Learning to Live New York

I was walking home about 11pm on 123rd Street near St. Nicholas. I passed the little jazz bar on the corner. It was about half full, and a live band’s melodies murmured out. People were having drinks and talking; the night was cool.

A spontaneous smile grew on my face, even though I wasn’t a part of the scene, and couldn’t be, because I had to hurry home and read for class.

For me, that’s learning to live New York City: appreciating and being aware of everything that is going on around you, without feeling you are missing out.

It’s impossible to partake in everything this city has to offer. So I try to savor the aroma of its little blossoms even if I can’t possibly pick them all.

Ramadan in My Neck of the Woods

The muezzin’s call rises above the tenements in the deepening dusk. The crowds of faithful hurry to wash, pray and then, finally, to break their fast. The days have been long and warm this Ramadan, but work must continue as usual in this city where a day’s rest from the hustle can mean no food at all.

Nope, this is not a nostalgic Beirut or Damascus flashback. I’m talking about my new place near 117th and Adam Clayton Powell in the heart of Harlem. Around the corner is what must be one of the most vibrant Senegalese neighborhoods in the United States. It’s so dominated by Senegalese culture that Bambara and French are the languages that murmur from the stoops in the night, and men and women often wear their African clothes to hang out in.

My grandfather grew up around here, and used to camp out in Morningside Park with his copy of Peter Pan. I try to imagine that, and think it’s strange and wonderful that the neighborhood has changed so much since then, and I want to find out how it all went down.

Until then, I’ll enjoy the call to prayer. And the immense, $12 plates of lamb and couscous on 116th Street.

NYC: It’s a Family Affair

Dear New Yorkers: You’re lookin’ good.

Since I came back to NYC, it’s been about 75 degrees every day with light humidity and clear skies. Everyone looks in particularly good health. The trees are riotously green, though starting to look a little on the wilted side, it being the end of the summer and all. Compared to Beirut, things feel quiet, and smooth-running.

I went down to a park on a pier near Chelsea piers today, sunbathed and people-watched. (That’s the view above, thanks to Llima, who licensed her work on Creativecommons.org; I neglected to take a picture.) I put on my headphones and listened to Sly and the Family Stone sing “It’s a Family Affair” as three New York kids to my left argued over whether the very real grass was fake or not.

And I have to say, with me and NYC, it is now a family affair. Thanks for having me back, city.

Gentrification: Same Story from Harlem to the Bay

When I was walking a friend home in Harlem near 118th and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in May, a mumbling, stumbling man crossed our path. I caught a few of his words.

“Back in the day, a white person would get robbed at this hour in Harlem,” he said, among other things. (I’m white; my friend is a black grad student; the man was black.)

I was annoyed on a personal level, but I did not feel surprised or wronged. I can hardly blame people in the neighborhood for feeling more than a little uneasy about the incredibly rapid changes that are happening in Harlem, especially south of 125th Street. Harlem has long been the capital of Black America and a beacon of culture in America’s most repressive times, even though it has also seen (so I read) its own ups and downs. And suddenly, it is becoming full of chain stores and upscale cafes full of outsiders.

I thought of the mumbling man when I read about “root shock” in Harlem in this article in the Times. One of the most startling things in this article is one longtime Harlem resident’s claim that he was happy that shootings happened in May, because it would at least scare off the newcomers.

I got to thinking: A big part of the problem is not only that the neighborhood is becoming more expensive or that new people are moving there, but also the insensitivity of some of the people who are gentrifying. (As a white grad student, I’m one of those people, whether I like it or not, though I am trying not to be so insensitive.)

Rather than adjusting to the neighborhood and accepting the existing stores and institutions, people want to bring what they are comfortable with to the new environment and keep Harlem’s African American culture as a sort of decoration on the top of their routine of wine-bar- and Starbucks-patronizing.

It’s like, if you move to Harlem, fine, but can you not walk your poodle while chatting on your cell phone and sipping Starbucks and throwing all the symbols of your white, outsider power and oblivion into everyone’s face?

I think sentiments like those of the guy who said he was happy there were shootings actually come, in part, from people living through Harlem’s most hopeless days, and knowing all the pain and struggles and strength it took to stay in the neighborhood when crack cocaine was at its peak, and then seeing that history erased and other people building their fantasies of cheaper good living on the ruins of that. (Here’s a great video clip on about the same subject.)

I’m not sure people who live through gentrification and hate it — and that includes me in my native Bernal Heights, San Francisco — really know what they want or how they can stop big changes, in the context of a capitalist society.

But I am sure that if the neighborhood was being changed in a way that respected what was already there and had some continuity with the past, the anxiety people felt would not be so acute.

Prospect Park Thunderstorm

Two friends and I chilled yesterday on the big rolling green of Prospect Park near Grand Army Plaza. The day was sunny and warm, with an increasing sheen of clouds that made the quality of light like that softened sun that happens during a California wildfire.

We sat on the grass and looked at the scene of mixed groups of people — I love Brooklyn for its diversity — picnicking, playing footie and volleyball and enjoying each other’s company. It looked like a tableau from that crappy kid’s magazine High Life, which we grew up on. I mentioned that, and we laughed, but it made it a little sentimental, because the scene was indeed picture-book perfect.

The green trees were seething all around with sap and leaves — all the longing for energy stored up during the hungry winter. The clouds closed in and long rich thunder began to rumble from distant corners. Finally the skies opened and flashed. We ran back to the Grand Army Plaza station — I had to go back to Manhattan and the two SF natives I was with, to Crown Heights. Lightening exploded in front of us on the plaza, near the arch and the fountain. Rain soaked us to the bone.

It was wonderful.