Just visiting

This has stayed with me over the last week or two. I went to visit Jamie who is living with a friend in Harlem for the summer. This part of Harlem, north of the park around 125th, started to be gentrified in earnest over the last five years. It’s easy to see this in terms of events: Bill Clinton moved his offices nearby, recently one of the Bush daughters requested to teach at a local public school, the Times runs articles on hot new bars nearby. It’s also evident in the fabric of the neighborhoods, in the mix of the new construction and the buildings clearly about to be picked up as bargains and “turned.” When you get off the 125th subway stop, it is still a largely African-American crowd, but interspersed with a lot of apparently young professional white folks.

When I left our newly constructed apartment building one morning, an African-American man walking by said we needed a doorman for that building. Why didn’t we have a doorman? He could call cabs, the whole bit. We should get together and set him up as a private contractor. He was kidding, kind of.

Later in the week, we went for a slice before heading back to our place. Walking along Frederick Douglass Boulevard well past sunset, an African-American in his early 20s crossed in front of us and said “Don’t you know this is Harlem? I think this is Harlem. What are you white folk doing up here? This used to be Harlem,” or words to that effect. As he passed he said he was “only playin’,” and his tone made it clear that he was. But it wasn’t hard to imagine he was joking only serious.

This part of Harlem is changing amazingly rapidly as costs for housing in the city go through the roof. The average apartment in Manhattan went for over $900K last year. And so those who work in the city are on the hunt for the “next new place.” While everyone guesses at where the next mini-boom will be (Flower District? Red Hook?) there is no question that Harlem is already there. And those renting apartments aren’t shy about it. The thing is, the new developments and inhabitants tend to strip the place of its local culture. I don’t think it is all bad: many of the new developments, including where Jamie is living, are really very nice. But there is a strange clash of the new and the old, and of the new and the old residents, that is hard to work out. This doesn’t divide cleanly along race lines, but race clearly plays a very visible role. How could it not: just the word Harlem immediately brings forth images of a long and illustrious history — an African-American history. It’s not unusual to see a white face in Harlem these days, but when I did, I wondered if they lived there, and if so how long. Perhaps this was racist of me — in fact, I’m sure it was — but I also wonder what thoughts went through the mind of those who had lived in the area for decades, who were attached to the place and its memories. One the one hand, I’m sure some like the idea of a rejuvenated area, of new opportunities and changes. And at the same time, it seems as though these new changes don’t quite fit with the spirit of the place. But what do I know — I was just visiting.

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