I’ve moved to Harlem: 145th and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard to be precise.
Now, I’m from the Upper East Side, so Harlem is a cultural experience for me.
There are several signs that I don’t belong. Black cars keep pulling up beside me asking me if I need a ride downtown. Yesterday I stepped out of my apartment and took a moment to think about which grocery store I should go to buy my rice and I guess I looked bewildered. A large lady with a thick Jamaican accent stopped me and started telling me how to get to the subway, “You’ll be looking to get downtown, aren’t you honey? Just walk up straight. Don’t turn, don’t look to the side. Just walk straight.”
Just then another lady in a doo-rag came up and said, “What do you mean? The 145 street stop is right over there, it’s only a block!” She hit the only real hard, dragging out the “o.”
Jamaican lady: “Don’t confuse the girl, she’s just trying to get downtown.”
No I wasn’t. I was just trying to get something to cook up in my sweet new airbnb.com pad but I felt obligated to acknowledge the Jamaican lady’s kindness by faking that I was going up to 148th to take the subway. I thanked her and nodded like a foreigner and headed north a block then looped back on the other side of Colin Powell* Ave. to get to my apartment. When I looked across the street the doo-rag lady and the Jamaican lady were still arguing.
I didn’t mean to cause such a stink. But I keep doing things that make it clear that I do not belong here. It’s not just my white skin (although that’s possibly at the root of everything else). It’s my general manner. I am walking around with a leather briefcase, a passive, big smile and good posture. It’s the debutante mode I adopt on the streets and in select professional situations.
Now, I’m pretty sure the only people who read this blog are my friends, and none of you has ever been to Harlem. So let me lay it out for you a bit.
It’s just like the Upper East Side with a few key changes. Instead of Starbucks, they have churches. Hundreds of Churches. The Evangelical Lutherans are across the street from the Santa Theresa-ians and the Puerto-Rican Baptists share a wall with the Church of Blacker day Saints.**
Instead of nail places, they have pawn shops.
The BMW X5’s have rims.
The payphones are only 25 cents.
In a cruel joke, there are dozens of travel agents and tax advisors. I can only assume it was someone’s bright idea to train a bunch of people in these professions just before the advent of expedia.com and TurboTax.
There are 24-hour credit unions. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the American-fucking-dream. Credit at 4 am!
In Harlem, the avenues stop being numbers and get names of important African American figures. 8th avenue becomes Frederick Douglas Boulevard. 7th Avenue becomes Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. Malcolm X has the honor of Lenox Avenue from 116th to 125th street, which is for a quick stretch is dubbed Dr. Martin Luthor King. Thank God we haven’t bothered to honor these niche figures with anything more than northern fragments of lesser avenues. Otherwise people outside of Harlem might get wind of the important role these people played in our country’s history. Disaster.
What is shocking is that there are almost no bars. Where’s a nice girl like me supposed to get a whiskey soda? Is this a question of disposable income? Cultural differences? Land ordinances? Can a bar not to too close to a church and since there’s a church on every block, there can be no bars?
The signs of gentrification are there. First of all, there’s my presence. Then there’s the Starbucks on 145th street and one of those Duane-Reade-of-the-Future’s with a facade of space metal. There’s a financial literacy center. It seems to be moving west from Riverside and north from 125th street. But when you get to 127th and 7th, the wind changes; a hobo somersaults across your path: You are in ghetto. That means loitering. That means few women on the street. That means momma’s buying turkey tails in bulk at the grocery store.
I am hesitant to go beyond the snarky here and make broader characterizations about the culture of Harlem. First of all, I have been there exactly one week and I am hesitant to make the sort of surface evaluations that bloggers and white people like making about a new place. I come to Harlem with so much racial and socio-economic baggage that I can’t see anything other than the exotic and strange when I walk down the street and go into the grocery store. That says more about me than it does about the neighborhood. I carry my whiteness and my rich upbringing where ever I go, so that probably no matter how long I stay in Harlem, I’ll stay outside of it. I’ll stay Upper East Side. If my mother knew, she’d be so proud but I didn’t dare tell her my address. She thinks I live in the West Village.
I will say that the signs of gentrification seem primarily corporate- Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Bank of America, Chase, credit unions etc. Rather than focused on small businesses or alternative cultural spaces- y’know the kinds of stuff white people love to bring to sites of recent drug raids. The cultural needs, the public places where people can meet to do something more than buy things, are met exclusively by churches.
I’m for keeping Harlem Harlem. That’s why I’m making an effort to adopt the local dialect. I have a tendency to have an accent that is somewhat High-Fulootin’. Now that I live between Moma Janet’s Gumbo shop and the shop “What you been missin'” (I can’t tell what they sell. Fake hair? Real tutu’s?), I’m changing some of my key expressions.
|Where I once said…||I now say…|
|Guys, I’m stressed. Can we get some Pinkberry, please.||Shit. This mother fucker needs some Popeye’s.|
|Fuck God.||Lord Have mercy|
|That dumb whore…||She be the devil’s little sister.|
|I’m really into you.||I’m checkin’ it.|
|Half-caf, skim latte||Con leche y sucre, por favor.|
I’m happy to announce that whenever I say any of these things, everyone is offended, regardless of race.
It’s getting dark out. I’d better get home. My skin glows in the lights of the 24-hour credit union.
Coming soon: I’m checking out The Inspired Word NYC on Thursday for some literary shizz.
*It’s really Adam Clayton Powell. But I was confused for the first 5 days.
**This last one was the only name I invented.