Our new series “My sqft” checks out the homes of 6sqft’s friends, family and fellow New Yorkers across all the boroughs. Our latest interior adventure brings us to Spanish Harlem. Want your home to be featured here? Get in touch!
Located in an unassuming low-rise walk-up in Spanish Harlem is a tiny apartment with no views, a small living room, and thousands of pieces of one-of-a-kind art from around the world. Its owner, Hector Castaneda, is a world traveller who’s visited more than 50 countries over the last 15 years. While most folks are happy simply snapping a few photos and heading home after a week or two, Hector is all about immersion and spends months at a time in some of the world’s most exotic and extreme locales. As Hector travels the world he picks up art, tapestry, sculptures, furniture, and musical instruments from every country, which today magically fill every nook and cranny of his 500-square-foot apartment.
“He is the only person I know who can turn a dingy walk-up building apartment into a work of art—it’s really a private New York Museum and Hector is the curator,” his friend Lisa Monroig told us. Once we heard that, we knew we had to pay him a visit.
You’re originally from Lima, Peru, how did you end up in NYC?
Hector: I came here for school. I had already been traveling around Latin America for a while and I came here to study visual arts. When I arrived I worked in a bar for money and I was really too busy. I just got thrown into the life here and didn’t have time to start missing anything about what I was doing before, so the transition wasn’t that difficult. These days I work as an artist and photographer, sometimes a bartender, but I often travel for months at a time.
How long have you been living in East Harlem?
Hector: I’ve been in this apartment since 2007 and I was living in the East Village before this. It was great for its nightlife—I’m a night person, I’m like a vampire—but a friend introduced me to East Harlem and I just fell in love with the vibe and energy here. It’s a great mix of cultures and races—I see people from India working in saris, I have a neighbor who is a Muslim African woman who wears the typical clothes. It’s a really unique place.
How has the neighborhood changed since you moved in? Do you wish anything was different?
Hector: I really love the neighborhood how it is. You see a huge diversity of people here you don’t see in other neighborhoods. I have seen the gentrification of the neighborhood and the rents have gone up. There are actually a lot of new people moving in. But these aren’t bad changes. I don’t mind a little gentrification as long the culture doesn’t get lost. But unfortunately there’s a 7-11 opening up on the corner. But no Starbucks yet!
What are some of your favorite places in the neighborhood?
Hector: I love El Barrio during spring and summer. There are kids playing outside with the water hydrant blasting on hot summer days; you can see old Puerto Rican men playing dominos on the corner. There’s also a lot of loud salsa music playing on the streets.
Some of my favorite places to go are Lexington Social, which is a wine and tapas bar; Taqueria el Paso has great and authentic Mexican food; Moustache is the best for Middle Eastern dishes; Pro Thai for Thai; I frequent an Italian restaurant called Lexington Pizza Parlour; and I go to East Harlem Cafe a lot. They have gallery shows there and display a lot of local art, which is really nice.
One other reason I love living here is because I’m so close to Central Park. I like to walk or go running around the reservoir and I’m not too far from the Metropolitan Museum. I spend hours there during the spring and summer, especially on the rooftop. The Conservatory Garden at 104th Street and Fifth Avenue is beautiful. Close to El Museo del Barrio is a spot that hosts many free shows during the summer. But really, all of the city is easily accessible from this neighborhood.
Where does the design inspiration for this apartment come from?
Hector: From traveling around the world. I believe that the best book of life is to travel—that’s my quote. I like to see different places, different cultures, different people. When I travel I’m not the typical tourist. I don’t have a “real job” per se, I’m more like a nomad. I suffer from wanderlust so I try to get out a lot—it’s a passion for me. I also don’t want to go to a place for one week or two weeks, or to take a picture of the Eiffel Tower or Taj Mahal just to say I’ve been there. I work, save money, take off and stay in a place for months. I want to live in a place, walk around and experience it like the people who actually live there do. By now I think I’ve been to more than 50 countries.
Hector: All of my rooms have themes; like my kitchen is more Mexican-inspired. I found a lot of the pieces in there while traveling Mexico and other parts of Latin America. My bathroom by comparison is more Asian-inspired. I put in a bamboo ceiling and there are some Japanese accents in there. My bedroom is more Moroccan which you can see in the colors, the lamps, the drapes, the bed…and the living room is in more of a Spanish style. A lot of the pieces I’ve collected, but there are also some things that I built and sculpted myself.
Hector: But because I’m a freelancer and I make things, I really appreciate people who share the same path as me. I like supporting independent artists and crafters, hearing their stories and bringing what they do into my home. It’s funny, friends come here all the time and they tell me they feel like they’ve just took a trip around the world, or that they feel like they are visiting a museum. It’s flattering. They also discover new things every time the come over. They always say “Is that new? What about that? When did you get that?”
What are some of your favorite pieces in the house?
Hector: I love my masks which come from all over the world. The biggest one you see there in the center is from Venezuela and the others come from places across Asia, South America…though I’m not a religious person I collect a lot of religious icons. For me they represent love and peace—even if many wars have been fought over ideologies.
Do you think your apartment style is a reflection of how you dress, or vice versa?
Hector: Very much, although the seasons affect it as well. I like pulling pieces from all over the place. For example these bracelets I have on are from Morocco—one of them I got from a priest. My vest is from Vietnam, and these scarves from India. My friends joke that I sometimes overdo it but I don’t care. It’s just my style, I put on what I like.
Your apartment is on the cozier side, do you find living in a small space challenging?
Hector: I really love to entertain and to have people over for home-cooked Peruvian food. I’ve had 40 people in here for Thanksgiving and I threw an Oscars party here a few weeks ago with 20 people. It can get crazy in this apartment, but that’s what’s so great about living in East Harlem, no one calls the cops on you!
You have an apartment in Peru as well, is it decorated differently?
Hector: It’s much different. It’s a lot more modern with some vintage pieces. My New York apartment is really more worldly, but I think that’s in response to what New York is. I do think about bringing some things here back to Lima.
Where do you plan to travel next?
Hector: Right now I’m saving money to go to the Middle East, I want to go to Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan. I’ve met several people from there that have told me the landscape is incredible. You see these places on TV all the time, but I want to go there and see for myself the type of people and place it is, then draw my own conclusions.
You can also learn more about Spanish Harlem by visiting our neighborhood page here.
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SOME OF HECTOR’S PHOTOGRAPHY: