Not too long ago, Mexican families in East Harlem had to return home to buy an authentic tres leches, a sponge cake soaked in milk.
Now, they can order the popular dessert at Mexico Lindo, a bakery on Second Avenue near 116th Street that also sells tacos and sandwiches.
Like other shops along East 116th Street — Manhattan’s bona fide Little Mexico — the bakery not only appeals to East Harlem’s Hispanic community, but luxury diners in search of the kind of off-the-beaten track eating options popular on food blogs.
“Ethnic food there tends to be very authentic, brought directly from the country the shop owners moved from,” said David Daniels, a Corcoran broker that directs sales at the Sedona, a boutique condominium on East 119th Street. At restaurants elsewhere in Manhattan, “you see an American or New York variant of food from other countries.”
On his way to the Sedona, which has two units on the market, according to Streeteasy, Daniels often walks along 116th Street just to soak in the colorful window displays, many displaying fruits, vegetables, and pastries only recognizable to immigrants.
Hispanic families have been settling in East Harlem for decades, of course, but what’s new is how they’re going about changing community trends.
A new study from the University of California titled Assimilation Tomorrow, demographers tracking the waves of immigrants from the 1990s based on those who came before found that foreign-born residents are integrating into mainstream American society at a rate that will see them achieve “great success” by 2030.
The percentage of immigrants who own rather than rent their homes is projected to rise from 25.5 percent in 2000 to 72 percent in 2030, and the number of those speaking English well will rise from 57.5 percent to 70.3 percent.
The report found that the percentage of Hispanics living in poverty should fall from 22.8 percent to 13.4 percent by 2030 and homeownership is predicated to rocket from 21 percent in 2000 to 67 percent by 2030.
Last year, Hispanic enrollment in college hit an all-time high and economists say America should take note as tomorrow’s well-educated immigrant becomes integral to the nation’s housing market.
Jeff Monge, president of Monge Capital Group, a private equity firm, is in no doubt that Latin American immigrants are integrating faster as neighborhoods change to accommodate them. He said Mexicans in the tri-state area once stocked up on their favorite brands when visiting relatives.
Now, he explained at a conference hosted last week by the International Council of Shopping Centers, they prefer to make all their purchases around the corner, at mom-and-pop stores like Mexico Lindo and in the Goya aisle of major supermarkets.
When a Pathmark opened on the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in the mid-nineties, stocking shelves with rice, beans, and other staples of Latino cooking, some residents worried that their corner grocery stores would disappear.
In the years since, food purveyors large and small have managed to co-exist. “You go up to Harlem, and you see the same bodegas that were there then, today,” said Joseph French, a retail developer. At the same time, he added, the Pathmark there is one of the busiest in the country.
“Pathmark figured out early on that urban stores are hugely successful. They changed up the products and hired more Hispanic employees, who look like the demographic in the store,” he said.
In some cases, the presence of national retailers can work to the advantage of small businesses catering to Hispanics.
Not too long ago, Sal Garcia, a developer of homes and retail complexes in northern New Jersey, brought a Portuguese barbeque shop to a strip mall he built in Irvington, a town just outside Newark.
The other day, Garcia informed the restaurant’s owner that a Dollar General store would be moving into the vacant retail space next door. The restaurateur wasn’t familiar with the chain, so Garcia brought him to a Dollar General elsewhere in town.
While eating sandwiches at a Subway nearby, the two watched shoppers stream out of the dollar store and into shops elsewhere in the complex. “He was impressed by the foot traffic it drew,” Garcia explained at the ICSC conference.
For Dollar General, having a barbeque shop next door ensures that the shopping center has some life to it — a boon to nearby residential developments, too.
Independent businesses “bring mom-and-pop local flavor to shopping centers,” said Carol Merriman, a senior vice president at Brixmor, a company that owns and manages dozens of shopping centers across the country.
They’re in demand among Hispanic shoppers in their teens and 20s, who are no longer so enamored with national brands like American Eagle and the Gap.
“There’s been a fundamental shift in what products are interesting,” said Monge, of the private equity firm. “Generic Middle American products might not be as interesting.”
Whether rooted in Latin American culture or not, anything with an international flavor is now trendy. Harujuku, a clothing line introduced by the singer Gwen Stefani, has soared in popularity among Hispanic families. “What’s exciting is, what are the cool kids in Japan doing?” Monge said.
Luckily for independent retailers, recent arrivals from Central and Latin America are settling in outer boroughs like Queens and the Bronx, where retail and residential rents are cheaper. With 51.9 % of residents of Latin American heritage, “the Bronx is by far the most Hispanic borough, which is a new phenomenon,” said Monge.
Jose Martinez of Maya Cinemas and Entertainment, a California-based company that develops movie theaters catering to Hispanic families — who contribute to 40% of box office sales nationwide — has been eyeing the Bronx in recent months. “It’s one of our pet projects,” he said.
The company’s decadent theaters, which have marble fixtures, restaurants, coffee shops, and “crying rooms” for parents to bring fussy toddlers in the middle of a screening, have been a hit in lower-middle-class neighborhoods in cities like Bakersfield, where state-of-the-art entertainment complexes were only available in affluent areas.
Within a year or two after selecting a site in the Bronx, Martinez expects to open a retail complex and theater offering Hollywood blockbusters and Spanish-language films. “California is very simple,” he said. “In New York, you’re negotiating as soon as you walk through the door.”
Marketing retail spaces at the entertainment center may prove particularly challenging. In Bakersfield, Martinez had no problems leasing storefronts to Starbucks and TCBY, the frozen yogurt chain.
Despite a high demand for basic amenities in the South Bronx, French, the retail developer, had trouble convincing a supermarket to take space at a shopping center in the neighborhood.
“Within three miles, there were one million people, and there wasn’t a full-service grocery store,” he said. “The dollars are there. But it’s hard to convince retailers to go to higher-crime areas.”
While aware that the majority of customers are hard-working and family oriented, shop owners are wary of theft by employees. In East Harlem, Pathmark solved that problem by installing video cameras throughout the store. “Believe me, that shrinkage issue goes away,” French said.
Inner-city grit isn’t always a concern. Though some Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants have crossed into the Bronx from Washington Heights, a number of Hispanic families, particularly third-generation descendants of immigrants, are moving out of the Five Boroughs altogether, into middle-class neighborhoods across the Hudson River.
At the ICSC conference, Monge explained that Manhattan’s Mexican population, which makes up about 25 percent of the borough, will soon overtake that of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans — simply because the latter groups have been the first to migrate to suburbia, or semi-urban neighborhoods on the fringes of the city.
Andrew Botticelli, a broker at Robert De Ruggeiro Realtors in Union City, New Jersey, recently worked with a Dominican woman that owned a condo at the Thread, a 15-story brick luxury tower in Union City with sweeping Manhattan views.
The client, who worked for a bank in Manhattan, wanted to purchase a studio in the building for her mother, who lived in the Dominican Republic. “She and her husband had a baby, and she wanted to go back to work fulltime,” Botticelli said. He helped her close on a unit right next door.
America’s Hispanic population has been growing by 1.5 percent every five years and is now approximately 51 million people, or 15 percent of the population.
According to the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals young Hispanics will make up 40 percent of first-time homebuyers in 2012,
Young professionals of all backgrounds are flocking to luxury buildings in the Union City area, including the Lenox, a tower at 500 Central Avenue, on the border of Union City and Jersey City, and Union Square, a new development on a working-class block in western Union City.
The latter is only several blocks from a Shop Rite, which has several aisles dedicated to beans, coconut milk, and other Latin American products, and the dollar stores, discount clothing shops, and Hispanic bakeries lining Bergenline Avenue.
“There are small stores,” Botticelli said, which appeal to young professionals and working-class immigrants alike, much like the retail scene on 116th Street in East Harlem.
At the same time, Botticelli noticed, immigrant families in New Jersey aren’t snubbing “Middle American” brands as much as retail developers may think. “A lot of them go to the Newport Mall,” he said.