HUMANS OF HARLEM
Imoved to Harlem in 2008. “It’s not safe,” my friends warned, encouraging me to reconsider the lease I was about to sign for a beautiful apartment in a brownstone on 118th Street. “But it’s so friendly,” I said. And it was. Until one night. When I first arrived, Harlem was still a largely black neighbourhood, and I was regularly the only white face in the subway car once the doors shut at 96th Street and the train snaked its way northward along the west side of Central Park. I never felt anxious, or unwelcome, or in danger. I felt part of a tighter-knit community than the one I’d left on the Upper West Side.
Each morning on my way to work, Jay-Jay the Vietnam veteran who lives by doing odd jobs for people along the street, and occasionally asking for a loan or a few dollars for a meal or a drink, called out a cheerful, “Hey honey.” It didn’t matter that Jay-Jay was down and out; his shout-out always made me feel upbeat.
The small-time drug dealer operating out of the front seat of his car had my back. One day, struggling with a large bag of laundry, one of a group of three young men smoking a joint on a neighbour’s stoop jumped up and offered to help me to my door. A moment later, Pedro was out of his car, thundering across the street. “Get your mother-f..king hands off her,” he screamed before grabbing the kid by the throat and shoving him up against the wall. “It’s OK, Pedro,” I said. “He was just offering to help.” “Like hell he was,” he said grabbing the laundry bag from the kid and walking me to my door, shouting more expletives back over his shoulder.
In the early days I watched tourist buses purr slowly along 125 Street past the Apollo Theatre where James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin performed, before making a right into Malcolm X Boulevard to drive past the now Nobu-owned Lenox Lounge, once home to John Coltrane and Miles Davis. A few blocks south they took a left at 116th Street to take in a little of Spanish Harlem before heading back downtown to deposit their cargo on the safe streets of midtown. Travellers huddled under rain jackets in the winter, or bared their white skin in the summer, listening to commentary about Harlem’s history while they took photos of the locals like they were exhibits in a zoo.
Nearly seven years later, the landscape has changed. Now the tourist buses stop and their passengers get off to walk around. ‘‘ Who are these people?’’ I ask myself staring at the bearded, fedora and loafer-with-no-socks wearing crowd that has taken up residence. The irony of the observation is not lost on me. There are, of course, benefits to change — fancy new restaurants, wine bars and cafes with linen tablecloths are lining the streets, and there is even an organic section at my local supermarket and, in what will really be the death of the old neighbourhood, a new Whole Foods scheduled to open on 125th Street later this year.
But there’s a big price tag to change and the people who are most affected are the long-term residents who, in increasing numbers, are being forced out by rising rents and costs. It’s not only white people coming to live north of the park that’s driving Harlem’s lower-income residents out; middle-class African Americans are part of the force altering the landscape as well. But those newcomers are not so obviously “other”.
The speed at which gentrification is happening has made me part of a problem. I’m no longer part of a handful of individuals, I am now part of a herd and, like any introduced species taking over, sometimes there’s friction. Under mayor Bill de Blasio’s leadership homelessness in New York City has risen. As of November last year there were 57,390 people living in homeless shelters. Nearly 25,000 were children.
Gentrification is not the reason the downand-out man who asked me for a dollar three nights before Christmas suddenly changed his mind and decided on a bigger prize.
Sometimes the world shows its good and bad hand in almost the brush of the same hand and no sooner did I start screaming for help than a young woman came to my rescue. She saw the man punch his fist into my handbag and grab my cash, and ran out into the dark in pursuit. My champion was tiny. Maybe 160cm, 20 years old and weighing less than 50kg. But a few minutes later she came back and handed over three crumpled bills of the 10 the homeless man had snatched just moments before.
I offered her the cash she recovered, which she wouldn’t accept, saying only, “Thank you is enough.” I hugged her, we went our separate ways, me wishing I’d asked her name.
The irony is that I was robbed on my way to celebrate the signing of a film option with Lee Stringer, a former homeless man who spent 12 years on the streets of New York during the 1980s and early 90s and documented the experience in his memoir, Grand Central Winter.
Living on the streets generally comes about from several convergences. The life Lee had known collapsed after the death of his brother and then his business partner. Soon after, Lee found himself without a roof over his head, trying to feed a crack-cocaine addiction. For six months I’d been in negotiations with Lee and his memoir’s publisher, Dan Simon, who discovered Lee in the pages of the now defunct Street News. We were finally meeting to sign the contract, celebrate and talk about taking Lee’s book to the big screen.
Who might play the lead of Lee at various stages of life and a ferocious drug addiction? Who could do a good impression of author Kurt Vonnegut, who championed Lee’s memoir and took him on his book tour when he released his 2005 book A Man with No Country? Who would share our vision of a gritty film that not only starred an unlikely hero but also the streets of New York at the height of their down-at-heel beauty during the 80s?
I believe in Lee. His story should be compulsory reading for every politician and policy maker, every judge and every attorney, every administrator working in public health, homelessness, and unemployment. And everyone else besides. But Lee’s book is no medicine to be read because it’ll make us feel better. Lee’s story is one of the most deeply human, moving and inspiring I’ve had the privilege to read.
So when the guy asked me for money, I was particularly inclined to help after being immersed in the realities of life on the street through the pages of Grand Central Winter. “Of course, I can help you,” I said rummaging through my bag for some loose singles.
The problem with a theft like that is it makes you weary. Once bitten twice shy. Will I so readily reach into my purse the next time someone needs a buck on the subway? Had I not just read Lee’s book, I wonder if I’d give to a homeless person again. But that’s what’s so important about good literature. It shifts your understanding, changes your position in a way that sound reasoning, facts and figures often can’t.
Most of us can intellectually understand homelessness and be sympathetic to the plight of people on the streets, after reading reports and articles. But sympathy isn’t enough and often it’s patronising. If all I had before I was robbed was sympathy, I would have been left feeling angry and victimised. Worse, I would have felt singled out.
I would have thought I was robbed because I am white and Harlem’s not the place for me it used to be. But that’s not why it happened and I didn’t feel any of those things.
Of course, that man shouldn’t have robbed me and, of course, I was shaken and upset after being set on like that by a stranger. It’s unnerving to be violated.
But what I felt was understanding. Not because I know the story of the guy who robbed me but because I know the story of a guy like him — Lee. I know a real human, living breathing story and that’s a whole different thing to knowing facts.
A human story needs to eat, to be warm, to take a shower every now and again, and maybe even feed a bad habit. Human need has many faces. Not all of them pretty.
Thanks to Lee’s book, one person’s bad decision won’t stop me offering kindness to a stranger in need. After all, what was I to the girl who put herself in danger to help me but a stranger in need?