Sunday, March 14, 2010

Growin' up in Spanish Harlem, she livin' her life just like a movie star

...Maybe not JUST like a movie star.

Recently I was looking on Wikipedia at the synopsis for Precious, which takes place in Harlem. As happens so often on Wikipedia, I of course clicked through to the Harlem article. And then to the Spanish Harlem article. And then, somehow, I found myself reading about gentrification and gangs in Spanish Harlem, which is to say, about gentrification and gangs in my neighborhood.

In October, shortly before we signed the lease on this place, my parents and I got into an argument about the neighborhood. They believed, and not without reason, that this was NOT a place that four single white females should move. I believed, and not without reason, that this was a neighborhood where four poor college students could live in a gorgeous, gigantic apartment, sacrificing only the comforts of living (almost) walking distance from campus, and a liiiiiittle bit of personal safety. But hey, this is New York, right?

As so often happens in situations like this, my parents and I were both sort of right. With reason, I more acutely fear being thrown up on or peed on by a drunk person than any other form of intrusion on my personal space or security. I have grown accustomed to the "hey ma"'s and "God bless you, beautiful"s and "DAMNs" and any other manner of generally inappropriate commentary that follow me on my way to the subway or anywhere in the neighborhood. [Note to men everywhere: Seriously? You really think I'm going to respond to this? Someone has to explain the cat calling phenomenon to me one day.] I walk a little faster and with more purpose at night alone, but I'd never really posit that I feel unsafe.

When we first moved up here, we came up with a little song on the subway. Picture it like Avenue Q - essentially a children's song, except sort of offensive: "One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn't belong - it's me!" And frankly, Harlem is one of the most homogenous communities I've ever lived in. My roommates and I in large part literally do represent the diversity in the neighborhood, especially five months ago when we moved in. I point this out because I've been lucky enough in my life to live in communities where I was never singled out for being different, where I was never treated differently because of the color of my skin and hair. To be clear, this is very much not my indication that I'm shocked that this happens to people, but it happens to be the case that where I've lived, it's not happened to me. And why? Let's be real, that part is obvious. Call it white privilege, call it evidence to a still-racial America, or call it simple naiveté on my part, but I was surprised to suddenly become different, and frankly surprised I subsequently became someone to dislike pretty much on instinct.

There are, of course, years and years of racial and cultural and socioeconomic politics to contend with in this neighborhood that have nothing to do with me personally, and my "kind" - white twentysomething college students - pretty much represent all the evils of gentrification and so it's not necessarily surprising to overhear someone saying, "White girls movin' up here thinkin' they doin' everybody some big damn favor."And I don't mean to overstate; nobody's giving us trouble or starting shit with us, and it's nothing, nooooothing like what I'm sure most people who haven't grown up basically white and middle class haven't experienced their entire lives. But I can't pretend it's not a strange thing to contend with, and you do notice when someone will open a door for your neighbor and not you, will cut you in line, will make the aforementioned comments about you, will refer to you as "damn I love white girls" or "snowflake" or "white tiger." (No seriously, white tiger. Okay, actually that one was kind of hilarious.)

I said I feel safe in my neighborhood, but a pretty important qualification is that I feel safe in my neighborhood in so much as I'm on Lexington Avenue - which, for those unfamiliar with hood geography, is where the subway is and where four very short blocks to the south my apartment building is. Generally anywhere in New York, avenues are more crowded and well peopled than streets - avenues have more commercial business, streets more houses. This is particularly true up here, and then of course breaks down by which avenues are safer than others. One block to the east, 3rd, is quite gentrified, I'd reason that it's moreso than Lex. One block to the west, Park, despite having the precinct, has mostly projects for about 8 blocks. The streets between the avenues begin to feature more of the traditional harbingers of a "bad" neighborhood - empty lots, abandoned apartments, no people, burned out street lights.

But because 1) most of my daily business takes me downtown and out of the neighborhood altogether or 2) over to 3rd in the day light hours/in a group, I don't really think about it or notice it. When you look up crime stats in this neighborhood, besides the NYPD's website and NYMagazine's crime-stats map, you basically get linked to message boards where people debate the relative merits of many NYC neighborhoods. They're generally informative, but there's always one person maintaining that people are stuck in a 70s/80s/90s perception of Harlem and that it's super gentrified and totally live-able up here now, and one person maintaining that you're going to get shot or mugged for crack as soon as looked at up here. What're we learning, kids? Obviously neither of these things are true. Nonetheless, sometimes I forget and must consider that I don't, in fact, live in a traditionally thought good/safe neighborhood and one that most lower-Manhattanites, New Yorkers, and people in general would not choose to visit. Kinda weird.

Given the choice, would I pick this apartment and make the same case and get in the same fight again? Yes. Yes I would. Would I have liked to know what I know now about the public drunkenness at ALL hours and the cat calling and the garbage and the prejudice? Yes. Yes I would. I am, in fact, growing up in Spanish Harlem - I have allllll kinds of problems with the neighborhood and recognize that actually yes, there definitely is gang-activity and drug-dealing and high(er) crime here as well, but I find myself slowly but surely becoming one of the Harlem defenders. Or at least that it's nowhere near as bad as you think hearing "Harlem" and isn't, in fact, basically a third world country. It's totally livable, and you're actually getting what you pay for up here, which is to say the kind of space one deserves paying Manhattan's exorbitant rents. You just have to be willing to make some compromises, and to come a little more into contact with the realities of living in a big city.

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