“If the eighteenth century dynasty pharaos were alive today, would they live in Harlem?”, Ta-Nehisi Coates asks himself in “Between the World and Me.”
I wouldn’t know about that. I just got here and Wellington is nowhere to be seen. Let me tell you a bit about the surroundings in the meantime. I’m standing next to a busy road, the immaculate sky above is suffused by deep blue, sign of evening. The busy road runs underneath a giant art deco bridge with whirling arcades. Left from me an industrial glass greenhouse with two elegant chimneys in the middle of its roof reflects the setting sun. In between the silver girders I discern the bricks of social housing projects. One tall grim building next to the next in a grim row.
Wellington is really late. I walk uphill and downhill. Uphill some more, past the corner. I feel a slight yearning for the animosity and camaraderie of Brooklyn. This world is different, it’s far and cold. I walk down again and there she is. Bike shoes, fluorescent black-and-yellow spandex, tight gloves and blue helmet. I had never thought Wellinton, the Native, would be a cycle fanatic. Americans don’t kiss and we don’t seem to be well-acquainted enough to hug yet. So after a few awkward bows and sideway slides we cross the street.
“So this is the place of the gang war?”, I ask.
“Did you ever see anything happening?”
“Look, those over there”, she points at the row of grim brick buildings, “are the Manhattanville Houses. And those over there”, she points at a tall brick tower a few blocks on the other side, “are the Grant Houses. It was the kids from these two blocks warring with each other. I remember coming out of the church one night and there was these two groups of teenagers meeting on this corner. All of a sudden one of the teenagers of one group pulled out a gun and shot at the other group. The two groups started and nobody got hurt.”
“But we’re next to a police station”, indeed, as we speak, we are making our way through dozens of parked police cars.
“That’s the thing the community residents said. While this was happening, a lot of them were sitting outside. And you could just see them shaking their heads, saying “how stupid”. But they didn’t really seem troubled by it.”
“Which is troubling, in a way.”
“For sure. You can’t be serious.”
Wellington halts in front of a Dutch farm with a courthouse adjacent to a rather small old bucolic church.
“This is where I volunteer, it’s a shelter for homeless people in the basement of the church. The church is the first in America where blacks and whites could mingle and now it’s being run by a lesbian couple.”
“You mean the priest is a lesbian?”
“A-ha. What else do you want to see?”
We climb the Morningside Heights hill – Wellington won’t take me to Columbia University’s campus as it’s the “root of all evil” – and instead shows me the largest cathedral in the whole world. An awkward concrete apartment building is being put up a few meters from its left wing, annihilating the sight. “The church needed the money so it sold the land”, Wellington clarifies in a dry manner.
“Is this the way Harlem is being robbed of its soul?”, I ask. This was the reason I came.
“You should come here on a Sunday and speak to the people, they’d tell you.”
“You can tell me now.”
“Did you grow up in a village or in a city?”
“So where did you go when you don’t have sugar and the shops are closed?”
“The neighbours? But that’s village life.”
“Wrong. It’s what most people don’t know about New York. People from the same neighbourhood knock on each other’s doors for sugar, they keep an eye on each other’s children and watch over their children’s children once they’re big. They go to the same stores, the shop keeper keeps an eye on the street, knows who’s who. The police can’t be everywhere. It’s community. Because New York is so big, people take care of each other within the community so they can feel at home. Building a functional community can take a long time.”
“Harlem is a community?”
“A whole bunch of them. But Harlem is special. It’s where the freed or escaped slaves from the south built their world capital. They could only do so by starting up their own real estate company discriminating against whites. If not, they would never have succeeded in having a place of their own. They would have evicted time and again, chased all over the city and forced to build their own isolated colony outside of the city.”
“So why is it being torn up?”
“It has been torn up many times in the past. By the crack-cocaine epidemic of the eighties. Disease and gang wars up until a decade ago. The thing is, since some five years Harlem has been relieved of its problems, communities have succeeded in making their streets clean and safe and the moment that happened, their rents doubled, tripled or quadrupled.”
“Money. There’s too much money in the city. Too much superfluous money, just lying there, needing to be invested.”
“To make even more money.”
“Once the area becomes attractive to those who previously didn’t dare set foot in it, the money follows. Buildings are being bought up with all the tenants inside of them. Once the prices of adjacent buildings go up, the new landlord only needs to carry out any kind of renovation to multiply the rent. And then the old tenants must go. I know a lady here, she used to live in one of those apartments for the last fourty years. She knew everyone. She had to move to Staten Island, all by herself, where she didn’t know anyone. It’s tragic. It’s happening all over the city. It’s what my students say when I teach in Brooklyn. When the white people arrive, we know we’re fucked. That’s gentrification.”
We walk down along Morningside Park and brush the northern edge of Central Park in the last light of day. Back uptown through Frederick Douglass Boulevard I stop in front of a large statue of a black woman leaning south, held back by shrub roots. It’s Harriet Tubman, the black woman, an escaped slave herself, who travelled south thirteen times by herself – back into the slave states – to rescue seventy more. I had never heard of her, nor had I ever heard of the Underground Railroad.
“There’s so much controversy about this statue”, Wellington remarks, “if north is freedom, then why is she leaning south?”
“To go fetch even more slaves in a metaphorical way?”
“Then why is she being held back by the metaphorical roots?”
Down a brownstone alley, it’s pitch dark now. Wellington opens the gate to a small front yard. When she opens the door to the basement, shreds and rags of beebop jazz are let free. On this side of a low basement, a dimly lit black-and-white jazz trio is playing out of their minds. At small wooden tables there’s millionaires and models, young black women in flower dresses, some transvestites and a fat old white man fully in jeans embroidered with a thousand American flags. An endearing heavyset girl does rounds with sweet potato and fried chicken wings. Do you remember that scene in Wild Man Moore, the 1961 flick, when Louis Armstrong comes down the stairs into the basement into a crowd of swing dancers, backed by a brass band? That, but much calmer. This is a Sunday night.
Wellington leads me up the stairs, where in an empty room two young white men await us at a table.
To be continued…