Photo: Copyright © Jon Rubin, under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Today, one of my favorite events of the summer season takes place. It’s a great street fair on west 135th street that occurs annually at the close of Harlem Week. It usually straddles the weekend. The latter day signifies the end of summer and offers one of the most vibrant, spirit-filled street celebrations unrivaled throughout the city. Unbeknownst to me, they shaved one day off of the festivities. Now it’s like New Years without the eve. Nonetheless, I think it’s a huge disappointment that portends and foretells more than summer’s end.
All week I’ve been contemplative as I toy with the idea of taking my leave of Harlem. The thought crept up one morning as I walked up Lenox Avenue. As I looked around, it was clear that this is not the Harlem I signed up for. It’s significantly different. It’s no longer the refuge from the social slights and discrimination awaiting us downtown. Now it followed us up here like a stalker hiding in the bushes outside of our homes. Now there’s an odd admixture of newfound land acquisition and privilege, …and struggle. However flawed, it is where we were able to breathe freely in a sort of rarified confusion.
The last day of the street fair is more like a family reunion where you see anyone and everyone before they go back into hibernation for winter. Where I enjoyed and looked forward to my traditional chicken wings and fries eaten at curbside with no judgment as I sipped on too-sweet lemonade in the hot sun. Occasionally waving a chicken bone in the air in mock greeting of ‘family’.
It was in Harlem that the culture of America was redefined. It’s where black people took control of their image and the public perception, and were no longer willing to accept the cruel depictions of them via white supremacist propaganda. The course of history and culture has changed forever. The influence is still obvious no matter where you look. While the culture is appropriated at all turns, there’s still a lack of acknowledgement, respect, and benefits to its creators.
Still, we thrive.
We can never romanticize the devastation and poverty inherent in Harlem. While many people malign its residents as ‘do-nothing leeches,’ they never take into consideration the events and intent that made it all possible. No one ever mentions redlining, the denial of services, the lack of opportunity as well as substandard schools. So it’s not only insensitive, it’s just as absurd as the belief that we can just ‘get over’ slavery.
Yet, we still thrived…in our own community.
Crack cocaine came to Harlem like a meteorite from outer space that wreaked havoc as well as singed everything within its reach, whether you used it or not. It spread like a fast-moving virus throughout the community rendering Harlemites helpless in the eye of the storm. Just as resilient as we were during enslavement we managed to wade our way through the choppy waters of drug addiction and whatever degradation came with it.
Like the lotus that grows in the mud, we still thrived.
Gentrification is always spun as ‘good’ for the community. While it lines the pockets of a few, many of the longtime residents try to find ways to navigate the new landscape where cafes replace, what used to be, empty lots filled with rubbish. The 96th street subway station on the 2 or 3 trains used to be where the lines of demarcation were drawn. White people jumped off of the train as if it were a sinking ship. Now, all bets are off! It could be the middle of the night and they’ll be on the train right alongside you headed uptown to Harlem.
Now… some thrive more than others.
Go to the root of the word ‘gentrify’ and you’ll find gentry. Doesn’t that tell you what it’s about…and for whose benefit? Along with it comes surveillance, high rents, arbitrary rules of business, neighbors who don’t share your culture nor care as well as the introduction of class wars.
This new influx has created the perfect storm for the newfound ‘socialites,’ who balk at the exclusivity of the downtown scene only to recreate their version of it here, to thrive. Documenting it with selfies on Facebook or the wish to be discovered for some ‘reality’ show. It’s reminiscent of what happened when Paul Cuffee in 1812 tried to ship us back to Africa– little did we know that we adopted the same value system of our captors. Before long, we devised our own brand of twisted hierarchy. Even had the audacity to call it Freetown.
We didn’t thrive too well….
At the end of the day, things change. That’s the argument used when confronted with the present day situation. Truth be told, we’re really not so adverse to it however uncomforting it might be. What we object to is Harlem was a place where we could have dignity in the best and worst of times. Where you never had to care nor worry about someone following you around in a store. Or you never had that awkward encounter with white women as you pass them on the sidewalk where they try to imperceptibly clutch their bag even in the face of well-trained eyes used to it. Now it’s here.
Are we still thriving?
I guess it really comes down to what you prefer. The subtle (or not so subtle) whittling away of cultural staples can only be a slippery slope and gateway to the bloodletting of much more. For you there may be no significance to the disappearance of a day at the fair. For us, it’s a big deal.
Harlem isn’t just a place; it’s a state of mind.
Earl Davis is the Executive Director of Project Brownstone. He lives in New York City.