Remembering the old lies, the kicks in the back, they told us to be patient……………” Langston Hughes
In a strange mix up I ended standing many blocks further from 310 W, exiting the subway to the sounds of a couple yelling themselves hoarse with expletives in Spanish. All the fears and doubts re-surfaced? Had I made a mistake? Learning that the rate for violent crime rose 600% from the year 2009 to 2010 in West Harlem wasn’t helpful at all.Even so I decided to walk a few blocks down to the restaurant named after a domestic yard fowl, for a fix of Helga’s meat balls and lingonberry sauce that took a long time coming, although the hospitable staff made up for it with a delicious dessert on the house.
As I lost myself on the grid of the map, I stopped people for directions. A tourist waving a guidebook looks naïve, or so I thought. A friendly middle aged Hispanic couple, tried desperately to explain to me in English that they didn’t know where the Schomburg Center (for research in black culture) was located, but they pointed me the right way to the Malcolm X Boulevard.
At the Center on 135th street, after a purposeful pondering at Obama’s distinctively attractive visage, at Pete Souza’s photography exhibition, (which was a look behind the scenes of the Obama Presidency), I walked over to the Langston Hughes Lobby, where inscribed on the floor is a site specific public art installation in honor of Hughes, (a poet of the Harlem Renaissance Period); a Cosmogram inspired by his poem, ‘The Negro speaks of rivers’. “I’ve known rivers”, he says, “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood through human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
It is a poem that reflects the yet young, although more than a century old, historic and architectural distinctiveness of the heritage of Harlem that is so entwined with the History of New York City.
Arturo Schomburg, a Puerto Rican of African descent, after whom the Center is named, was an avid collector of objects pertaining to the history and culture of the African Diaspora. After the acquisition of his personal collection in 1920, the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints was named in his honour in 1940.The Schomburg is now a leading center for research in black culture. Although it is not a museum, you might find a few creations of Ann Tanksley and other artists. The visit ended in a quaint meeting with a Guyanese woman ‘wo-manning’ the gift shop.
Venturing forth to the Abyssinian Baptist Church, after making enquiries with an East African person in a grocery store, who made such sincere attempts to help despite being very new to the neighbourhood himself, struck me as such a novelty in New York and I prayed it be sustained before the exaggerated hurry of Manhattan took over such a basic human trait.
Harlem looks distinctively different from its posh neighbours in downtown Manhattan. The median income of $30,000 per annum of West Harlem, is 42% lower than the median household income for New York City and a staggering 60% lower than the median household income for Manhattan.
Shabby building complexes surrounded the beautiful church I finally located. In the vicinity hung about, young men, playing loudly on their boom boxes. It was a weekday. Harlem is reputed to have an unemployment rate of 18% which is much higher than the 4-5% for Manhattan.
In a time of layoffs, a weak economy and rampant unemployment, where graduate students are taking up hourly jobs with a minimum wage, I was reminded of a book written by Anthropologist , Philippe Bourgois, on crack dealers in East Harlem; where, living with residents helped him discover and understand the reasons young men of marginalized communities, resorted to an illegal activity and a lifestyle fraught with violence, risk and danger; because it endowed them not only with a feeling of power but a sense of respect.
Harlem has also seen the mushrooming of charter schools, where, in 2009, 24 of Manhattan’s 29 charter schools were located. Despite that, the school dropout rate is a dismal 12.3% against the city’s average of 11.5%. Charter schools are public schools overseen by private boards of directors. The United Sates is a country that is seeing the privatization of its educational institutions, a land where public schools have been demonized in documentaries like ‘Waiting for superman’. And yet, metal detectors in public schools notwithstanding, where all public school teachers have been denounced as inefficient and heavily unionized, it still appears a weak attempt to gloss over the real state of affairs which includes, poverty, high figures of incarceration in minority communities, increasing isolation and distancing from the mainstream, and the continued money making nexus of the private sector and government machinery.
It’s been a long walk through West Harlem, along some blocks of Edgecombe Avenue, along striking brownstones on streets like Strivers Row (named by some after the perceived social climbing of its more affluent African American residents), knowing a few blocks uptown would be graffiti and strewn garbage and many blocks downtown the foliage rich affluent avenues along Central Park.
A strange vista is indeed Harlem, striving for attention, for respect; testimony to the fact that some can be conveniently forgotten.