Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Harlem shuffle

Finally typing up some of my New York notes. Feeling nostalgic ...

It’s raining when we emerge from the subway station; a dense, feathery drizzle. I squint through it as we pause on a street corner to get our bearings, huddled over the Lonely Planet. We choose a direction and stride, heads ducked to keep the rain from our eyes.

Fast food restaurants flash by – McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s – and I realise how rare they have been on our New York journey so far. In fact, if it weren’t for the distant view of skyscrapers, I might think we had left Manhattan behind. The buzz of Midtown and the moneyed bohemia of Greenwich Village have given way to grey streets and cheap storefronts. No more tourist kitsch or studied cool.

The faces we pass are increasingly Hispanic; taco vendors stand in the drizzle. Shop signs are in Spanish. We are walking in the wrong direction, now deep in so-called Spanish Harlem, rather than the traditional African American district we are heading for, where we hope to see Malcolm Shabbazz Mosque (where Malcolm X preached) and eat home-style Southern food. Time is short and we’ve just come from Mexico – we don’t need to linger here.

Back past the subway station, and over the invisible border to Harlem proper. Harlem is in the process of being gentrified; in New York as in Sydney, real estate prices and hot new neighbourhoods are the talk of the town. Our New York friend, D, tells us that a couple of years ago you could pick up a Harlem brownstone for $200,000-$300,000. Now, you’d be lucky to pay a million.

So, the general shabbiness of this million-dollar New Neighbourhood comes as a shock. The Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market is the first stop on our Lonely Planet tour, described as a popular marketplace and recommended for ‘alfresco shopping’. Rainbow-painted, flag-topped twin domes rise above green and yellow columns at either side of the entrance, bordering a yellow plastic sign adorned with an Islamic star. High-rise commission flats tower in the background; immediately next door, a grey brick building is sheathed in scaffolding, scraps of plastic sheeting flapping in empty windows. The market is shielded by wire mesh gates; the aisles rooved with metal frames slathered with blue plastic and hung with fluorescent lighting. The stallholders huddle in their alcoves behind card tables piled with the woollen caps, scarves and beanies we’ve browsed on Manhattan street corners, or folded African tunics in cheerful colours. There is gaudy jewellery and hanging racks lined with more tunics. The ‘alfresco’ atmosphere is sombre, to match the weather perhaps. The stallholders offer us the guarded smiles I recognise from the more touristy parts of Mexico; not friendly, but ready to pretend, in order to make a sale. They’re not delighted by our presence in their neighbourhood, but tolerant.

We browse quickly, sparsely, and move to the corner of Lenox Street, simultaneously known as Malcolm X Boulevard. We are looking for the mosque where he preached; both The Husband and I devoured his autobiography some years ago, and both of us it count it among our favourite books. (In fact, I used to tease The Husband mercilessly that he was ‘pretty fly for a white guy’, given his intense interest in African American culture.)

The mosque should be ‘next door’ to the market, according to the Lonely Planet, but we don’t see it anywhere. There is a fish market, an apartment building and a giant food market (actually a supermarket), but no sign of a mosque. We cross the street, in the direction of a grey and red brick building topped with bulbous green plaster domes. It doesn’t really look like a mosque, but we’re getting desperate. It’s not a mosque; it’s a community centre and a row of businesses: a shoe repair store, a business outreach centre, a school.

Starving and soaking wet, with the rain increasing in density overhead, we give up and head for a nearby ‘soul food’ restaurant, Amy Ruth’s. Yes, it’s listed in the Lonely Planet. And, for the first time since we’ve left the subway station, the Lonely Planet doesn’t disappoint. As I sink into my chair and wipe my glasses clear, I feel the gloom of the morning melt away. The walls are hung with glossy framed photographs of Oprah in South Africa. In one picture, her arm is casually hooked around Nelson Mandela’s neck. The power relationship suggested by the gesture makes me slightly uncomfortable.

The waitress brings us menus decorated with a sepia photograph of the eponymous Amy Ruth – and thumbnail happy snaps of the owner with all the famous customers who have passed through these doors, from Alicia Keys to a satisfied-looking Bill Clinton (who has an office in Harlem). The menu features a lot of fried chicken, a delectable-looking line of waffles, and a variety of foods I’ve read about but never eaten, like collard greens and cheesy grits. Our orders are taken with an air of polite servitude by a determinedly surly waitress. I don’t know if she’s having a bad day, if she hates her job, or if she doesn’t like tourists (or all of the above), but it’s plain that she is determined to fulfil her job description nonetheless. The waitress at the next time is warmer, more genuine.

A puffy white couple sit before fried chicken sandwiches, chewing expressionlessly. The woman wears square wire-frame glasses and a red parka vest over a white turtleneck. A greying mullet laps the nape of her neck. She knocks her drink over the table, liquid dripping from the table’s edge and onto her jeans. She dabs at her knees with a napkin as their waitress materialises and inspects the woman’s sandwich, bobbing in a lake of water.
Ohhhhhhhhh no, I’ll get you another one’ she clucks.
‘No, it’s fine.’ The woman is obviously keen to be free of the attention.
The waitress soon brings out enormous slices of pie and the pair continue their meal.

Wedges of steaming yellow cake are laid before us as we await our orders. Corn bread, compliments of the house. Something else I’ve read about, but never seen, let alone tried. It is unbelievably good, made better by the cold outside and our breakfast-free stomachs. It is 1pm. The Husband and I have been money-conscious and ordered fried chicken sandwiches, This, too, is fantastic – crispy, succulent, nothing whatsoever like the ‘southern fried’ chicken exported around the world. Curiosity has driven me to order cheesy grits as a side. It looks like couscous floating in liquid, and tastes something like that, too. Only with cheese. Fluorescent yellow, sticky processed cheese. The whole thing is curiously tasteless. It’s my least favourite thing, and I only manage a few lacklustre mouthfuls.

Out on the street, we are refuelled and ready to find the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque. We walk in a small circle, from the restaurant, past the domed building, back to the market and back again. Not a sign of a mosque, though we do spy a few churches nearby. (There’s a saying: in Harlem, there’s a bar on every corner and a church on every block.) Eventually, in desperation, we enter a nearby pharmacy to ask for help. The shelves are sparsely stocked, the aisles deserted. Nobody behind the counter either. We stand by the till and shout tentatively into the back room. A small, white-haired white man shuffles to our aid. We explain our dilemma and ask if he knows where the mosque is. He squints and shakes his head.
‘I drive my car here every day from Queens, I park my car across the street, I go home. I’m sorry, I don’t know the area at all.’
We ask at the supermarket next door, where we meet a knowing look and step-by-step instructions.

Strangely, we still can’t find it. We walk up and down the stretch of road where the mosque should be – in front of the green-domed building. Only the businesses, and the school. We walk to Amy Ruth’s and back. A string of passers by wear traditional African dress – floor-length robes and pillbox turbans. Some of them turn and enter the school.
‘The mosque MUST be here,’ says The Husband.
And suddenly, we see it. Or rather, he does. The small white sign over the school: ‘Malcolm Shabbazz Masjid. Sister Clara Muhammad Elementary & Secondary Schools.’ Masjid is mosque in Arabic. It was right in front of us all this time.

Look at the sign on the far right: that's it!

A few men mill around the entrance, talking. They look hard-edged, serious, huddled into parkas and beanies. We don’t go in. We cross the road and take photos instead. From the unprepossessing shopfront, it doesn’t seem that the people who live here are particularly keen on attracting tourists to the site.

We pass a discount department store as we round the corner onto Malcolm X Boulevard and head for the next site, The Liberation Bookstore, a well-known independent community bookstore specialising in African American culture. I duck backwards, past the woman selling newspapers outside who didn’t know where the Malcolm Shabazz mosque was (we asked around a bit) and zip past the armed security guard and into the store. The Husband follows. I want an umbrella. There is no umbrella in sight, but I do see $10 hooded parkas. I squeeze between the clothing racks and a mirror and peel off my own damp jacket to inspect myself. The parka is fleecy on the inside; fake fur lines the hood. I am warm and dry. Even if I can’t fit this in my bag and have to leave it behind, it will be worth it for the afternoon. Other customers eye me with a blend of curiosity and suspicion as I queue and pay. We are the only white faces in the semi-crowded store. I guess even the tourists who do make it here don’t generally detour to buy clothes. At the doorway, as we leave, a small crowd has gathered. The security guard, the woman selling newspapers and one of the shop assistants are confronting a shoplifter. They are offering to not call the police if he gives back the stolen goods they are convinced he has hidden. The shop assistant is dominating proceedings, shouting at him as if she's a Jerry Springer guest.

We pass beauty and hair braiding salons, greasy spoons specialising in fried chicken and a soul food catering service. There really IS a church on every corner. A sign outside on one them reads: ‘It’s More Than a Symbol, It’s the Solution. Bring Your Family Back to God.’ Obviously, gentrification is in its early stages; there are still plenty of non-millionaires here. It’s obvious from the people walking by, from the 99 cent stores, and from the lack of polished-wood coffee shops. We pass buildings in various stages of disrepair: tired-looking red-brick buildings, boarded-up brownstones, and other brownstones elegantly restored (or preserved). Sometimes, we peer down side streets lined with gorgeous Queen Anne brownstones, bare-branched trees and – inevitably - parked SUVs. These pockets of full-blown gentrification are mirror images of Brooklyn’s Park Slope.

When we eventually reach the Liberation Bookstore, after pausing to glimpse the Apollo Theatre (famous for hosting the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and the Jackson Five early in their careers), it is well and truly shut.* Iron bars cover the windows and door. We look mournfully through the windows and read the sign on the door that confirms, according to the hours displayed, that it SHOULD be open. The windows are plastered with political pamphlets and stickers. One declares against the war in Iraq, following up with (something alone the lines of): ‘the only terrorists OUR community has ever known are the NYPD’. It’s interesting, and sobering, after spotting the NYPD t-shirts and coffee mugs all over Midtown and the spontaneous declarations of love scribbled on the streets of Brooklyn and much of Manhattan. Like the vast painted wall in Park Slope given over to: ‘God bless the NYPD and FDNY’, with an American flag flying in the background.

We are tired and somewhat despondent. We walk a few blocks further, before pausing in front of another flowering of commission flats behind a supermarket.
‘Shall we hail a bus and go?’ asks The Husband. I agree. It’s entirely likely that we missed the best of Harlem by not continuing on. But two disappointing cultural landmarks were enough for one day.

* As an anonymous commenter kindly pointed out, the Liberation Bookstore has been shut for several years. (I did wonder after googling and finding some articles about the fight against its impending closure, but as these were dated 2003 and the Lonely Planet was published last year, I figured it must have somehow survived. Apparently not.)


Anonymous said...

Liberation bookstore has been closed for years. They struggled to stay open but times have moved on.

Ariel said...

Thanks for the tip. I did wonder - and have added a footnote to that affect. Pity. It looked fascinating, from the outside peering in.

redcap said...

I always knew that the US was unusual, but this sounds like Africa at its... furthest. I'm sorry to say that of all the things I saw in Africa, Nelson Mandela's cell moved me the least. Perhaps it was the cynical exploitation of Robben Island as The Cradle of South African Democracy. But then, it's very likely that I'm an awful person. I'm sorry that your tender dreams couldn't be realised.

Ariel said...

Really? I didn't realise it sounded particularly unusual. Yeah, it's usually more fun hunting for landmarks than actually finding them, in my experience. And when those experiences are packaged for you and thrust at you, with expectations of HOW YOU SHOULD FEEL, it's hard to actually feel anything. At least the Malcolm Shabbazz Mosque didn't suffer from that problem. In a way, it was actually good to find that it was more of a functional part of the community than a tourist stop.