| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:11

    The Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem have always seemed miles apart, even though they are separated by one mere thoroughfare, East 96th Street. Gentrification has been slower in the East 90s than it has been in other parts of the city. But there have been a couple of signs that Carnegie Hill is creeping into El Barrio. For one thing, there has been a sprinkling of new upscale restaurants and shops appearing north of 96th. Still, residents often lack basic amenities, including coffee shops and newspaper stands. Recent signs of gentrification include the popular and well-reviewed Joy Burger Bar, on Lexington Avenue and 100th Street. Champignon, on Madison Avenue near 97th Street, is a cozy nook serving sandwiches, salads and coffee. The Vegetarian Sandwich Bar, at Park Avenue between 97th and 98th streets, is another newcomer serving well-cooked light food. A few years ago, Gourmet Garage arrived on Park and 96th, becoming one of the few places that far north to offer upscale culinary groceries. Although the block between Park and Lexington is clogged with commuters racing between the M96 bus stop and the stairway to the Number 6 subway station, retail stores and eateries are sparse once you head east of Park Avenue. There are a number of nearby high-rise buildings with vibrant and well-heeled residents, but nearby foot-traffic tends to be non-residents en route somewhere in a rush. For the most part, it"s hard for residents to find someplace to eat or pick up a few items. Starbucks in this neck of the woods is confined to Madison and 96th, as well as an outpost on 90th and Third. While some may applaud the lack of chain stores, getting a decent cup of coffee can be a challenge in the upper 90s between Lexington and First avenues. Several of the newsstands in this area have closed recently, so even finding a New York Times requires some walking. Two new establishments on the block provide a beacon of hope for the hungry and the thirsty. Charlie Lopresto is the owner of Luzzo"s, a pizza shop on 96th Street between Park and Lexington avenues's although business isn"t booming yet. Luzzo"s has another location on First Avenue between 12th and 13th streets with a coal oven, but here they"ve built an open hearth, which is almost as good for making the crust crispy. Luzzo"s offers a range of pizzas whole and by the slice, grilled panini, salads, pasta, and breakfast specials. [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="400" caption="A new convenience store, also on 96th Street, stays open until midnight. Photo By: Gerry Vasco"][/caption] Just next door, David Hassan opened a convenience store with snacks, newspapers, candy, drinks and the usual deli items. On a block that tends to be dark at night, a brightly lit store open until midnight makes you feel safer, especially with construction going on further down the block. Hassan took over the space formerly occupied by Zoco Unisex Beauty Salon, which moved a few blocks uptown. The retail may not be ready, but more residents are on their way. One project is Carnegie Hill Place, 1500 Lexington Ave. near 96th Street, and at 1501 Lexington Ave. between 97th and 98th streets. Although the $50 million, 22-story, luxury rental tower at 1500 Lexington opened in May 2003 with 211 apartments, the complex around the corner, at 1501 Lexington, will open sometime next year. The prime corner of 96th and Lexington has also been under scaffolding during the renovation of an aging 9,555-square-foot, old-law tenement at 1488 Lexington. Located directly above the subway station, the building"s ground floor retail has always been occupied by few low-end shops, like Bonanza Wireless, Tony"s Variety Store, 96th Candy & Magazines, Pizza Gyro Chicken Express and a fruit stand called Straight From the Market. Now, there are only boarded-up glass storefronts. Straight From the Market moved to First Avenue and 93rd Street, and it is now open 24 hours. Farther east, there are limited shopping opportunities for residents of the $1 million-plus luxury apartments in One Carnegie Hill, completed in early 2008. Second Avenue subway construction has only added to headaches. Customers avoid walking between 93rd and 97th streets because of the noise and barriers, and that in turn has affected the profits for the pizzerias, supermarkets, locksmiths and hardware stores. The Marx Brothers Playground, on the corner of 96th Street and Second Avenue, has been transformed into a staging area for the construction. A â??slurry wall, a reinforced-concrete diaphragm wall used to build tunnel in locations with soft earth, looks ominous and industrial on a playing field. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority paid $11 million to the Parks Department to use the playground. â??We couldn"t build a new playground, said Joshua Laird, chief of planning for the Parks Department, â??So we"re fixing up other parks in the area that are going to receive more use.