As an arts addict, I'm always in search of cheap digs to stay at in New York City -- like apartment sublets. In that quest, I've gotten creative and crept higher and higher past the Uppers and into Harlem, way past where the tourist websites stop their recommendations -- 105th, 108th, 123rd, 127th Streets and beyond. The last few times I've stayed upwards of 145th in Sugar Hill and while I've been there often enough now to think of Harlem fondly as a kind of home away from home, I'm not always sure that feeling goes both ways.
In Harlem I've found that famous New Yorker indifference has many exceptions.
There's the barista who chuckles when I order the blonde roast.
There are always stares when I'm at Starbucks -- that haven to freelance writers on the road. Those stares are often very pointed and deliberate and distinctly disapproving, like the lady who made sure to offer her plum position at an electrical outlet to someone else when she saw I was making my way towards it as she left. It's such a minor inconvenience, but it's one among so many; there are a lot of semi-belligerent stares in a city that just elected a mayor with a bi-racial family.
There are also -- are always -- the guys who are waaay too friendly.
In short, it's impossible for me to be invisible here. I'm not just me; I stand for something. "They even come up here now," a guy said to my face with disdain. I'm a they; some kind of collective face.
I feel strangely protected in my conspicuousness, but that might be an illusion.
It's all part of the background noise, part of a constant but low-level kind of tension on the streets here that I don't experience at home. There is a heavy police presence in Harlem. Overall, I'd say it's a little bumpy compared to where I come from -- a small industrial city just west of Toronto -- just a little on edge all the time. It's that "New York energy" you hear about.
Like the shrieking and laughing of outdoor parties that last till 3 or 4 a.m. The fights that break out around 5. Or the drag racers on dirt bikes that pull wheelies up and down 8th Avenue (the Frederick Douglass Boulevard that no one ever calls Frederick Douglass) every Sunday -- right past Police Service Area 6 -- around the same block where a trans woman was beaten to death earlier this year...
Yeah, that New York energy. It's in your face.
But I'm not the only white woman in Harlem, of course. I've noticed a steady trickle of young professionals drawn here by the cheaper rents over the last few years. When they renovate the old apartments on the numbered streets, I've seen white people move in more often than not. The old Harlem and its uniquely African American flavour are under assault from the gentrification that has been creeping upwards from 125th. There are chic restaurants, new condos with straight lines, clean brickwork and expensive rent up at 138th and 8th Avenue; in another decade or so, you'll be able to get a decent steak frites and designer cupcakes all the way up to 155th.
My significant other is black and my Harlem experience is different when I walk down the street with him. Sometimes it makes me feel like I finally blend in, but many of the people we pass aren't indifferent. Some have decided to share their opinion, whether it's disapproval or approval -- like the guys in the 125th Street subway station who yelled after us, "Hey, right on brother -- you got a white girl!"
Once, we were waiting for a bus on 125th and one of those double-decker tourist buses came to a halt at the stoplight. Some of the people on the upper level starting taking pictures and I did a double take but we were the only ones standing at the stop, which was in front of a vacant store front... Look Mabel! It's one of those black-white couples! Click!
This is one clear difference I can attest to between here and back home in Canada; even in the small, blue collar city I call home, no one bats an eyelash at an interracial couple. They are so commonplace -- and in every possible combination -- that I have never found myself subject to undue attention in urban areas of Southern Ontario and I suspect it's the same in many other urban areas throughout the country. It's where that uniquely Canadian smugness comes from; we lack the surface tension. Everything looks friendly. But our racism is just hidden under the polite veneer; the proof is in the pudding. Who is in power? Who has the money? Who is the face of the everyman/every-person? And why, in this country where we say we love, love, love Obama so much, have we yet to elect anyone who isn't male and white as Prime Minister? The look might be different on the surface but the result is the same.
Without that bumpiness, the edge that's visible on the streets, it's much easier for white folks to delude themselves into believing there is no racism; you will often hear Anglo-Canadians argue that very claim. The bumpiness here in Harlem forces you to confront racism and acknowledge it -- even if that's only as far as it gets. The idea of post-racial anything becomes laughable here; everything is about race.
The fact my visits here are short and temporary add a surreal note to it all. While I get to experience being The Other while I'm here, there is of course a big -- monumental -- difference between my visits and actually living my entire life as a member of a minority. Like a contestant on some inane reality show, my experience is without consequence. I can be whisked back to my original position at any time. I won't be refused a job or an apartment on the basis of my name or the colour of my skin. I can hail a taxi anywhere I want -- even in New York City. I can take a subway downtown at any moment and vanish back into the crowd.
So I flit in and out of this unique neighborhood not unnoticed, wondering about the complexities of human society and the legacies of history as I check out the latest show at the Studio Gallery; at the end of the day, I'm hooked on the music that flows onto the streets every weekend, the no-cover jazz jams at the Shrine and other neighbourhood bars (just try to find that south of 110th!) and the warmth of the friends that I've made here. And, like any good travel story, it ends with a deeper understanding of the place I call home.
Lu Reid's Sunday Jam at the Shrine: