Harlem Gentrification Woes; And, McCain Goes Nutty

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Columnist: Notes From The Frontline]

These days so many questions confront us.
Should Native Americans have rejoiced at the arrival of European colonist? Is real change, in our time, a realistic possibility? Was this year’s Labor Day bash, really the last?

One meets such fabulous old time Harlemites at the annual end-of-summer barbeque and jazz-jam-fest, held in the narrow paved courtyard behind the Belvedere Apartments. It’s on Edgecombe Avenue, at 150th Street.

"I call it the concrete picnic," said a strikingly beautiful Dorothea Towles, with her husband Tom Church close behind, when we met there in 1997. Pretending, nonchalantly, that it was nothing out of the ordinary, watching her gracefully descend the steep staircase, was a revelation. So, it was hardly a surprise, when acclaimed photographer Marvin Smith once said of the beige blond, "she was one of our first Black models in Paris. When I was there in 1950, Dorothea, was the toast of the town!" 

You’ve got to hand it to Sylvia Alston, because when giving a party, she really knows how to make folks get-down and break-loose. Bill Perkins, the Rangels, Lana Turner, everyone comes for her Labor Day do and no one ever leaves disappointed.

Convincing her landlord to underwrite this jamboree, for the past 20 years she’s also persuaded her friends, accomplished music makers, like marvelous dancer Mabel Lee, to provide rollicking nonstop entertainment.

But, people places and circumstances are changing in Harlem and who knows, for this party, might it actually be the end?

Writing about today’s tumultuous upheaval, New York Times’ reporter Timothy Williams describes what’s occurring in Harlem as, "a 21st-century laboratory for integration."

Determining that some local residents are hostile to the very idea of "newcomers," Williams through a long series of articles, underplays and overlooks the crucial role of his laboratory’s mad-scientist.

From rent regulated apartments, Uptown political leaders have colluded with their immensely rich counterparts Downtown. Consistently they’ve perused public policy that promotes developments like Columbia University’s bio-tech industrial park or luxury housing, at the expense of plans that benefit the existing community. It’s the same kind of trickle down vision held by George Bush and John McCain.

Interviewing pioneers, lured here "by stately century-old brownstones and relatively modest rents," giving public voice to their harassed feelings, Williams the reporter, met, among others, 39 year old Denise Hand. " My grandmother lived in Harlem," she notes. "I don’t feel like the interloper, because I realize the city changes. I don’t feel guilty."

An entire page in the Times was devoted to similar expressions of resignation, in the face of irresistible forces, like "history" or "the marketplace." The report also pointed out the lighter side of the area’s culture clash, as when a liquor store clerk offers to uncork the three bottles of wine a "new" customer purchases.

On a more shrill note, Williams introduces me in the article.

"Not everyone, however, believes Harlem’s experiment with racial integration is going well," he quips. "Michael Henry Adams, a historic preservationist and community activist, said the influx of newcomers, particularly whites, had begun to turn Harlem into something ordinary."

"‘This is happening all over the city, and it’s wrong everywhere, but it’s particularly wrong in Harlem where you have the black cultural capital being devoid of black people….I don’t think tourist will continue to come to the neighborhood if it is entirely white.""

Did I really say that? That way? Sure, I did. Only, as one might imagine, I said much more besides that.

All too aware of any journalist space limitations, I realize at the same time, that editing down someone’s remarks too radically, might change the intended meaning. Believing this to be the case, I wrote to William’s of my disappointment and he responded: "Michael, the article was a companion piece to an earlier piece I wrote about the emotions of longtime residents in the midst of gentrification. This is not something about a ‘noble experiment,’ but a modern-day story about integration -- or lack thereof. I did not encapsulate your quote. The quote is what you said -- you have said similar things at many public meetings during the past two or three years, so I'm a little confused. What would you like to have added to the quote?"

Which elicited this response: "That people of every race, class and age are displaced all over ny and it's wrong, that the non-integration, non-noble experiment results not innocently, from chance bargain hunting but due most of all to deliberate, concerted government action, motivated by enhanced taxes and jobs, perhaps, but guaranteeing displacement and wrecked lives, not because people are nostalgic for fried chicken or fortified beer, but because they're yet again ignored and left homeless."

Don’t get me wrong, merely because he’s gifted, young, attractive and makes lots more money than I do, I’ve nothing against Timothy Williams. Whoever we are, whatever anyone might think to the contrary, it’s still not easy to be Black and successful in America.

Foremost, one’s reasoning or motives are liable to be always second-guessed. Often, as a result, at some point, the person accessing your efforts most critically, with the greatest skepticism, becomes a doubtful self.

It’s a power game and all people, sometimes, are subject to the dynamic of being tested in unequal relationships. Some primates mitigate disparate status with superiors, by ritualized self-subjugation.

Before any threat of conflict can arise, they assume a submissive position, for defusing sexual interaction. To cope, some humans also emulate such primitive behavior. Chiefly for us ever-threatening boisterous Black men, seeking equal footing can carry a high cost.

Dealing with those who wish, unreasonably, to make one submit to their will, being deemed unreliable, because you’re Black, is certainly tiresome. Such ill or unfair treatment can become so burdensome, that frequently, it’s tempting, even preferable, to ignore race, to imagine that it doesn’t really matter.

One rationalizes: in New York at least, skin color is only a minor annoyance. No longer a true encumbrance, as in the past, being Black surely won’t cause someone to automatically question one’s ability or wisdom?

"Every day! It happens every day to me, even now!"

The insistent speaker was Time Warner’s Richard Parsons. About five years ago, he was hosting a reception before a special performance of August Wilson’s final play, Radio Golf. Overhearing a group of us, that included Susan Taylor, discuss the implications, of being Black, he’d spoken right up.

"Surely, not for a man at your level Mr. Parsons?" I asked, shocked by a spontaneous confession so at odds with breezy profiles I’d read.

"There’s not a day that passes, that someone doesn’t question, whether or not I know what I’m doing, because I’m Black, " he persisted.


Worse than not really being a maverick, far from putting his country first, for the sake of becoming president, Senator John McCain has repudiated virtually everything he ever professed to believe in. With all the determination of a Joseph Goebbels, his campaign employs a mantra of deceptions.

The effectiveness of so many of his false accusations lies not solely in the unwavering way in which they’ve been leveled. It’s because Barack Obama is Black, that so many seem so eager to accept anything unbecoming that’s said about him.
Inflamed by Obama’s dreaded Blackness, sometimes McCain’s worst charges have been subtlety delivered in silence, written between the lines.

Juxtaposing his own heroism during Vietnam, his eagerness, now and always, to strike first and ask questions afterward, McCain has insidiously attempted to portray Obama’s preference for diplomacy as rank, unpatriotic cowardice.
Fortunate to have avoided America’s most recent wars, some will illogically interpret Senator Obama’s lack of combat service as an unwillingness to serve our nation.

When cognizant of the fate of other leaders who pursued a progressive agenda, from Lincoln to King, one reaches a different conclusion.

Knowing the risk that Obama assumes for himself and for his family, aware that he’s nonetheless still dedicated to helping to make the United States a better place, one recognizes that "putting country first" can be something more than either a hollow phrase or the calculated perversion of a gallant record.






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