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?”
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.