It is Memorial Day weekend 2016, and I have consecrated three days to writing in my room, happily sequestered in the apartment, emerging at dawn to grab a cinnamon roll warmed by microwave from the immaculate Broadway Finest Deli at 149th and Broadway; staying in the cave during the welcome but blazing hours of 87 degree sunshine; then coming out at the magical hour of 6pm, to sit, smoke, and watch the street on the bench on the traffic island just in front of Broadway Finest. The sun is in abeyance but not yet down as I run into some thirty people, whom I know as neighbors, friends or acquaintances. All are beautiful in their extreme individuality (I won’t employ the overused word “diversity”, although it applies). For a moment, I reimagine this bustling, sunstroked stretch of Broadway as a beach, one with a boardwalk broad enough for multitudes.
The particular trio of streets I know best--148th & Broadway through 150th--is an enclave of longtime African-American residents, the intergenerational backbone of a community which includes many artists, photographers, writers and musicians. This small stretch of historic Hamilton Heights is also held down by a Dominican populace, their extended families an armature against gentrification. Through this sturdy demographic runs a skein of white people with a modicum or more of tenure--mostly single, some young, others middle-aged--arrivistes like me, who landed here, not to harvest brownstones, but to live humbly in shared accommodation. Straitened veterans of divorce, dispossession and other misadventures, our tenancy is conditioned on blending in; behaving ourselves rather than putting on airs. We are here to reclaim our own lives, not the habitats of others.
The pleasant small cafes and bars springing up, manned by white hipsters, are harmless in themselves. But they augur, always, a creeping corporate culture which sees in charming homesteads a chance to profit. Already there is on 148th and Broadway a glossy new residential building erected by Columbia University. These apparitions, independent and corporate alike, cater to the recent huge influx of Columbia students driving up rents.
Today I read with dismay a New York Times article** about the uprooting by real estate forces of black lives in Harlem, by Michael Henry Adams, historian of Harlem’s great artists and houses. I first encountered Adams’ writing in the late 1990s, when I was Decorative Arts Editor of the former nest magazine, for which he wrote a piece about Harlem interiors. At that time in my life I was aware only of the aesthetics of housing, not its politics.
Adams quotes Valerie Jo Bradley, a founder of the preservationist group, Save Harlem Now!: “Everywhere I travel in the U.S. and even in Brixton, in London, a place as culturally vibrant as Harlem, wherever people of color live, we and the landmarks that embody our presence, unprotected, piece by piece, are being replaced.”
Adams himself remarks, “To us, our Harlem is being remade, upgraded and transformed, just for them, for wealthier white people...There is something about black neighborhoods, or at least poor black neighborhoods, that seem to make them irresistible to gentrification.”
Exactly. It is the very charisma of “culturally vibrant” neighborhoods which is so alluring to wealthy urban adventurers in the first place, who then proceed to neuter their new ‘hood with branches of Starbucks and Whole Foods. (The latter’s brand, 365, is an exorbitant, flavorless monopoly, not one whit healthier than the stuff at C-Town.)
Dare I say it--and it will inflame everyone, rich or poor, black or white: low-income neighborhoods are simply more fun, certainly more friendly. I lived for twenty-odd years in a brownstone apartment on West 84th between Riverside and West End, and rarely had truck with my chilly neighbors, busy Having it All. Not to be outdone, I was a snotty self-absorbed Bohemian, whose social life was determinedly “downtown”. Human contact was always elsewhere.
Harlem, in contrast, is a place where familiarity breeds esteem. Surprising affinities are uncovered, not least because many of us who are here are not yet removed from need, and this includes the emotional need for other people, not just money or status. A friend who had been in a shelter once told me never to fear living in one: “You’ll meet your best friends in a shelter.” When you don’t have it all, there is more incentive to share, and, perhaps, even, to organize.
Today I set out to write about the promenade of people on Broadway, not gentrification. But for those of us whose foothold here is fragile, the shifting sand of Harlem is always on our minds. As we savor the still simple pleasures of our neighborhood this Memorial Day--sitting on a bench watching the street, meeting friends by the bodega, holding a cookout in Riverside Park--we fear we abide in Harlem on borrowed time.
*A NOTE ON THE PAINTINGS OF CARL KARNI-BAIN
"The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only within the falling of the dusk.” --Hegel, Philosophy of Right
Carl Karni-Bain’s paintings present us with an alluring mirror of mythology we gaze into through spectral layers of oil crayon and paint. His painterly nebulae are like the mists of time, veiling figures, mostly female, who seem both remote from us and near.
The first painting by Carl I saw was of a woman with an owl on her shoulder, and immediately I thought of Athena--Minerva to the Romans-- my favorite goddess, whose emblem and familiar, the owl, symbolizes her wisdom.
Carl’s images, seen in the context of the evanescent Harlem in which he lives and creates, remind us of Hegel’s dictum, quoted above: that wisdom appears only retrospectively, when it’s too late to use it to change anything. But in the case of the encroaching gentrification of Harlem, I have faith that the wings of Minerva’s owl will spread and cover us before dusk falls.
For more on Carl, see: