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NYC’s Streethearts: From Brooklyn to Harlem and Back Again

Brooklyn and Harlem are historically siblings in New York and have a lot in common; the people, the culture, and most importantly, their undying spirits.

As a Bed-Stuy native, born and raised, I’m often amused at the chill, easygoing vibe that people rave about upon their interactions with Brooklyn. It’s clear to see why — the city has shed much of its transparency and rawness for an intricate and palatable appearance. The brownstones of “Do The Right Thing” and the corners of Biggie are preserved in an attractive yet foreign matter. Movies and music reminiscence over the old Brooklyn in a way that attracts a widespread audience. But for those who’ve lived this life, all their life, there is nothing we see that keeps our memories alive.

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Still from Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989)

Growing up, there were countless blocks I was warned not to walk down, areas I was forbidden to go, either for distance or dangers sake. Now, I invite my mom on walks to see how much has physically changed with her own eyes. Our memories of these blocks and building are hanging by the thin threads of our memory. Otherwise, looking around, it’s as if nothing happened, a time warp I’m often overwhelmed to see. The value of my space in my own neighborhood is clear through these physical changes that violate mind and body.

 

Brooklyn Vintage Danny Lyon

Apartment House Across From Fort Green Park in Brooklyn New York City (1974)

 

There’s an essence so Brooklyn about Harlem. Our stripped and reassembled cousin, the skeleton to our bare bones. Naturally, as distant relatives, we have our own recollection of memory, parallel experiences with divergent outcomes. As the big cousin, Brooklyn’s always had a chill demeanor, knowing it all while saying the least. Harlem has its own flair, constantly trendsetting and trailblazing, small and strong. NYC’s street sweethearts.

The familial parameters give life to my off-hand jokes about frequent trips outside my native Bed-Stuy to keep my self-proclaimed street-cred in tact. I leave to escape the spoils of Ubers and Juuls my newly minted city peers indulge, in exchange for the familiar hour-long train rides and loosies I have always known. Brooklyn’s digestible adventure world of daytime safe spaces, nightlife and constant capitalist allure is a far cry from Harlem’s unapologetic distance from it all.

 

Manhattan Bridge Tower in Brooklyn, New York City, Framed through Nearby Buildings 06/1974 by Danny Lyon, courtesy of US National Archives, from Flickr Creative Commons

Manhattan Bridge Tower in Brooklyn, New York City, Framed through Nearby Buildings (1974)

 

The narrative centered on gentrification is usually framed around an influx of people from a higher economic background than the neighborhood they are moving into, dislocating natives who can no longer afford to stay as prices skyrocket to accommodate the newcomers. Although this oversimplification is partially true and has been recycled for a little over a decade, it is not the total reality of New York City natives.

It is dangerous to assume everyone has left, gone and forgotten, somewhere down South or out West.

There are many conversations about the inclusivity paradigm and keeping community alive. Yet the character of “inclusive safe spaces” and politically correct Millennial jargon further isolates the communities they claim to be about. Further, it is dangerous when people move into these neighborhoods and go back to their creative agency salary jobs with “inspiration” gained from then neighborhood.

As transcendent as it is to see something constantly being created out of nothing, there is still so much pain, trauma and suffering overlooked for our strength and resilience, a detrimental glorification of the Black experience. Anti-blackness takes on many faces and those with the resources to help simply do not, instead perverting our symbols of joy for commodification and capital.

Historically, Brooklyn and Harlem have had intense sibling rivalry, the who’s who of what and when within Black and Brown communities. When I go uptown, the streets I walk down, conversations I hear, games I’ve played, are all evident in the laughs, cries and screams off 115th. They all remind me of a spirit lost in Brooklyn that rages on the other side of New York. We are very much different entities; Harlem’s more prominent recollection of Black pride, and Brooklyn’s story more experienced than heard. But there remains a transfer that is obvious to anyone attracted to their hometown identity.

 

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The Kosciusko Public Swimming Pool in the Heart of the Bedford-Stuyvesant District of Brooklyn in New York City (1974)

 

Recently, an Asian colleague was in the midst of hosting an event about Black History Month with their white and Asian peers. There were no easily perceived black-identifying people to suggest this was orchestrated by and for the remembrance of African forefathers. For us, about us, with none of us no behind the scenes, so much as front and center.

Upon expressing discomfort for lack of visibility and overall confusion at the integrity of the event, my black peers and I were met with deflection, lack of accountability, victim-blaming and tone policing. Our feelings were overlooked because of our perceived expression as angry, hysterical and over-exaggerated. This Asian “ally”, Bushwick resident, and art degree graduate could not take responsibility for their position within an anti-Black action, a simple “I didn’t see it that way. I hear you. I’m sorry”.

Instead we were silenced, swept under the rug, and met with the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype in it’s 2019 manifestation.  Instead of using degrading language directly, there is an erasure of us as everything and nothing, racism taking on the new face and name of “anti-blackness”. A new outfit, but very much the same beast.

 

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Latin Youths at Lynch Park in Brooklyn, New York City (1974)

 

During a conversation with an old friend, their Ivy League professor noted a friend of his got sexually harassed on the train. His tone of perplexity came through his understanding of the evolution and progression of the new “New York”, this encounter being an unfriendly reminder of the “old” Brooklyn, not being able to believe things like this still happen.

Those who complain at the sights, sounds and surroundings that have interrupted their “Sex in the City” dream life reinforce this more often than they care to admit, with threats of arrests, evictions and shutdowns on sight. This is not the New York they expected, and while my friend and his professor live a mere two blocks away from each other on Eastern Parkway, they are worlds away. Presentable to new influx coming in by day, pandering to locals by night. We’re still here. Everywhere and nowhere but very much present — a complicated position Brooklyn and Harlem must reconcile.

Inclusion, through brands and buzzwords, claims the opportunity to be seen and met on an equal playing field. But the reality comprises of a sliver of the college-educated or those of higher income as palatable exceptions. The rest of us are forced into hiding or met with loaded implications of our lived experiences when neither criteria is met.

Due to our narrative of struggle being so mainstream, there is very little being repaired in the political and communal arena because anyone who feels they have been “othered” at some part in their life takes a piece of our story and spits it right back to us.

Within my quest to find a middle ground of remembering without the nostalgia, and growing without disassociation, there is a certain level of OVERSTANDING I must maintain. I did not embrace my roots with conviction until witnessing those of polar socioeconomic backgrounds using labyrinthine expressions they were expected to be fluent in because of their singular Black experiences amongst Whites. I did not become aware of the beauty of coming from the gutter until I saw who was considering it a gem. I am reclaiming my perspective on the value of experience rather than the transience of aesthetic.

There is no escaping, forgetting, isolating. There is no privilege in flying away or leaving upon leisure. There is just home, in whatever and however many ways it is defined. We still pass shit on. The memories remain because it’s the reality. The pain and the stains. We’re in that.

 

Three Boys and "A Train" Graffiti in Brooklyn's Lynch Park in New York City 06/1974 courtesy of U.S. National Archives, from Flickr Creative Commons

Three Boys and “A Train” Graffiti in Brooklyn’s Lynch Park in New York City (1974)

 

Years ago, there would be very distinguishable nuances within a Brooklyn and Harlem person. Now there are just survivors, who is left and where we’ve been. Seamless and unapologetic, holding onto our memories, a pompous New York ego could finally be put to use because we refuse to die out.

Within conversations with friends, fellow native Brooklynites, hungry for more in life, there is so much less concern with the “they”. Only the “we”.

What are WE doing? How are WE doing it? Many times I have been to events, panels, openings and receptions dedicated to black people in this country, and yet there would be complete whiteouts. I now understand why.

New York has changed, no doubt about it. Metrocard fare and food deserts are among very real issues transplants may not have to think about on a debilitating level. Having an opportunistic residency versus no immediate way out entices a community to be open yet it’s clear with Brooklyn’s invitation, there is little defense. Conversations with uptown friends make it clear Harlem is willing to protect and preserve history, culture and memory outside of a purely aesthetic lense: “We don’t want what happened in Brooklyn.”

 

Sports Heroes Are the Motifs in These Wall Paintings on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn taken 07/1974 courtesy of U.S National Archives from Flickr Creative Commons

Sports Heroes Are the Motifs in These Wall Paintings on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn taken (1974)

 

The reality is, Brooklyn has changed rapidly in a physical sense. Condos, coffee shops, dog homes. Everything forgotten in the day, emerges quickly at night. Homelessness, drug addiction, critters and creatures, harassment, abductions, physical violence are all very much still prevalent. And always, its undying spirit. In the ways that Harlem doesn’t hide, Brooklyn must make a conscious effort to uncover what has been swept under the rug.

 

Tajah Ellis in Bed-Stuy

Tajah Ellis in Bed-Stuy

 

Pictures by Danny Lyon, courtesy of US National Archives (Flickr Creative Commons), and author Tajah Ellis

Tajah Ellis is a Journalism and Media student, freelance writer, producer, and occasional model. Her work centers on storytelling from the voice and visibility of black women in their essence, connected to their identities and lived experiences.
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