March 28, 2011
You been to Harlem lately? Yo, son, uptown is upside down! I know things change, but this is crazy. It’s like I blinked and the whole neighborhood was different. The vibe of it, the tone, the attitude—the things that made Harlem Harlem-World were gone. The complexion of the ’hood changed, and you can read into that whatever you want.
Nah, I’m not gonna skirt the issue; I’m just gonna be straight up with it. I ain’t no racist or nothing like that, but why is gentrification of a neighborhood always synonymous with white-washing? Real talk, my dude. It’s like every time a neighborhood is supposedly made better or more upscale, it’s done for the benefit of white, upper-class Anglo-Saxon types, and usually at the social expense of the “indigenous populations” (translation: colored folks).
What was more upscale or more uplifting than Harlem during the time of its Renaissance? What was more fun than cake-walking, lindy-hopping, jitterbugging, shagging and doing the Charleston at the Savoy Ballroom, Cotton Club, or Small’s Paradise? Or taking in a show at the Apollo? According to the old heads ’round the way, it was live.
That’s when musicians like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie were banging, beating, strumming, plucking, and tickling out melodies and rhythms that set the tone for a revolution of pride. That’s when Bessie, Billie and soon Ella were singing a new song, or at least singing the old one in a new way. Back then Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen were telling tales, relaying rhymes, and scribing stories that exemplified and glorified our past and present, our pleasures and our pains. And then legends like James Baldwin, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis carried on the traditions.
Things took a turn for the worse, when narcotics hit the ’hood in a devastating way, but was this new way the only way to rid our streets of “street-side pharmaceuticals” and the illegal, low-level pharmacists that ply their trade a dime-bag at a time? Maybe we shoulda gone retro. Retro to the Renaissance. Back to a time when each street had a sense of community as opposed to corporate greed.
There’s a tower where my favorite bakery used to be, my dude. Straight cheese: Donald Trump’s power trumped the power of the locals. Man, that little mom & pop shop used to sell the best red-velvet cupcakes I ever tasted. Now there’s a luxury high-rise where the bakery, bodega, and shoe shop used to be. And you know “luxury” is just code for unaffordable to the people who’ve lived and worked in the area most of their lives.
There’s a whole new flava to the hood now, my dude—one that I can’t stomach. Speaking of flavor, I stopped by Sylvia’s restaurant. It was off the chain, son! And not in a good way. I mean, like, I’m all for attracting tourists and stuff, but damn, tours at Sylvia’s? That’s my word, son. I was at Sylvia’s—once the greatest soul food spot on the map—and there was a guided tour going on. I mean it was like a bunch of tables had been pulled together and there were all these foreign-looking types with foreign-sounding accents, and there was a white “tour guide” guiding them through a meal. She was like, “These are called collard greens. Yes, that’s right. Use your fork and take a taste. Note their pungent yet sweet taste. They are often served with corn bread. That’s the yellowish square in front of you. No, you don’t need to use your forks. It is customary to eat it with your hands.” Real talk, Hamm. I was like, “Have I fallen into a parallel universe?” It was bananas, yo! Who woulda thought that collard greens would ever be a delicacy?
Soon New York won’t be for native New Yorkers anymore. Don’t get me wrong, man. I’m not xenophobic; not racist; not intolerant. New faces are cool, but what happened to the old ones? Where they at? Relocated? Have they been moved to reservations or something? What happens to the indigenous population when the new settlers arrive? Historically, it hasn’t been good for the natives, yo! And don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. Remember what happened to the Native Americans when the pilgrims came? Or what about the Africans when colonists went there to “civilize” them?
I mean, it’s a good look and all—the new blood that’s being pumped into Harlem. I ain’t mad that where there used to be a liquor store on every corner, now there’s mad coffee houses and O.D. bistros. And I ain’t mad that there seems to be fewer abandoned and neglected buildings, or that I don’t see so many hand-to-hand sales right out in the open. I’m not even mad that there are now a whole lotta people who look nothing like me in what used to be my stomping grounds, my ’hood. No, I’m cool with that. At least there’s still two or three churches and a masjid on every block to be a stabilizing force in the community. But what kinda gets me tight is the fact that there seems to be a greater police presence now that there are more people living in the area who don’t look like me. Where was the police presence when the neighborhood was mostly brown? Do brown people deserve less protection? Is a crime against a brown person less criminal than a crime against a white person?
And tell me this: Why, when I was just walking down the street minding my own business, bumping H.O.V.A. on my headset, did these two white yuppie-looking dudes approach me and ask, “Hey, Bro, know where we can score some weed?” They had passed by a whole bunch of faces that looked just like theirs, but they came to me for a tour of the wild side. So, I’m like, boom, “Just ‘cause I’m a brother, I’m supposed to know where the drugs at?” And they was like, “Sorry, man. No harm intended.” What was worse, they bounced quick, like they thought I was gonna pull out on them or something, ’cause naturally every Black man is carrying. It was insulting, Hamm. Like they looked at me and instantly criminalized me—thought nothing of assuming that I knew about drugs and that I obviously had a concealed weapon. That’s just wrong. It’s like being made to feel like a criminal in your own home. Feel me?
I remember years and years ago a brother named Kirby bought a brownstone in Harlem. He and his wife got a deal on this real fixer-upper and planned to renovate it. Man, me and the crew laughed him to shame. We called him all kinda fools and suckers. I was like, “I don’t care if they was giving it away, why would you buy a house in this area?” Kirby’s the one laughing now. All the way to the bank. He told us back then, “It ain’t always gonna be like this. Things gonna change. All this property gonna be worth a lot soon.”
Who knew? Now I can’t even afford to live in Harlem. Even at Kirby’s! They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I sweat this new Harlem that seems to have sprung up overnight. Some say it’s progress. I say progress comes with a price.
A’ight, later Hamm. One.
Rodney Robinson is a writer who lived in Harlem (but now lives in the BX).