The Gentrification of Harlem – July 5, 2010
After living in Harlem for 7 months, I finally accepted the desire to write about my experience living here, and geneogically speaking, having part of my spiritual make-up in the generations prior and henceforth manifest in the cultural fusion of Hamilton Heights. Returning ‘home’, I had the sense that my Grandmother would be rolling in her grave knowing that I lived with the Dominicans on Broadway, 30 some odd blocks from her old spot near the GW. As with the state of being, my move to Broadway began the gentrification of Harlem and my contribution to it, as felt through my life and the reflection of how others saw me.
Hamilton Heights has a history that would be better told by someone who lived it. The details describe the days leading up to 2010 and half of the year after. On November 15, 2009, I moved to Broadway, as Jay-Z with the Dominicanos, no longer, West Harlem was transforming at the root and the home I had been with out for two months. Homeless at 24, and by 23, so was my Grandmother. I remember driving down Broadway in the backseat of my Parents’ car; two generations prior, my Grandparents, strangers who once shared an Island to the Heights, 35 blocks North of the A train.
On an avenue whose postage fails to mention a sign or road, it’s just, “Broadway,” there are coke dealers, crack dealers, and all of the citizens in between. There is a vintage feel to the neighborhood, and ever since the man from the neighboring pawnshop began to sit outside it seems like more shifts in what the hood has looked like. Upon moving to Harlem, I had approached the land at a time where the air was bitter and chilled. I can remember the days, having a friend give me a jacket because I was too cold and too broke to buy one.
I was sitting at the New York Culture Center, with a friend in faith, and a young Japanese man who happened to have a very true crush on me. I lamented over my situation, spending many days in that space seeking answers to the questions that I had about everything. My journey led me to Harlem, and I was moved via a few states, days, and with friends who shared an experience in the journey leading up to this moment where I was connected by a friend to another friend who was looking for a roommate.
I remember hearing the street address and I was shocked that she was living there. I remember hearing stories from my Father growing up in the Heights and shotguns in the halls of my Grandmother’s ten-story walk-up. Harlem was a foreign land and equally daunting in retrospect. It was 20 years ago since my family left Queens for the suburbs. I am proud to say I am Native New Yorker, part Masshole via Puerto Rico, Spain, France, notwithstanding the United Nations, this is living in America and I am part of the generation seeking to transform identity on all aspects. I left the suburbs to pursue my dreams, middle class comfort, for student loan debt nearly impossible to keep up with. I was broke, but not broken and it took all of my strength to arrive in a small West Side room facing a brick wall.
I was in the hospital days after I moved in. I remember the first night I slept on a double air mattress, and lit a candle. I slept for hours and woke up extremely weak on a deflated air mattress. I had run out of strength, arrived at the door step of now with not where else to travel but within the realm of dreams and forgotten promises. Expiating the familiar cough, I did not leave my house with the flu. When I emerged for some food, I collapsed on the street near a police car. I remember asking in panic for assistance. The two officers offered to call an ambulance. I could not see straight, let alone think straight and when I got the least bit of air, I laughed and said, I didn’t have the insurance to take a most luxurious and expensive ride to the hospital in a chariot of corporate gluttony. A ride in an ambulance would have costed $500.00 dollars. I took a cab to the hospital; a cab driver dropped me off blocks away from the emergency room. I couldn’t get the money from my pocket. I was focused on how I could push my lungs just to take one more breathe of air, and was chocked immediately. My vision worsened, inspiring moving stars and shards of light. I moved to the sidewalk where a nurse found me and asked me if I was, “OK?” as she took me in her arm and walked me up the hill softly speaking soothing words of encouragement.
I arrived at the Emergency Room and was taken in immediately. I remember being in the stretcher and passing through the criminal’s unit, the energy even hard to handle, I was safely placed between patients whose faces I could never remember in retrospect now. All I could take note of was the passing of patients as I was held over night in the hospital. Irregular heart rhythm, possible pneumonia, and some funky dermatitis to the face, I was such a mess. I called my Buddha Mom and Dad, I would not be ready to confront death with my mortal Parents.
My Byakuren sister came to pick me up, I remember chanting to understand what was wrong before I left and I racked up a fairly large hospital bill. Confronted by the possibility of dying alone, I could not commit to paper and tell you what is felt in the experience of weighing out such circumstances. Into the arm of friends who ushered me to New York City in the age where I shared a room on W 73rd street and through the halls of the United Nations, I slept on Danomi’s bed for 7 hours and according Marwa and the side effects of the hospital’s medication, I was slurping as through making out.
The details after that were the search for meds, and the premature return to work that made me vulnerable enough to fall into the trap that my General Manager stage with a servers who big mouth is only rivaled by my presents coworkers’. I left for good with a fantastic recommendation. I worked at a gym, on the streets as an Artist, and at home on my life.
I spent the first month and a half in bed, at home, recurpurating and with out paying rent, I asked my landlord if I could simply sleep and find a way to pay him back. He allowed it. I watched Frida Khalo on DVD over and over again and had a dear friend read to me at night on the phone. At the time, living on Broadway, I felt like I was living at a halfway house. There were cockroaches and the space was occupied by abandoned things at the issuance of a hoarder. It was a strange environment with an awkard musk, a smell that became etched in the memory of being there. I sometimes wonder if it’s just the metaphorical giant asshole of a cat. I am telling you, this apartment is complex.
So I lived in it, and a revived in it as a lotus flower blooms unsoiled by the muddy waters, burned a lot of candles, incense, among other things and frequented three delis in the neighborhood before I was comfortable enough settling into the deli that was best for me. I still protest the day crew of the deli furthest away. They know why, and my roommate was the last to speak of me without me being there. One night, I was looking for a loosey at the sandwhich spot. Obviously, I had mixed the two spots and a man who I often see with shoe boxes in his arms said, “Hello.” He lightly tapped my arm at the register and smiled. I realized I had seen his neatly combed goate from another spot on the block. He was a frequent merchant in the sea of Hamilton Heights. I always made sure to say, “Hello” to everyone on the block for that very reason.
There were nights that strangers tried to get into my building to do crack and rob neighbors. The door downstairs was locked and there were times that people fought and yelled loud outside. The ones who were the quietest had the most to say with their eyes and I would often fall asleep to the sound of beatings and stray cats. There is one man’s face that I will never forget but could never see of speak of again. There is a mix of young Americans, Domincanos, Pakistani’s, Arabs, Latinos and immigrant Europeans and miscellaneous South Americans. The block is a mix of people and the racial tension is high. I was outside smoking a cigarette before the heat broke out. I’m always wearing bright lipstick and in the winter I am known as the White girl with the Red lipstick. Whenever I speak Spanish it is rarely spoken back to me for reasons I can not understand as to transcribe with fairness.
The Gentrification of Harlem is powerful. I often gawk at rental advertisements that advertise Hamilton Heights as the Upper West Side. I do not see a Fairway in sight and a studio for 950 is still in a drug and bug infested area. Everyone has their own thing, but such is a life on a macrobiotic level. There are still groups of people exploited for the resources that they worship or live and fostering their growth through Indigenous practices. There is also speak of Pandemics, mass-dying, and genocides occurring in the age of birth control and population booms, generations becomes extinct and ethereal landmarks melting away and receding into the tide of lost dreams. What ever happens, Harlem will attain its beauty and all that comes with it, as have I.
And such is my journey; please ‘tread softly on my dreams’.
July 5, 2010