Glory days: a different perspective on neighborhood change in Harlem

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A few weeks ago an old-timer whom I’ll call Bill struck up a conversation with me on a bench outside a laundromat on 116th street. According to him, the neighborhood is “gone” and will never be the same.

It’s the type of comment you hear a lot these days in rapidly changing places like Harlem, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Oakland.

But Bill wasn’t talking about the new lux apartments and throngs of moneyed and increasingly white restaurant-goers on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. For Bill, the glory days ended definitively some 55 years ago.

In an exchange that began with some unsolicited advice on how to correctly hold my baby daughter, Bill revealed that he had spent the formative portion of his 73 years just a block from where we were sitting. The father of nine children, he had lived around the world as an adult and only recently returned to an apartment building on 116th. Continue reading

A spooky evening walk in Morningside Park (photos)

I just “developed” some photos from a walk I took in Morningside Park in late December. I think they do a good job of capturing the feeling of upper Manhattan parks, particularly in the off-season. They’re a tangled mass of leafless branches overhanging stones and hideouts and raccoon dens and shooting galleries that were better hidden in the summer’s foliage. There’s a bit of a sense of resignation to the grime of accumulated years of intense use by millions of people — despite the fact that New York parks are so drastically improved and better cared for these days.

Morningside Park is a particularly good spot to experience this feeling. For one thing, it’s one of the few places in Manhattan where the natural geography really overwhelms the human modifications to the landscape. (Other such places are St. Nicholas, Fort Tryon, Inwood and especially Highbridge Parks.) There’s an escarpment of schist here that prevented the area from being developed in the same way as its surroundings.  It also long served as the fortress-like barrier between Morningside Heights, where Columbia University is located, and central Harlem. This was part of the reason the 1968 protests over the proposed Columbia gym in the park were so energized — the design of the gym would have underlined this separation even more. When I moved to New York in 2007, Morningside Park still felt like a striking geographic barrier between the mostly black, poorer flatlands and the wealthy heights around Columbia. (That distinction has faded somewhat as this portion of Harlem has transformed into trendy, so-called SoHa.)

Walking through the park in early winter, you think of all the many visitors who have passed time in this little geographic anomaly over the last 140 years. My grandfather, for example, grew up across the street on Morningside Avenue and 122nd Street, and supposedly pitched his pup tent in the park for afternoons spent reading Peter Pan. Later, the park gained a reputation for danger, and in its shadows there is still something of the noirish menace of The Warriors’ Central Park fight scene. 

Various details lend the park an air of even deeper mystery: an indiscernible figure on a neglected stairway, a crevice between two flat stones on the castle-like wall that you can imagine leads to a secret passageway, a strange rustle and breaking of twigs somewhere behind a glacier-scoured boulder.

Layered on top of all that are the echoes of the shouts and music of barbecues of countless summers — in the years I’ve been here, people sit on the picnic benches from 8am every summer weekend to reserve spots for parties later in the day.

It all makes for an intriguing if melancholy walk, and a great place to ponder New York’s remarkably dense history of human lives.

Take a look at the rest of the photos below.  Continue reading

It’s here! From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring

Yesterday, May 1 was the official publication date for the volume I edited with Anya SchiffrinFrom Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring (also available on Kindle). I’m very excited about this collection of first-person accounts from protesters around the world — Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Greece, Spain, the UK, Chile, the United States. What I like about this book is that each protester speaks for her- or himself. Sure, the editors clearly think there’s some common thread to these disparate movements, but we haven’t forced a narrative where it doesn’t exist, and each essay stands alone as a little gem. It has a foreword by Jeffrey Sachs and an introduction by Joseph E. Stiglitz. (Full disclosure: I would very much like you to buy this book.)

It’s hard to say what comes next for the season of protest. Last night, I moderated a panel at Columbia about the humanitarian response to the Arab Spring. Beforehand, I asked people on Twitter and Facebook what I should ask the panelists. One comment, posted from the Middle East, that stood out in my mind:  “Ask them also if they know of anyone in the Arab world who calls it the ‘spring.’ I’d say there were very different interpretations of what’s happening right now, and maybe the term ‘spring’ needs to be changed. So far, I don’t see any blossoms.” I don’t share that person’s apparent pessimism — at least deeply — but it’s true that things are not going very well for a number of countries where there have been uprisings, revolutions, etc. Syria, where as many as 13,000 people have died in the last 16 months, is probably the most worrisome example. But the panelists last night, from the International Rescue Committee, Islamic Relief, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch also presented a daunting list of serious humanitarian and rights concerns that are plaguing the region, from basics like food and water access, to eroding security and the breakdown of the rule of law. Not to mention the continuing, and worsening in some cases, economic slump.

Nevertheless, it also seems clear to me that the global spring, whatever becomes of it, continues to have the potential to be the beginning of a new era of civic engagement. People everywhere will not soon forget the core lessons of Tunisia and Tahrir: that mass action can affect change, and that people will demand change for the sake of dignity. At Union Square in NYC yesterday, as thousands of people kicked off the spring protest season with the latest iteration of the Occupy spirit, I saw that the energy and purpose of this season are very much alive.

Some believe in Jesus, some believe in Allah…

Update: on the morning of 5/2 I woke to news of a terrifying attempted attack on Times Square. Whatever aesthetic criticisms I have of the place, I love the people who enjoy it and I’m disgusted and a little scared by the attempt. I thought of deleting this post out of respect, but instead I’m choosing to keep it – while adding this important paragraph.

The Egyptians left us the pyramids. The Romans, well… Rome.

Every time I go to Times Square (which is pretty darn infrequently), I think: This is what our civilization will leave for the ages.

To say I don’t feel particularly proud would be an understatement. Other civilizations worshiped gods and stuff. We worship … buying.

Here’s a sight from last night that I thought was especially salient in illustrating the rather pitiful combination of things our country sometimes stands for: a long chain of NYPD cars with flashing lights (show of force) parked beneath a preposterous array of energy-guzzling advertisements. Brute strength and consumption. Brilliant.

Had me thinking that maybe DJ Quik should’ve written our national anthem: “Some believe in Jesus, some believe in Allah, but riders like me believe in making dollars.”


Music Break: “They Love K’naan in the Slums and in the Native Reservations”

I can’t wait until January. That’s when Somali-Canadian artist K’naan’s new album, Troubadour, drops. I haven’t been so excited by an album since Outkast came out with Aquemini in 1998. And this one is better.

I first saw K’naan in early September at Le Poisson Rouge in the village, and I’ve been hooked since. At that show, Mos Def appeared in the crowd at one point, and got on stage to perform this number with K’naan.

When Mos Def endorses something in the music world, you should probably pay attention. That night, K’naan had all of us not only paying attention but also singing along with the anthems he unleashed.

The other day, I finally had the chance to get a sneak preview of Troubador at the house of a friend who had a hook-up.  I was blown away. It’s a soulful, rousing, thought-provoking, witty and moving hour of classic joints. Dare I say it? OK, I will: Grammy 2010. If K’naan gets the kind of publicity he deserves, this will be a game-changing album, in a time when everyone is going back to the one-off single model on iTunes.

To understand the significance of K’naan’s music, you need to know a bit about his life story. Born in 1978, he grew up in Somalia and left on the last commercial flight out of Mogadishu in 1991, before the civil war descended into total chaos. In much of his music, he talks about the deaths of friends, violence and deprivation that characterized his youth. During that time, he listened to American rap music, memorizing lyrics before he knew what they meant. He’s been pursuing that passion ever since arriving in North America.

The pain and beauty of K’naan’s homeland resonate in all his music. In some songs, he samples old Ethiopian melodies, drops hip hop beats on them, weaves anti-violence rhymes through them, and links them with addictive, heart-tugging choruses. In the song “Somalia” — from which the title of this blog post comes — he sings:

What you know about the pirates terrorize the ocean?
To never know a single day without a big commotion
It can’t be healthy just to live with such a steep emotion
And when I try to sleep, I see coffins closin’

(You can download that song for free on K’naan’s MySpace page)

K’naan obviously listens to a lot of music. His flow most closely resembles Eminem’s. But elsewhere, like when he says I take inspiration from the most heinous of situations/Creatin’ medication from my own tribulations on “Take a Minute”, he sounds just like 2Pac. And when he speaks at the end of the same song, he sounds like Mos Def: “Nothin’ is perfect man, that’s what the world is, all I know is, I’m enjoying today. Cuz it ain’t every day that you get to give.” Elsewhere, he sounds like John Lennon: I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

His subject matter is a long, refreshing drink of water in the desert of still-bling-obsessed, violence-celebrating mainstream rap. K’naan talks about family, the virtues of generosity, the immigrant experience, the scars of war and — in one of the best songs, “Fifteen Minutes Away” — the simple pleasure of a wire transfer back home. He can afford to laugh at gangster-posturing American rappers because, he sings, he has lived a ghetto harder than anything they can talk about. The song “Strugglin'” from his excellent first album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, showcases classic K’naan content, and his fusion of folk melodies with Hip Hop:

In the most moving song of all (and there are many on Troubador), a tune called “People Like Me,” K’naan sings a verse that I wish would come to define a new era in Hip Hop. In the first verse, a first-person poem reminiscent of Eminem’s “Stan”, but with more of an advocacy angle, K’naan takes on the voice of a soldier in Iraq. I made my friend let me write down the whole verse, and I’ll leave you with that:

Is it fair to say that I am stressing out?
I’m stationed in Iraq and they won’t let me out
My homie said I was stupid for even joining
My counselor said my decision was “disappointing”
Oh she had good slates (?) at state colleges
And with my good grades it wouldn’t have been a problem
But they don’t understand just the power of significance
More than brilliance and certainly more than dividends
And if you ask me now, Would I repeat it?
Would I fight in a war I don’t believe in?
Well the answer is, it’s not me where the cancer is
They’ve been doin’ this before Jesus of Nazareth
And after all this time it is still deadly hazardous
And Bush isn’t really bein’ all that inaccurate
When he says we winnin’ the war, ‘cuz it’s staggerin’
But that’s ‘cuz we’re killin’ everybody that we see
And most of us soldiers we can barely fall asleep
And time and time again, I’m feelin’ incompetent
‘Cuz my woman back home, we constantly arguin’
And I must be crazy, ‘cuz all I’m obsessin’ with
Is her MySpace and Facebook, and who’s commentin’
Swear to God if she’s cheatin’ I’m doin her ass in!

I could tell with one look
And it came to me, soundin’ somethin’ like a song hook:

Heaven, is there a chance that you could come down
And open doors to hurting people like me…

Election Night in Harlem

I am very sorry I missed it. My friend John put together this clip.

I was in the laundromat two days ago on Malcom X and 117th and overheard a middle aged woman talking to an older man.

“I go to work in the morning and I look at my boss and just smile,” she said with a laugh. “We’re ready for Barack Obama. I’m more ready for Obama than I’m ready for myself.”

New York City Mexican Food Challenge: Any Tips?

There’s a place on 16th Street between Valencia and Guerrero in San Francisco where you can get one, delicious soft-sided taco for $2.95. It comes with fresh salsa, grilled chicken, onions, radishes — and a heaping portion of homemade tortilla chips. Get two of those babies and an horchata, and you are good to go for the night.

Every hood in San Francisco has its own taqueria highlight, especially the Mission, Outer Mission, Excelsior and Bernal Heights. I grew up taking them for granted.

No more. After a year in New York, I have not been to a really good Mexican or Central American restaurant in the city that supposedly has everything.  (I have been to some pretty terrible ones. Think the Amsterdam Chevy’s, if that exists. I found a place like that on Flatbush.)

On Saturday night I made the mistake of getting hopeful. I was on Houston and went to a little joint named El Paso. The owners made an effort to have a nice classy feel, and the waiters wore ties tucked into their shirts above little aprons. Prices were commensurate with the location and ambiance. They were not, unfortunately, commensurate with the food: cheesy and lacking spice. The salsa looked like bean soup. The meal was preceded by a salad (?) of iceberg lettuce with “Italian” dressing.

Then I realized: There is a taqueria in a car wash in San Francisco that serves better Mexican food than the best Mexican restaurant I have been to in New York City. I’m talking about Bayshore and Army/César Chávez right there at the intersection of Bernal, Bayview, Mission and Potrero.

What’s the deal, people? New Yorkers say I’m hating. There’s a taco truck in Queens that does it right, they say. I don’t know, but I think a taco that takes an hour to get to doesn’t count. Does that mean there’s nothing in the island of Manhattan?

I invite my ten regular readers to submit some suggestions, because I’m at a loss. And please don’t recommend the spot on Amsterdam and 108th. It’s close, but I’m looking for the real thing. I’ll privilege suggestions from Californians living in NYC.