Moments of wavering come all too soon. I used a wide-spread fiction to get here. How stupid. Here’s the first moment making this clear.
12 March 2015.
“So can you tell me that again? What exactly are they paying you for?”
This is a glass cage. The blonde girl at the desk has an elegant facial bone structure and clear blue eyes. Her name is Wellington, after the Australian city, and she is really hard to understand. Like almost all American women, she refuses to acknowledge the fact that she should stop speaking after she has run out of air. Each sentence ends in a pitch too low to be healthy for the pharyngeal system. Wellington is not her real name, but she explicitly asked me not to write about her.
“To research multiculturality, taking New York as an example of how to make it work in Belgium.”
The more I say it, the less convincing I sound. Reality strikes back. I have already understood that it is exactly this vagueness that made my host institution in the East Village keep postponing our meetings. With no sign of betterment in sight, I resolved to becoming a volunteer teacher in public schools for the underprivileged. In this glass cage on East Broadway, Wellington is training me. Training me well.
“You’re obviously being all European-sarcastic, right?”, she asks with a smile and a frown.
“No, I’m actually serious.”
“Well, isn’t it correct? Isn’t New York the most multicultural city in the world without having any major racial problems?”
“No. It’s not. Have you ever heard of the eighties and the nineties?”
“No…well, of course, yes.”
“Have you ever walked by social housing projects?”
“How many whites did you count?”
“None. But I’ve seen some white homeless…” As though that were a good thing.
“I don’t see it to be a succesful example of integration. I hate to be the one breaking this to you, but this is one of the most segregated cities in the country. Didn’t you check the numbers?”
Here comes the wavering. But before I fall back and hit the ground, I accuse her of lying. Probably she’s one of those far-to-left wing activists. A pessimist. Too bad for her, I have the pretentiousness of thinking. It’s true that I didn’t check the numbers before writing my grant proposal, though.
“Have you ever heard of the stop-and-frisk policy?”
“Police can stop and search anyone they want without any valid reason. In the decade before de Blasio, the NYPD stopped and searched no less than four million people. And guess what? Nearly all of them were black or hispanic.”“Well…if you haven’t done anything wrong there’s nothing to be afraid…”
Wellington doesn’t want any of it. “Do you have any idea how wide-spread the use of weed is in this city?” This only being my twelfth day in the city, you’d be amazed at the quantity of grams I have seen passing before my eyes. So yes.
“White kids are actually much more likely to be carrying weed at any time but they get searched much less. Until recently you’d go to prison for the possession of any quantity. So guess who went to jail most?”
“There’s kids in jail because of weed?”
“Black kids, yes. Enormous amounts of black kids behind bars. Behind the corner from my house in Harlem they arrested more than a hundred of them at once, all between the ages of 15 and 20. And do you know on the basis of what evidence? Posts on their facebook walls.”
I don’t dare asking more questions right now, but here’s what I find afterwards: contrary to what I initially thought, there’s still gang wars being fought in the city. For instance between youth in the Manhattanville social housing project and youth in the Grant social housing project. Answering innumerable calls for help from inhabitants, that help arrived in June 2014. But not in the way that was expected. With tipped-off journalists watching from the wings – this is a movie scene – about 500 NYPD officers storm the buildings, arresting dozens of black teenagers. This event, celebratorily named the “largest gang raid in the city’s history”, locked up a whole generation.
“Does that seem like a good way to deal with multiraciality?”
“Well…no”, resistance is futile now, “but isn’t this more a problem of poverty that a problem of colour?”
“We can always try to not think of ourselves in historical terms”, Wellington ripostes with a smile, “if you want to. If you think that’s useful. Don’t get me started on gentrification and house flipping. Harlem is, as we speak, being robbed of its soul. If you want to, I can take you around and show you what’s happening.”
“…”, she wasn’t expecting this, “…Sunday?”
“I’ll be there.”
Wellington did what most New Yorkers do. She cancelled. But I insisted on a new date. Two weeks later, an hour after saying goodbye to the cat and moving back into the Bushwick loft, I am on my first A train from Brooklyn to Harlem. By the way, did I mention Wellington is half Native American?
To be continued…