Wednesday, March 23, 2005

New York break: one hundred streets of fortitude

I sit in my chair
And filled with despair
There’s no one could be so sad
With gloom everywhereI sit and I stare
I know that I’ll soon go mad…

[Billie Holiday, Solitude]

Rain, sleet, snow, then a combination of the three. New York, imitating a Wisconsin spring. Thanks, I feel so at home.

No, wait! You’re reading Ocean, written by a blogger made of hearty Polish peasant stock (with strains of gypsy, I am told). I’m out. Billie pushed me out the door, straight into Harlem, where she herself once crooned.

[Here I have to express deep gratitude to Paul Blair, NY jazz journalist who chatted with me for some time this morning about Harlem. Invaluable! For more on Paul, tune in on Friday – he and I are taking a walk through his home turf – Brooklyn.]

The thing is, I want to check out the entire Harlem neighborhood and that place is monstrously big. Indeed, I got off the subway at 168th and Broadway and I honestly did walk more than 100 blocks, this way and that. I’m cold. Frozen, in fact. I’m tired. I saw so much. But I did not see enough.

A great deal has been written about the gentrification of Harlem, about Bill Clinton’s digs there, about 125th street, but are we all on the same page about this? Has Harlem changed that much?

From my walk, I would say not as much as it could have, should have. West Harlem, upwards of 140th, the little Dominica of New York, is significantly disadvantaged. The Black central Harlem around Strivers’ Row (so named because it was, even 100 years ago, a place for the socially and professionally upwardly mobile) has signs of rebirth, but the renovated row houses are completely surrounded by blocks of closed storefronts and abandoned buildings in need of repair. Jungle Alley and Marcus Garvey Park are hangouts – of the type where you don’t want to hang out for long and especially not after dark.

And yet, Harlem still seems alive and pushing ahead, in spite of it all. Art and culture thrived here in the 20s and 30s, even though the anticipated economic rebirth never took off then. The brownstones, some of the most beautiful in the city, were never occupied by prosperous owners. Instead, Black families squeezed out of other New York districts, moved here, rented at inflated prices, and stayed, and with them stayed the music and the clubs and the art. All are evident. It’s a kickin’ neighborhood!

The pictures below are the Harlem that I want to see more of. It is the boom rather than the bust (with an occasional photographic digression). It is the hope, not hype. [The photos follow the geographic progression of my walk – from 168th down to the northern tip of Central Park. Adjust the quality, please, for the fact that it was raining-snowing-sleeting and the wind was blowing me up to the rooftops, along with the goddam umbrella, the bag, the camera and my super-sized scarf, frantically protecting me from the horrible weather.]
Harlem: Washington Heights: Sylvan Terrace: row houses dating back to 1882 and looking pretty much as they did then. Posted by Hello
In the heart of Little Dominica and the Cuban district of Harlem: the shining stars, the houses that are bursting with color. Posted by Hello
North and west of Sugar Hill: the ubiquitous corner grocery store and the lingering patron...  Posted by Hello
Heritage Heights: in my opinion, the grandest of the Harlem homes. Rented in the past, but showing signs of a changeover. Posted by Hello
Strivers' Row: 3 blocks, for the young and ambitious (that was the plan back in 1891; its time may have come). Posted by Hello
Central Harlem: Mount Morris Park District. Stunning brownstones waiting for renovation. Posted by Hello
Cornbread and tea at Louise's. This place saved me. A separate post on Louise's will follow. Posted by Hello
Central Harlem: the commercial side. Posted by Hello
Central Harlem: a mural tribute to a heroine whom I did not recognize by name; if you study it carefully you'll see the imagery of hope. Posted by Hello

New York break: subway spit storms and chicken bones

Yesterday’s ride to Brighton and Coney Island took 1 hour and 10 minutes. Going there, the train stopped repeatedly, waiting for clearance. The cars were nearly empty and sitting there in the dark long tunnels, waiting for the lurch that would mean movement at last, tried my patience, though others sat listlessly, impervious to the delay, to the silence of waiting.

Three guys got on at a Brooklyn stop. They were immersed in a spitball (through straws) fight. In the almost empty car, they could sit at a distance from each other and make the soppy crumbled balls fly high over to the far corners of the train. Watching them litter the car, so that the wet little mounds would adhere to seats and walls, I felt the overwhelming desire to tell them to cut it out, and in fact – to clean up the mess. Of course I didn’t, not because I felt threatened – the chances of these particular thugs beating me down were, after all, small, but because I knew they would not listen. There was a moment where I thought of doing it anyway, just for shock value (they surely would recoil), but then decided to simply move myself further out of their range with what I thought was a great display of indignation (I'm sure this only fueled their spit).

I sat at one end, across from a guy who was in workman’s (construction?) clothing, reading Oggi (Italian-American?). He was equally disgusted.

“That big guy is the worst” he told me. “I was a kid once, I got into trouble, but this – this beats the hell out of my pranks.” I tried to imagine if a prank could be smaller than spit balls and still be called a prank.

And the spitballs mounted. More passengers got on, not knowing that they were entering a battle zone. I could not stand the image of sitting in that spit waste, but I watched anyway. It took another group of (high school?) students to finally distract me. Their chatter about that “bitch girl” who “did what she f******* pleased” was riveting enough to draw me away from the speckles of spit bullets.

Besides, by now, my senses were being assailed in other ways as a woman took out (from a dirty plastic bag) a box of Popeye chicken and chewed her way around the thigh bone. She left the bag of chicken remains on the seat, not too far from the spit mess. Others got on, sat down, got off, not knowing, locked in their own conversations and thoughts about whatever destination they were heading for.

My Oggi man got off with a friendly wave at me and somehow I felt the bond of riding out a spit storm with him. That kind of momentary connection with a stranger happens on trains and subways.