil forces here. While at one level the story is charged with politics, it is also a very personal tale about one man’s drive to be true to himself.

The story’s narrator and central figure is Julio Santana, a young man who works on a demolition crew by day to pay for college and the mortgage on his family’s condo. At night he supplements his income by setting fires, usually to vacant suburban houses whose owners want to collect the insurance. Downstairs from Julio, a white woman named Helen moves in, and soon she and Julio are a serious item. With their divergent views of the changes in the neighborhood fueling tension between them, Quiñonez cleverly brings them together to mirror the larger drama playing out in the neighborhood with the onset of gentrification.

A strange and uneasy transition

When the first white people start venturing north of 96th Street to fix up and buy condos, the reaction from the locals is often openly hostile. People who have lived through disinvestment know it wasn’t their own people who arranged for their homes to burn. But that isn’t why they’re angry at the newcomers. They are angry because many of the gentrifiers show little interest in or respect for the customs brought from the island by Puerto Ricans in the 1950s. In fact, many whites seek to bar the old culture from invading their new enclaves, socializing inside, rather than on their front stoops, and building gates to privatize these spaces.

But not all the new folk are oblivious to or uncaring about the hurt their arrival causes. Helen, for instance, knows the culture shock her family experienced when they moved from the liberal college town of Ithaca, New York, to a small rural community, Howard City, Wisconsin, where their foreign cars and Helen’s mother’s protest of the arms race aroused suspicion. Helen, then, is not wholly ignorant of what her presence in East Harlem implies. She wants to meet people in the community, partly because she wants her budding gallery to fit into the neighborhood’s Latin-inspired art scene. Still very much an outsider herself, she is also far more sensitive to injustice. But she still doesn’t see the animus she encounters as justified.

Here Quiñonez tries to show how underneath the surface, outsider and native-born have quite a bit in common. Helen brings her feminist sense of outrage with her into a culture where machismo has always ruled, but then observes a crowd of women who attack a child rapist in the street with their brooms. Curiously, Quiñonez stops short of making his point in this scene, sidestepping what seems to be Helen’s moment of awakening, her entry point into what is otherwise an unfamiliar culture. Instead, he dwells on her inability to grasp why no police car appears to take control of the situation. Julio is then able to educate her that the people in El Barrio do not share her assumption that cops serve and protect. Quiñonez does give Helen credit at many points in his book for making sense of the community’s problems. In this scene Helen might not only understand the problems, but have her own insight on how to address them.

Meanwhile, another wrinkle appears in the gentrification tale. The whites with money aren’t the only new faces in the community. Immigrants from Mexico have arrived, too, opening restaurants on avenues once dominated by the Puerto Ricans, and they board, 10 to a room, in hovels that have been subdivided several times over. They take the jobs on construction sites that the Italians (who were poor immigrants in Spanish Harlem before it was Spanish) see as beneath them. The Mexicans’ presence doesn’t seem to throw the neighborhood into a fit the way the whites’ does, but their arrival could mean just as significant a shift in the population.

Eddie is one of the few Italian holdouts who didn’t flee to the suburbs or Queens when the Puerto Ricans arrived after World War II. He has made a living over the years burning down people’s homes, sometimes with people still inside. He probably burned down Julio’s first home, forcing him and his family to move into the projects they occupied for the rest of his childhood.

Interestingly enough, Julio goes to work for Eddie as a young man, since the pay from construction work is insufficient to pay for his condo and get him through college. Like the Bodega Dreams lead character who was employed by a drug hustler who doubled as a housing developer, Julio has a job people in so-called normal neighborhoods can only wonder about. The arrangement works well for Julio until he slips up, leaving behind evidence that one of his house-burnings was no accident. Then, as in the first book, the illicit nature of the local economy shows its true colors, as Eddie forces Julio to pay dearly for his mistake.

Here Chango, the Santeria god from the book’s title, comes into play. One in a pantheon of deities of both African and Catholic origins worshipped in parts of Latin America, the god is represented by fire and lightning. The proprietor of the neighborhood botanica tells Julio a legend about how Chango made a great error and, realizing this, hung himself to extinguish his fire. But Chango lived on because he was not in the fire itself, but in the heat it generated. As Julio’s nighttime profession gets him into trouble, he looks to Chango to teach him how to compensate for his transgressions and give himself a life beyond the flames.

The politics of politics

Quiñonez’s artistry in depicting the sudden changes in his neighborhood adds context to the stark public policy questions being raised in East Harlem and other gentrifying communities. Should a percentage of housing built by developers, scrambling to respond to the influx of yuppies, be set aside for people who have been there through the bad times? If so, should there be a racial component to this set-aside? Should local community boards ask developers to build their courtyards and entryways in a way that respects the cultural traditions of the low-income and non-white groups?

Puerto Rican residents have yet to respond to this challenge, Quiñonez suggests. Day by day, they watch as newcomers stream in, and some grit their teeth, but they don’t get organized. This inaction isn’t uncommon; local groups often don’t begin to seek political solutions to gentrification until the population has been transformed and the storefronts appear unfamiliar.

Quiñonez is responding to that lack of action. At a 2004 book signing at East Harlem’s Carlito’s Café, he characterized his book as a protest, a way of bringing attention to gentrification. At the same time, he wants to point to positive examples from that community, rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of ghetto life. As a comparison, consider Jonathan Lethem’s lead character of color in Fortress of Solitude, who went to prison and couldn’t fit in when he returned to his gentrified ‘hood. Quiñonez is drawn to Puerto Rican characters who are ambitious (like Julio and the narrator of Bodega Dreams, both college-educated) or entrepreneurial (like businessman Willie Bodega). Julio and Bodega suggest that prosperity can be found without gentrification.

It is probable that many residents of East Harlem would have trouble relating to Julio, however. For them there would not be a question, as there is for Julio, whether to enter the Starbucks or the bar where whites gather — they simply can’t afford to.

While Julio has dreams that may take him out of East Harlem, he also feels a strong attachment to the neighborhood. Perhaps the most authentic aspect of his character is his nostalgia for the days when he played on abandoned cars in vacant lots. Just as the neighborhood is spruced up, it feels somehow alienating to its own people. Besides, moving out would mean a tremendous loss for him and others who have made their own world within a few square blocks. As Julio says, “Helen’s people don’t seem to have mystical places like ours. They don’t have poor, holy places that speak to your soul …”

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