A travel journal
to New York by Jose Kevo
Quote: Before the movie American Beauty, Ben E. King was crooning about a different kind of rose. Wilted after all these years? Absolutely not. Spanish Harlem's "garden" is abloom more than ever with varieties of life. Take the chance to stop and see, smell the roses...just look out for the thorns.
The area's multi-heritage composition, both passed and present, has more diversity than a patchwork quilt and can be found in a trio of local museums, but the greatest exhibits of the melting pot burst forth onto streets daily - including today's most dominant culture which has nothing to do with race or ethnicity.
Why pay midtown prices? Bargain shoppers will hit the jackpot along 3rd Ave. or 116th St. in the Shopping District. Sidewalks are jammed with racks of discounted clothing or household goods inexpensively priced for locals. You'll find everything from designer clothes/ghetto gear to every-day wear; linens and small appliances/electronics to c.d.'s of popular music.
Local flavor can't be fully appreciated without sampling the wide variety of ethnic foods...whether at a sit-down diner, or on the go with Street Treats detailed in this journal.
Entries provide an educative approach for helping "conscious" travelers understand and make the most of their time. Despite perceptions, risk factors are no greater here than anywhere in Manhattan.
Suggested resources include:
Public restrooms are limited and should be the only reason you stop at major fast food chains.
Signs say most stores accept credit cards, but they're often reluctant. Traveler's Cheques are "foreign" concepts. Come prepared with small amounts of cash. There's banks with ATM machines should you need more.
The Park View Hotel, located nearby on 110th St. & Lenox/6th Ave and reviewed in others' NYC journals, has been closed.
Subway: From anywhere on Manhattan's east side, find the green subway lines and head uptown. You'll need the #6-local line keeping in mind that once passing Grand Central, these run just as quickly as the #4 or #5 express trains. Otherwise, your last chance to transfer express to the local is 86th St. The #6 trains make stops at 103rd/110th/116th Sts.
Bus: The Uptown M1/M2/M3/M4 buses run along Madison Ave., and the M101/M102/M103/M104 buses run along 3rd Ave. The same bus lines run downtown along 5th and Lexington Avenues.
Either Subway or Bus costs .50 one-way.
Taxi cabs might seem the most obvious mode of transportation, but they're certainly not the quickest or cheapest. Depending on where you're departing from, and the amount of traffic, a one-way fare not including tip could easily be +.
Once you're in the neighborood, there's no better way to experience everything than by walking. An indepth Suggested Walking Tour has been outlined for this journal.
Restaurant | "Comida Criolla - the Food of Choice"
Sandy Restaurant, located on the northwest corner of 116th St./2nd Ave. is one of the few local eateries with ample space for sit-down dining. Serving huge portions for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the only thing deterring from this diner''''s island ambiance are city views out the windows.
Daily lunch specials include a free drink and range from $4.75-$6.00. My favorite stand-bys are the Pernil Asado; marinated roasted pork for $6.50, or the Chicharron de Pollo; marinated fried chicken chunks for $7.50. The menu, in Spanish/English, has no less than 18 other meat selections and 17 seafood dishes including several varieties of shrimp and lobster - priced a bit more between $12.00 - $17.00. All entrees are served with your choice of rice and beans, or tostones/fried plaintain chips, or french fries, and salad.
For those with smaller appetites, hearty soups with meats or seafoods can be more than a meal; a small bowl costing $2.50 or large for $4.00. There''''s also a long list of sandwiches made from deli cuts, or the roasted pork or chicken for an average of $3.00. And don''''t forget to save room for dessert: Flan de Huevo (Carmel Custard) which costs $1.00.
Selecting your beverage of choice should also extend beyond the usuals of soft drinks or tea. Large tropical juices including pineapple, tamarindo, ajonjoli (sesame), coconut are $1.00 a glass, or have a papaya, mango, mamey apple or guanabana/soursop milk shake for $2.50.
During this last visit, I''''d already eaten when rediscovering La Fonda Boricua; a once hole-in-the-wall diner which acquired the building next door and has expanded remodeling into a very chic and trendy restaurant that looked all but out of place for East Harlem. The interior was dark with exposed brick or hardwood walls; a long wooden bar for countertop dining or plenty of tables available, too.
They have no printed menu...which might discourage patrons not familiar with the typical types of Latino cuisine, though one can stand outside on the sidewalk and see basically everything that''''s being served.
The restaurant is located at 169 East 106th St. (between Lexington/3rd Ave.) just behind Blockbuster video.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 14, 2003
Around the neighborhood
New York, New York
Restaurant | "Street Treats & Other Ethnic Eats"
Cuchifritos (deep-fried fritter snacks) are displayed in windows of smaller Puerto Rican eateries and they cost $1.00 each. Most contain a seasoned ground beef filling. Alcapurrias are the most popular, oblong and dark brown with the shell made from ground yucca and spices. Tacos look more like deep-fried burritos and have spicier fillings. Papas de Relleno are golden yellow balls of fried mashed potatoes wrapped around the beef. Platanos de Relleno are oblong, a true yellow made from sweetened plaintains and include raisins and a dash of cinnamon. Bacalaitos are flattened codfish cakes with a chewy texture and flavor of Long John Silvers'''' crunchies. Chicharrones, always on the top shelf, resemble a dog''''s rawhide bone. They''''re the "real" fried pork rind treat -- tasty, though I broke a tooth on one before!
These can be found at La Isla on the northeast corner of 3rd Ave./104th; El Coqui''''s, just off the southwest corner of 3rd Ave./110th St. next to El Barrio Bakery with a pastry case to die for; Cuchifritos, located in the middle south side of the 116th block between 3rd/Lexington Aves; Sandy Restaurant, reviewed in this journal, or any number of street vendors with make-shift kitchen carts.
Most workers speak English. In warmer weather, storefront windows are opened, making it convenient to stand outside in front of the case, smile . . . and point!
Those looking to eat healthier shouldn''''t miss the stores and street vendors with large stands teeming with fresh produce -- including those lucious tropical fruits. Street vendors also have banged-up shopping carts with a special contraption attached for peeling bags of oranges or you might notice curious-looking flowers on a stick -- they''''re mangoes peeled and carved for a $1.00.
When not rabidly patrolling the streets, you''''ll find Mr. Softee Ice Cream trucks parked off most corners. Other cool, popular treats include coquitos (tropical sorbets dipped into paper cups) or paraguas (hand-shaved ice topped with fruit flavors) -- these are guaranteed to be better than any snow cone you''''ve ever had.
There are also Central Americans with their steaming pots of tamales (steamed cornmeal dough and ground meat or beans) and chili rellenos. Actual Mexican eateries are emerging at a dizzying pace. Tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and standard fares are very good as the "authentic" version of foods that have no comparison to Taco Bell.
Street Treats & Other Ethnic Eats
Around the neighborhood
New York, New York
Attraction | "Ethnic Legacies of a Neighborhood"
Expanding transportation systems in the mid 1800's made the area accessible and home to German and Irish immigrant laborers. Jews from the overcrowded Lower East Side began relocating Uptown for cheap tenament apartments, and the city's largest concentration of Sandinavians to date was found. An eventual labor strike started a downward spiral setting trends still manifested today.
Italian immigrants readily took jobs their new neighbors were striking against and ethnic feuding began. St. Cecelia's Church, on 106th between Park/Lexington Aves., was built in the 1870's from imported Italian materials for these people denied entry to established churches. Southern Italians were considered lowest of European classes, and a mass exodus by previous races left space for a wave of immigrants which by 1937 formed the largest Italian community of the Western world. Further succumbing to sterotypes turned this corner of Manhattan into the city's most impoverished area.
When Puerto Ricans began trickling in during the 30's/40's, their rural island tendencies immediately caste them below Italians; schools, hospitals, other civil factions scorned them with contempt. Intense rivalries between ethnic-based gangs brought crime to their poverty, and by the 1950's when more than one-third of the island's population came to the States - namely El Barrio, Italians had been outnumbered and repeated the exodus they'd spurred only a generation before. By the 60's, the city was rapidly razing blocks of ghetto tenaments in lieu of The Projects which integrated African Americans.
Today, "underground economy" is the greatest source of local income through illegal operations including working off the books while drawing public assistance. Abandoned buildings have been refurbished as low-income housing or cleared for Townhouses. There are more Caucasians and Asians. Blacks from America, West Africa and islands are second to Hispanics which come from all 20 Spanish speaking countries. Despite progress, history is again repeating itself in schools, churches, and streets with contempt for a new influx of immigrants gaining momentum daily. Spanish Harlem...El Barrio...East Harlem, but newer signs now say, Welcome to Little Mexico!
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on April 14, 2003
East Harlem - Ethnic Legacies
Around the neighborhood
New York, New York
Attraction | "Remnants of Puerto Rico"
For more than a century, this area served as the outdoor market hub, just like you'd find in any immigrant community. Great efforts to remodel the current enclosed market in the early 90s turned this into an upscale showcase. Every type of food and items from the island, as well as other daily necessities could be purchased in the authentic cultural environment. Unfortunately, trends have changed; vendors are closing their businesses and the future of this long-standing icon are in question.
Hand Made in Puerto Rico, located just off the northeast corner of 116th St. and 3rd Ave next to the Subway sandwich shop, is an oddity unto itself. The small shop serves as the community welcome and information center. It's somewhat of a museum for historical and cultural artifacts from Puerto Rico -- you'll need ask exactly what's for sale or just display. Spanish and English are spoken. The shop opens daily at noon and is closed Mondays.
You can't go far without noticing storefronts with Botanicas in the name . . . but you won't find plants. These shops sell statues, icons, candles, and all the necessary things for practicing Santeria -- the ancient island-based worship combining Catholicism with African and Indian tribal folklores and spirits. Catholicism is the area's largest professed religion, but Santeria is the most widely practiced. Shop owners don't mind if you browse and are often willing to explain the concepts of worship. While mildly/tamely similar to voodoo, don't volunteer the comparison unless they bring it up!
Especially if you're in the area during warm weather, you won't want to miss the Community Gardens, small patches of unused land developed by the locals. On weekends amid the flowers, vegetable plants, and fruit trees, there are social gatherings with sweet smells of foods being prepared and sounds of salsa. Some gardens are better tended than others, but all look rather scruffy during the winter. Specific gardens are listed in the Suggested Walking Tour.
East Harlem - Remnants Of Puerto Rico
Around the neighborhood
New York, New York
Attraction | "The Puerto Rican Day Festival & Parade"
Activities get underway around 10:00 a.m. on Saturday morning with the street festival which is marked out in the streets of Spanish Harlem in the form of a Latin cross - but the celebration is anything but holy. The epicenter is the intersection of 3rd Ave. and 116th St. with a mind-boggling assortment of attractions catering to a sea of revelers.
You''ll find vendors selling goods typical of any NYC street fair as well as boothes selling the best of Puerto Rican and other assorted food and drinks. The biggest attraction is the music. As many as eight concert-size stages with jumbo-tron screens are set-up about every six blocks featuring non-stop performances from some of the biggest Latin recording artists in the Salsa business.
On Sunday, the parade begins at 12:00-noon from 42nd St. and runs up 5th Ave. to 86th St. An estimated 1-million people line the Avenue 15+-deep to celebrate every aspect of Puerto Rican life on full, vibrant display. As if deafening sounds of music blasting from floats and island high school bands aren''t enough echoing though the canyoned streets, you''ll find the infectious rumble from the crowd all but contagious; everyone screaming and cheering full-tilt unless blowing on shrill sounding whisltes sold along the parade route. Your enjoyment levels will determine just how much you want to participate and see: the parade often lasts upwards of 6 hours making for a long stand in the June temps - commonly in the 90''s.
Perhaps you''ll recall the national headlines after the 2000 parade when a band of marauders went on a ''scope and grope'' spree sexually assaulting innocent bystanders? So is the parade something safe? At either event, you''ll still quickly note signs of guys responding to the ladies and their questionably provocative manner of dress and behavior. Expect the alcohol to be flowing freely.
For the parade, crowds and their control have seemed to be a lot more civil between 42nd and 59th Sts. with levels decreasing the farther north you go. Your greatest threat will likely come to your eyes/face getting hit by tips of mini-flags being fervidly waved by everyone in the dense crowd. Otherwise, just be aware, act accordingly and enjoy what it means to be Puerto Rican for a day.
Puerto Rican Day Parade
New York, New York 10022
+1 212 484 1222; +1
Attraction | "Unexplored Museums & Galleries of El Barrio"
The Taller Boricua Gallery has exhibits featuring various forms of artwork created by Puerto Rican and other Latino artists. The gallery's located in the newly remodeled Julia De Burgos Cultural Center, built in the mid-1800s and once even serving as a Civil War hospital. In addition to the first floor showroom, there's a large community room and courtyard in the back that often hosts live concerts featuring traditional Latin music.
The Cultural Center is on the southwest corner of 106th St. and Lexington Ave. The gallery is open from Tuesday through Saturday (except Thursday) noon to 6pm, on Thursday from 1 to 7pm, and on closed Sundays and Mondays (except for special events). Admission is free, though donations are "suggested". For exhibit information, call 212/831-4333 or check website.
Museo del Barrio is a neighborhood classic featuring exhibits from the global Spanish community, including ancient artifacts of Taino, Maya, Inca, and other Native American cultures that inhabitated lands before the Spaniards came. Newer artists are displayed along with the likes of Picasso or Dali. Location within the Hecksher School for Children, which includes a large auditorium, allows for concerts, theatrics, and dance performances from Hispanic groups from around the world.
Their website lists scheduled exhibitions and events. There's a $5 admission fee for adults, $3 for seniors, and children under 12 are free. The museum is open from 11am to 5pm Wednesday through Sunday at 1230 5th Ave/104 St. -- the farthest facility north on the city's famous Museum Mile.
Just a block south is the Museum of the City of New York, which, as the name suggests, displays various historical aspects of the city rather than have them scattered about in specialized museums. Their website lists all you'll need to know . . . including that they're closed on Sundays and Mondays, open from 10am to 5pm Tuesday through Saturday, and that they open at noon on Sundays. There's a $7 "suggested" donation admission for adults, $12 for families.
* You'll notice El Barrio's walls/sidewalks covered with paintings signed James de la Vega. This budding creator "supposedly" moved his gallery during March 2003 to the Lexington Ave. block between 103rd/104th where his work is displayed or for sale -- definitely worth checking out for art enthusiasts.
El Museo del Barrio
1230 Fifth Ave
New York, New York 10029
+1 212 831 7272
Attraction | "Straight-Up 'Hood, YO!"
When walking the streets, don't be initimidated by vast numbers of individuals milling about at any given hour of the day or by often questionable appearances and behaviors. Styles in dress often find their way into mainstream society, and while you might overhear conversations in Spanish, English or the mangled version of "Spanglish", you'll undoubtedly come across the dialect of 'Hoodish (an Ebonics-based means of communication with "hip" phrases and expressions that go out of style quicker than the fashions)
Street Culture has also heavily influenced the arts and entertainment of America as a means of voice from a people otherwise never heard. On any given corner, perhaps you'll find an elderly Latino banging on a bongo, singing about former life on the island while in direct competition with Mace, P-Diddy, or any other famous uptown Rap/Hip-Hop artist whose music is blasted from boomboxes or stereos in apartment windows. Movement to the music is inevitable whether a gentle sway/groove or all-out break dance.
One element you won't or shouldn't miss is art in the form of graffiti . . . beyond the scribblings of taggers. As you look/walk down side streets, you'll discover entire walls filled with murals depicting life in the ghetto or memorials to people who've died. Take some time to note the intricate details that have been created using airbrush or freehand straight from the can. The greatest showcase of talent is in the Graffiti Hall of Fame, located in the sunken schoolyard at 106th/Park Ave. If you're in the area on Memorial Day weekend, you can watch the artists work as they annually refresh this concrete canvas.
Another inner-city aspect you can't help but notice are The Projects (high-rise apartment buildings that warehouse America's poor). East Harlem has the highest concentration of projects for anywhere in the city and you can't even look down side streets without spotting another complex. The largest grouping runs between 112th/115th St. and 1st Ave. to 6th/Lenox Ave., with a questionable population of 37,000+! You'll be surprised how well-tended lawns and exteriors appear -- inside, the buildings' common areas look just the opposite with a deteriorated war zone motif. You'll have no problem traversing sidewalks that border complexes, but I don't recommend walking through courtyards.
New York, New York
Attraction | "The Rose's Thorns - How to Avoid getting pricked"
Use Common Sense -- Act accordingly as when visiting any neighborhood or city. Don''''t flash cash or carry it in purses, wallets or pockets easily targeted. Don''''t wear excessive jewelry, and be aware of your surroundings, keeping your guard up to levels which help protect, but don''''t deter from the experience.
Conduct Yourself With Purpose -- Pre-study my Suggested Walking Tour. Know and feel comfortable with your course of action. Indecisiveness as a clueless or lost tourist is not the image you want to portray. If making purchases, carry your packages typically, but firmly in hand.
Blend In -- Dress down for the day if you''''re so inclined. This is also a case where safety in numbers may not apply. Any group of more than three or four people begins to draw attention, commonly referred to as The Great White Herd. On the streets, speak politely if spoken to, but otherwise, go about your business. Consider the element of "shock value" when an individual might do or say something just to get your reaction or distract you. Ignore these tactics and you won''''t be bothered.
Respect -- Think about what your reactions would be if you saw a group of these people walking through where you live, acting all ghetto? This is not a trip to your local mall. Off my recommended path, people can be territorial of turf. Actions or signs of disrespect while you''''re passing could prove confrontational.
Assess Your Comfort Level -- If you feel uncomfortable at any point, keep moving or get out! People can sense levels of fear (anywhere) and often prey upon them. Also use these factors when pulling out cameras/camcorders, which also call attention to yourself. Settle for being here as the experience and memory . . . not easily captured on film.
Differences vs. Similarities -- There''''s always the chance you might see a crime or drug deal, feel intimidated by those who congregate on corners, or pass members of one of the area''''s "wannabe" gangs wearing their colors . . . just as the typical residents of East Harlem encounter them by chance regularly too. The bad minority can sometimes affect, but can never outnumber, the good majority with whom you''''ve more in common than you think. Keep an open mind and I''''ll guarantee you''''ll leave here a changed person.
East Harlem - The Rose's Thorns (How To Avoid Getting P)
Around the neighborhood
New York, New York
Begin by taking the #6 uptown train and exit at 103rd St on the right/uptown side of Lexington Ave. Once aboveground, head north as street numbers increase. Don't head up the large hill on Lexington Ave., which leads south.
The new gallery for local artist James de la Vega is said to be somewhere along the right side of Lexington Ave. within this first block. He recently relocated -- if you don't see his shop and are interested, simply ask anyone. Otherwise, your first stop should be on 104th St. between Lexington and 3rd Ave. to see a block of restored Old Spanish Harlem. From here, continue up Lexington Ave to the corner of 106th St. where you'll find the newly remodeled Julio De Burgos Cultural Center. The Taller Boricua Gallery is located inside on the 1st floor.
From this corner, head left/west half-way down the block for St. Cecilia's, a Catholic church that was built in the 1870s. It's usually open for viewing and worth stopping by to the domed, frescoed ceiling and stained-glass windows. The generic building directly across the street houses a number of activities, including studios for all BET and cable channel cooking shows. You can enter the main lobby and check with the conceirge if you're interested in getting tickets for the audience of a show.
Go back right/east on 106th crossing Lexington Ave. until you come to 3rd Ave. and take a left heading north. This takes you through the heart of the East Harlem shopping district, where stores are open seven days a week and during any hours you should plan to be here.
Once at 116th St., take a right if you're interested in seeing many shops and eateries from the new Mexican immigrants, or Sandy's Diner referenced in this journal, which is located on the corner of 116th/2nd Ave. The Hand Made in Puerto Rico shop and information center is just north of the 116th/3rd Ave. intersection next to the Subway sandwich shop on the northeast corner. Otherwise, make a left on 116th off 3rd Ave. where you'll find more shops.
If you've seen enough, there's another #6 subway station at 116th/Lexington Ave. where you should take a downtown train with the correct exit on the side of the street where the cars are also heading downtown. You'll also find a Lexington Ave. bus stop if you prefer to use this instead.
Otherwise, continue west, passing more shops until you come to the elevated subway tracks that split Park Ave. In the block just west of the tracks on 116th, you'll find the highest concentration of Botanicas -- shops which sell religious artifacts for practicing the island-based worship of Santeria. Back on Park Ave., head south down the slight hill where you'll easily find La Marqueta situated under the tracks.
From here, exit to the left/east side and continue south. Perhaps you'll recognize the fenced-in schoolyard on Park Ave. and 112th from the movie Music of the Heart starring Meryl Streep -- a 1999 release that was filmed mostly in this school about a real-life East Harlem music teacher. On the corner of 112th St., cross under the tracks and keep heading west towards Madison Ave. where you'll pass the East Harlem Little League baseball field bookended by some of the most well-tended Community Gardens you'll find in the area.
On Madison Ave., take a left heading down two blocks to pass more gardens. Then take another left on 110th St., which has been renamed Tito Puente Way. The famous Latin performer grew up on this block in a building that once stood where the large enclosed parking yard is now. When you come to the near/right side of Park Ave., take a right.
Keep heading south on the right side of the tracks for three more blocks and once you cross 107th St., you'll begin to see the fenced in sunken schoolyard that contains the Graffiti Hall of Fame. Halfway down the block is a back entryway, but keep going to the corner of 106th St. and take a right -- this leads to another entry at the side of the school where you can enter and browse the graffiti artwork.
When finished here, continue right/west crossing Madison Ave. You'll now clearly see the trees of Central Park just ahead beyond 5th Ave. Take a left on 5th Ave. if you're interested in touring the Museo del Barrio or the Museum of the City of New York located between 103rd/105th Sts. Otherwise, you'll easily detect bus stops along the park border where you can take any bus back downtown along 5th Ave.
Extending This Walking Tour
Just across from the Museums, you'll see an entryway with tall cast-iron gates leading to the Conservatory Gardens, which is a place too beautiful to miss if you've come this far. Aside from the natural beauty, note the sharp contrast in atmosphere compared to the neighborhood you just left one block away. In the northern wing of the garden is a side gate leading to the Harlem Meer/lake and the Northern Upper Realms of Central Park. The earlier referenced bus stops are still just beyond the park wall. Otherwise, follow the path which circles the lake. Either direction eventually winds its way around to the park exit at 110th St. and 6th/Lenox Ave.
Just across the boulevard is a subway stop where you can take the 2 or 3 subway line downtown. This area is Harlem and notice the great efforts to restore this area in every facet of life. If you'd like to continue, head north up Lenox Ave. on the right side. At 116th St., take a right and halfway down the block is the Shabazz Muslim Marketplace, which has a large selection of African imports, knock-off designer wear, and other goods. You'll find the same 2/3 subway stop on the corner of Lenox Ave./116th St. and again at 125th St. should you continue walking uptown.
Caged Boundaries Without Walls
You won''''t find this in any guidebook, but Manhattan has an invisible apartheid line dividing east 96th St. -- the south being the Upper East Side; the wealthiest congressional district in all of NYC. And simply by crossing the street north, "things" drastically change within one block. Seeing is believing . . . whether you''''re standing on 96th St./Park Ave where Metro North commuter lines suddenly come above ground to divide and disrupt the neighborhood, or you remain on the #6-subway line to play into a long-standing joke: "Any white foks still on the train after 96th St. must have missed their stop!" If you doubt me, start watching who exits the train up until this point. But there''''s nothing to fear.
East Harlem is the uptown gateway to one of the largest racially segregated concentrations of poor people in the U.S. when combined with communities of Harlem, Washington Heights, and the entire borough of The Bronx. Aggressive efforts with the 2000 census still only turned up approximately 170,000 residents in this small corner of Manhattan though city officials believe it''''s easily between 300,000 and 450,000. More than one-third of the traceable population is under the age of 18, which is why you''''ll notice large schools on almost every other corner that annually rank among the worst on city-wide tests.
Over time, people have been conditioned to believe they''''re exactly where they belong surrounded by exactly what they deserve which creates a caged, restless feeling. There''''s a double-standard with accepted rules, behavior and expectation when venturing beyond their borders exemplified no where better than when heading south across 96th St. Suddenly, riding a bicycle on the sidewalks will get you summoned. Entering a corner deli with friends, like you would a local bodega, can set off a panic from shop keepers. And far greater than racial prejudices are every element of accepted Street Culture, which largely defines perceived success in the ''''hood, sets individuals up for failure when entering the so-called ''''Real World''''.
Familiarity within one''''s comfort zone is a norm of human tendency, but life can get rather stale when we limit our options and cease to expand horizons. Convincing Spanish Harlem residents there was a whole world waiting beyond their invisible boundaries, as described in another journal''''s Excessive Travels entry, is likely no different than reasoning with any of you there''''s more to see and experience in life than what you''''re settling for.
Home IS Truly Where Your Heart Is
"I''''d just finished walking the last of the kids home and by now it was probably after 10:00 and an eerie, cloud-shrouded full moon was just cresting above the rows of 18-story project buildings. The crack dealers were manning their regular corners as others scurriend to and fro; a few others clustered around on the sidewalks over conversation -- just the normal activity of a quiet Friday night. In looking around, I got the warm fuzzies heading for home and unconsciously caught myself thinking how much I love this neighborhood and living here..." 10/17/97 from my personal logs.
When I was given approval to leave a Not-for-Profit''''s midtown office headquarters to create a Youth Center for at-risk street kids, I only thought I knew what I was getting into. When discovering El Barrio from previously walking the streets countless times, it was hordes of children which captured my heart -- including one of my first memories of an innocent toddler being comforted by his mother over sadness of a dead rat lying on the sidewalk. How quickly innocence fades -- both mine and for these kids being questionably raised by family who''''d already succumbed as products of their environment.
Questions from outsiders about life in the ''''hood were never ceasing as if to feed the forbidden of their curiosities. Over time, I realized it didn''''t matter who I was or what my purpose for being there included. My zip code was 10029 automatically qualifing me to withstand any daily struggles of inner-city life. I was never spared days with no heat or hot water; cleanliness meant nothing to pest and vermin. Mail was frequently lost, a dangerous leak in my ceiling draining through an electric smoke detector was never fixed, and Mayor Guiliani''''s quality of life changes that cleaned-up Manhattan never seemed to cross 96th St . . . just like most New Yorkers.
Despite what you might be thinking, enduring these commanalities only solidified my position within the community including purposefully living without air-conditioning, top-line electronics, and other perceived, affordable luxuries that would''''ve set me apart, or as potential target for theft. Realness of life was all but refreshing since everyone else was also chin-deep in shared problems; there was no since pretending. My biggest obstacles often centered around innuendos of when the best, most alluring elements quickly turned to the worst.
Ever-playing Salsa and Merengue music I loved so much suddenly lost its appeal at 3:00 a.m . . . just as did noise from vibrant streets coming through open windows on hot, sleepless nights. 40 pounds of laundry/groceries and six flights of stairs certainly took their toll certain days. Living amongst so many races was a double-edged sword when diversities vs. differences crossed the fine line creating on-going tensions and violence. But most devestating were days I felt just as trapped, helpless, and hopeless within these blocks I called home which ever-so-slowly were refining me into yet another product of the environment.
There was one luxury I unconsciously clung to likely never afforded to any of these people: If and when the time came that enough was enough, I could always bring myself to pack-up and get out . . . including for more than just a walk around Central Park, or another trip to somewhere on the globe!
Living With the Memories
My years in Spanish Harlem provided experiences that redifined my life, and I''''ve described were just as authentic as what a Peace Corps volunteer or a missionary encounters within a foreign country. No visit back to NYC would be complete without a warm bag of cuchifritos and an extra-large cup of Tamarindo juice, or picking up the latest Latin music to hit the charts. And of course . . . pounding the pavement, as in the many years gone by, and finding just about everyone right where I left them.
In looking around, there''''s no doubt I''''ve resuccumbed to the tranquil, country living of the Missouri Ozarks this whole experience was rooted from. I''''m still certain of the why, but there''''s no way I can begin to imagine or understand the how. Thankfully these days, I walk through Spanish Harlem just as you potentially will . . . as a student-of-life visitor!