Living in Harlem is a very different experience to living on the Upper East Side. While that may seem like a statement of the obvious, it’s a reminder of the ways neighbourhoods can change so quickly on this tiny island. Of course, coming from Belfast, that’s also no surprise to me – but in Northern Ireland, while the flags and kerbstones may change in an area, but the people look the same. Here, it is still a shock to suddenly find you are the only white person on the street, in the restaurant, in the carriage on the subway. We met up with the Queen of Manhattan the other night and during our conversations, she asked how it was up here. It was great, I told her, elaborating on the flat with its garden full of birdsong. ‘What about the people?’ she persisted. They’re fine too, I said. ‘But are they black?’ she asked. Yes, I told her laughing, but what’s wrong with that?

But of course, when you stand out so obviously in an area, you immediately feel more vulnerable. Our first night here we went out looking for a particular famous restaurant. When we finally found it it was closed, so we ended up walking looking for somewhere else. It was a hot busy evening and there were lots of people around. But straight away we got asked for money. And then we got approached with the ‘I’m not looking for money or anything but can you buy me a sandwich’, and this from a guy obviously on his way home from work. And that annoys me intensely – if you’re asking for money, then ask and I can make a choice whether to give you some or not, don’t dress it up. And needless to say, when Mutley did give him some money he was less than impressed with the amount.

The other big difference is I’ve found I get hassled on the street when I’ve been walking alone. Now, attracting comment from young men is something that happens so rarely at my age, that it’s hard to see it as anything but a compliment – although most of the time I’ve felt like laughing out loud. These huge young guys swagger past, look down on me and give me the once over. ‘Niiice!’ said one, who was probably young enough to be my son, and I wanted to stop him and say ‘Really??? Do you know old I am?’ Yesterday, I was bowling along, trying to get out of the intense heat, wearing a dress that my best friend would probably describe as frumpy, with my beaten up old trainers on, and sweating cobs, and a guy sauntered up and said ‘Hey beautiful, how’s YOUR day been?’ I had to smile at him, at the sheer ludicrousness of it all. But of course there’s another level to this, which is all about power, and which is a bit more sinister. If a woman, no matter what age or level or attractiveness, attracts comment on the street simply because she’s alone, that means she’s seen as fair game, just because she’s not accompanied by a man (because of course it hasn’t happened when I’m with Mutley). And that means that a woman here is pretty much defined by her relationship to a man. And that opens up a whole can of worms about respect.

But I’ve lived in enough areas that have been considered ‘dodgy’, to shy away from the stereotyping of a place. In Birmingham I lived in Balsall Health (once the red-light district) and in Sparkbrook (a mostly Asian area) and here, like there, the problems of the area are more about poverty than race. A quick search on Harlem brings up a ‘real estate’ site, which succinctly sums up the area ; “Despite radical changes in recent years, crime is still relatively high and the public schools could still use improvement.” The Harlem Tourism Now’ websitehttp://www.harlemtourismnow.com/index.html is predictably more upbeat, but even it has a report about small business is crisis. The small businesses we have used, mostly the local shops and a couple of restaurants, have been doing ok – but the restaurants have been very expensive. Last night we had some cocktails and beers at the place nearest to the flat, and then got a couple of starters, and the bill came to $77, $89 with the tip – more than £50.

So would we come back and live here? I don’t know. What will probably force the gentrification of the area is the economics of living on Manhattan. This is one of the few areas where you can buy a house for under a $1 million, the real estate website tells me. And indeed, this lovely four-story brownstone we’re currently living in was bought by our gentle giant of a landlord as an investment, he told us.  But now he’s living here because it’s such a haven from the city, and I guess, considerably cheaper than renting in mid-town. And incidentally, he’s white, and so are all his other tenants. As more and more people move here, because they can find affordable accommodation here, the neighbourhood mix will change – although will the local people like that?

 

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