JACKSON HEIGHTS by Berjean Encarnacion

“Do you guys wanna go now?” I asked, even though I know that it was decided that we’d head over to Jackson Heights right when fifth period was over. I do that sometimes, just ask a question I know the answer- my friends know that too, they know not to answer sometimes cause I do it a lot. Nell gave a unconscious “yes” as did Samsang. We walked out the school building into the semi-cold air, crisp on my tongue since my nose was a little stuffy. The train station wasn’t crowded, most of our classmates went different places, so we didn’t really bump into anyone. The E came right away, I felt that familiar whoosh I feel when a train passes by me and has yet to stop. The train ride was fairly quiet; the train itself was empty so we didn’t seat so close to one another but we did sit on the same bench, the silence filling the spaces in between us.

“So how are you guys?” Nell asked, which is like her to wonder about people and try not to make situations awkward (a reason to love her). I replied with how my day was yesterday, and this morning. Samsang didn’t answer, I guess maybe she didn’t hear the question since I was in the middle.

This is Jackson Heights, Roosevelt Avenue the lady in the speakers said. I remembered how quick I thought the ride was. When we stepped out onto the station, there was glass everywhere when you looked up, and when I walked out of the station I made note of how much it reminded me of an airport pick-up station. People were waiting outside for the Q33. Then, in front of those people, on the other side, more people were waiting at a stop for the other bus (I think the Q40).

We walked to an Indian Buffet. While we were walking, all I heard were snippets of people’s conversations in different languages- so many cultures all around me. I was walking slow and everyone was rushing to get somewhere; the words exchanged between whoever was having conversations were flying faster than their feet.

I couldn’t understand anything.

There were only melodies and rhythms.

I felt close to them because for them this was a safe haven of familiar places just like how predominantly Latino places (Washington Heights, The Bronx, LES) are a safe haven for me in this predominantly White nation. I felt connected- I understood them on a basic level for what it means to belong somewhere and be happy with that feeling. We got to the place and spent most of our time eating and chatting. The foods we ate were not new to me, but weren’t of my culture, which means it’s not something I eat all the times. My Aunt Clara, loves Indian food so I’ve eaten this before- tandoori chicken, masala, naan. It was all so good–spices jumping on every part of my mouth demanding to be heard. The flavors weren’t overwhelming, it gave me the same feeling I felt when it came to walking through all the voices on the streets. The walk for me, although we may not have walked to many places, was relaxing. I opened my ears to new sounds, and my tastebuds to old tastes.

The Night I Kissed Keith Haring- Alice Westerman

We are standing in the air of a New York heat wave, on the corner of 11th street and Greenwich Avenue. We are below 14th street, where the streets get small and quiet, where they start having names and going every which way. We stand at the edge of the AIDS Memorial Park, a small triangle of New York real estate just recently dedicated in December of 2016 to the city’s AIDS victims. The triangle shape of the park and memorial is purposeful to AIDS activism– a symbol of gay pride reclaimed from Nazi Germany.

Rob is standing across from me, with his bike between us. His glasses are so thick I wonder how he can see in the morning before he puts them on. He wears a gray baseball cap and a blue button down shirt. Around his waist is a neon green sweatshirt, probably a protective measure against cars, but in this 90 degree heat wave, it is useless. He walks his bike between us for the duration of the walk.

Across the street is a large benign building that I have seen a million times walking down Eighth Avenue, past where my dad works, and to friends’ houses and small diners in the East Village. Rob tells me that this building was St. Vincent’s Hospital, the hospital where many gay men were admitted with AIDS in the 1980s. I remember the name of the hospital from my exploration into the early days of AIDS in New York. St. Vincent’s went bankrupt in 2010 and was bought by a developer to turn into housing. But, by the late 80s, it was the epicenter of the AIDS crisis in New York, and one third of the patients admitted to the hospital were for AIDS or AIDS related causes. Unlike other hospitals, St. Vincent’s had the bravery to confront AIDS.  I absorb the information, and I try to picture what he is telling me. I recall that a hospital on my block, Cabrini, where I had surgery on my toe when I was two years old was also bought by a developer, and I wonder who would want to live in a former hospital.

In its heyday, the hospital was a place of protest. Rob describes his involvement with an organization called ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which is a direct action activism group that was very important in the late 80s in drawing attention to those with living and dying with AIDS. ACT UP advocated for getting experimental drugs to those with AIDS, and they fought for accessibility and lower drug prices. Rob was a member from the late 80s to early 90s, and he tells me that he felt like an outsider because of his HIV-negative status. ACT UP was a powerful force, often using shock and disruption methods to get the government’s attention.

He recounts one moment for me that took place outside of St. Vincent’s:

“We were at the gay and lesbian center on 13th street, when we heard of a patient who was refused care or something, I’m not really sure. But we mobilized instantly and staged a kiss-in in front of St. Vincent’s hospital. There were two circles,” he gestures with his hands, showing me the concentric circle set up of the protest.  He continues, “the people on the outer circle would kiss the people on the inner circle. The gays loved it. We had so much fun. Anyway, that was the night I kissed Keith Haring.”

 

It Was Heaven, Now It Is Like Hell, by Ava Ciosek

It Was Heaven, Now It Is Like Hell

May 9, 2017

Dispatch: An Introduction

At the end of a long, sunny day of observation, a slightly disappointed, ambitious teenager spots a small cafe: The Malcolm X Cafe.  Inside, colorful signs crowded the window’s edges. She walks in, ready for a good coffee and some time to read her new James Baldwin book, Another Country.

 

There was some confusion about table cleaning clarified before she sat down and ordered an iced coffee with almond milk. The coffee was utterly terrible.  It tasted of grounds too long used and watered down. As she absorbed herself in Harlem tales of late 1920s racism and love lost, her ears occasionally drifted to the table next to her:  two women intently discussed the state of their children, the future, their families. Being the eavesdropper that she was, the girl listened to their conversation for quite a while, always interested in what others had to say.

 

As if the women had read her mind, one of the two peeked over at her, “Which one are you reading?”

 

Encounter

I responded: “Sorry?”

The woman explained, “I see you are reading Baldwin, which one is it?”

“Oh yeah, Another Country, it’s for a school project.”

“What a perfect place to read it!”

 

I discussed what the project was about, how I was attempting to immerse myself in Harlem and its culture and history, as well as how gentrification has impacted the area. The women were impressed with my endeavor, inquiring about where I went to school. We introduced ourselves, they explained that they were cousins, the woman who first spoke to me was Aariane Punter, a Harlem Community B0ard Member and the other was Sheryl (I did not catch her last name) a professor.

 

They began discussing family history and the history of the neighborhood itself, to answer my question “how did you get to Harlem?” We started off talking generally, they mentioned how the Bronx is known for imitating Harlem, and how there was a difference between living in Harlem and living in the Bronx but hanging out in Harlem, as was the case with Sheryl. They chuckled as memories and nostalgia were brought to the surface.

 

Moving into more serious inquiries, their family history came up again. Sheryl mentioned her father took pride in saying that he was from Sugar Hill and Aariane described how her large family moved from Virginia to Queens to Harlem. I asked what their favorite part of Harlem was, and they nearly spoke over each other with passion about the subject. Sheryl mentioned summer nights, being the quieter of the two. Aariane filled in with the mention of history within the neighborhood, how this creates a certain kind of atmosphere found nowhere else.

 

Gentrification, Aariane said, “for lack of a better word, white-washes the culture” found in Harlem. They talked about how Harlem became a black epicenter. Blacks fled from the south to a place with the highest mobility: there are trains everywhere and bridges to New Jersey and other boroughs, with a kind of isolated economy that formed from the black-majority neighborhood. Aariane reflected on her own questions to her grandmother about Harlem saying, “I used to ask the same questions as you, and one thing my grandmother said, keep in mind this was the 90s, was ‘it used to be like heaven, now it is like hell.”

 

Their food came and I offered to leave them to their meal, but they insisted on continuing the interview. Sheryl mentioned menus as a core indicator of the change in Harlem was menues.  Aariane laughed, pointing at her panini and salad, saying, “It went from chicken and waffles to salad and paninis!” We laughed good at that one.  I reflected on how I myself was trying to understand what is going on in Harlem and how I could not ever imagine a destruction of culture so monumentally important to me and my community. Sheryl said, to the menu point, “There used to be candied yams, high starch, high sugar, any of that is gone now.” This caught me, at first, by surprise but then made essential sense to the problem of gentrification. What we eat is essential to how we live, the core of many cultures. Without markers of food, where does the culture go?

 

As they ate a quite delicious-looking panini and sweet potato fries, my quiet jealousy never impaired my interviewing. They began recounting the beginnings of gentrification in Harlem. “The body shop on 5th, that was the first one,” Sheryl explained, “all new and nothing around here was like that, high-tech or anything, and that was back in 1990.” Aariane added, “The Starbucks over there on 125th was a real clear sign because we didn’t have any chains either.” As they explained the geography of the gentrification, Aariane detailed the different avenue names up in Harlem. Frederick Douglass is 8th, Adam Clayton Powell is 7th, and Malcolm X is 6th or Lenox. She said, “You can remember them because of the generations: Douglass first, Powell later, and Malcolm being the youngest.”

 

One of the last anecdotes in this encounter was about the Greater Harlem Nursing Home. Sheryl mentioned that it was the first privately black-owned nursing home, and if you were put there, you knew you were in good care. Aariane said her great aunt, Ida Williams, is in this nursing home, a poet who was writing at the bitter end of the Harlem Renaissance and into the age of Harlem fashion, thriving of black culture in the Counterculture Movement of the 1960s. I hope to follow up on their offer.

 

This experience truly has shown me the significance of slowing down. Through taking my book, which I was hesitant to at home, to the walk and then choosing to not leave after the check-in on Google Classroom but instead to go into a cafe and stay even though the coffee was horrendous, I was able to have an invaluable experience. I searched for this experience in my other walk and throughout this one, and have arguably since being involved with social justice. I would not have done any of it if I was not slowing down to observe and engage with what was around me.

 

And to top it all off, the ladies were taking a break from a Paul Ryan protest taking place that afternoon. I guess I have found my people in Harlem.

 

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