Pray for Harlem

IMG_6844 by Adnan Islam

It’s perhaps one of the signs of our internet age when a massive tragedy happens a mile or so away, and I first hear about it from panicked loved ones and friends. At first, I was doubting my own understanding of the reports. I was just emerging from a week of pretty delirious bout with fever and kidney stones, realizing as I awoke that I was without pain and really conscious enough to be able to begin to process everything I had missed. It was another thing to have panicked messages start piling up on top of that week’s worth of e-mail and WTFs.

My first thought at the stream of “Just Heard, are you OK?” messages was wondering how everyone found out I had been ill for so long, other than I hadn’t made so much as a few feverish likes from my phone that whole week. An unknowing panic set in, until I finally heard from my partner that buildings collapsed in East Harlem, specifically 116th and Park.

I live and work in the lower 130s & Amsterdam, firmly situated in the part of West Harlem called Manhattanville, after the housing project of the same name. Were I in any other part of Manhattan, I’d be 2-3 neighborhoods away from the incident. The tragedy is 1.5 miles away from my home by foot or car. I didn’t even hear the explosions, which were strong enough to knock pictures off of walls in buildings in the neighborhood where it occurred.

I’m truly grateful that so many of you reached out to make sure I was OK, especially the small minority of you who knew I was actually quite unwell if for no reason other than I stopped appearing in your FitBit leaderboard.

That being said, the explosion happened almost a world away even though it’s basically the same neighborhood I live in, socially and technically. While we Pray for Harlem, I hope it’s appropriate to try to clear up some misconceptions about Harlem, this historical epicenter of Black Culture and today’s refuge for all persons of varied privilege and different colors.

1) Harlem is Manhattan’s largest neighborhood by area. It encompasses all of Manhattan’s Community Districts 9, 10 and 11. You could fit a combined Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy and Greenpoint in Harlem. (Harlem is only slightly smaller than Berlin’s Kreuzberg, though it has more than double the population.)

2) Harlem is home to nearly 350,000 people. By 2010 census numbers, it would be the 53rd largest city in the US, edging out Tampa, Florida.

3) Harlem is no longer majority Black and hasn’t been since 2008. It’s actually majority “other”.

4) Harlem is one of the most gentrification-resistant neighborhoods in Manhattan. I cite the persistent proliferation of storefront churches and a consistent third of all residents living on some form of public assistance as proof.

What’s my point to all this? Harlem is as magical a place as it is tragic and misunderstood.

Harlem is magical precisely because it’s consistently been a place where the downtrodden and excluded have triumphed over the odds and created amazing culture and thriving commerce with whatever they could grasp. It’s not just about being Black, it’s about being excluded from the world that our nation’s elite embody just to the south of us.

Harlem is tragic because it’s been consistently neglected. Whether you’re talking about something as seemingly trivial as the unavailability of FiOS or water mains collapsing onto gas lines, Harlem comes dead last in Manhattan in terms of improvement and maintenance of services and infrastructure. Sadly, you shouldn’t be shocked to see a lot more tragedies like the one we’re seeing now.

The silver lining in all this is the gentrification that started in the 90s and continues all over Brooklyn today mostly passed Harlem by. Harlem remains the largely working class and minority-majority neighborhood it’s been for over a century. The one exception is the area just to the south of where I live around Columbia University called Morningside Heights. That neighborhood gentrified so quickly and completely that even Wikipedia cites three sources confirming what all the locals know: everything West of Amsterdam and south of 121st is a part of the Upper West Side.

The UWS might continue straight on past 125th to the part of West Harlem I live in. Were it not for the Manhattanville and Grant Houses, Columbia University and the City College of New York campuses might border each other. Given the current pace of Columbia’s Manhattanville area construction, they may actually meet sometime in the next decade or so.

While I shudder to even think it, one of the reasons they won’t meet anytime soon falls under the same class of neglect that likely led to today’s tragedy. The three Community District Needs statements for the area covered by Harlem all say the same thing: Harlem needs jobs, burned out housing to be redeveloped for families and increased infrastructure development. The lack of all three are such fixable problems, just as those that led to the building collapse in the first place.

The problem is that the will just isn’t there. Crime rates have come down like they have in the rest of the city, but the investment in rebuilding is so slow that it’s essentially imperceptible.

One shocking example of this happens to be the supermarket that burned to the ground across the street from my apartment. It didn’t even end up in the New York Times, even though it was the single most massive fire I’ve ever seen (even topping the 2013 man burn.) Even though you generally don’t start construction in the Winter, there’s still not even plans on the book for that vacant lot carved into the Manhattanville Houses superblock. In the time that land has gone idle, dozens of “needle towers” went into planning stages.

The “burn down, nobody cares” story is one you can see driving throughout Harlem, despite being a few miles and fewer than a handful of subway stops from record real estate developments.

Pray for Harlem indeed.

Because I’m convinced nobody reads to the end of these posts, as a thank you for sticking with me, I will send you a $2 bill in an envelope or just hand you one the next time I see you in person. To claim your prize, you must e-mail me via this link with a valid postal address or offer to hang out in NYC in 2014. Offer is valid for the first 50 posse members* who see it. If you’re exceptionally lazy, you can always just tweet at me (@nickf4rr) with the hashtag #twodollars.

For every $2 bill I claim I’ll be donating $8 to the neighborhood charities that appear to be doing the most good for the residents affected by the disaster in East Harlem.

* – Posse membership is open to anyone who has not repeatedly stolen research under false pretenses then presented it without proper attribution as their own work.

(Thanks to Adnan Islam for sharing his photo IMG_6844 under a Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) Creative Commons license.)