I’m often one of the only white people emerging from the 110th St. number 6 train station every night on my way home from work. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s what I’ve come to expect living in East Harlem. It’s not like I walk into a Crate & Barrel and am like, “hey, what’s with all the white people?” From the subway, I walk through a dark tunnel that runs underneath the Metro North tracks, and then past some housing projects. I know I’m close to home when I see the flashing red and blue lights of the NYPD cruiser that is perpetually parked at the base of a semi-permanent police surveillance tower at the end of my block. I pull out my keys and open the door to one of the newer condo buildings that have gone up around the neighborhood just blocks from the north side of Central Park. I check the mail (ooh! Cabaret is back on Broadway!), step aboard the elevator and disappear into my apartment. By all indications, I am part of the single, most hated phenomenon in all of native New York: gentrification. That may be right, but how can you be guilty of gentrifying the neighborhood your family helped shape?
I’ll never forget what my dad said to me when I told him I was moving from my childhood home on Long Island to Manhattan at age 22. In an Italian wise guy cadence that surely would have landed him a part in any Scorsese film, he said, “Our family spent 50 years trying to get outta the city…and now you wanna go back?” Yes. Yes, I did want to go back. Though my parents were living in Queens when they had me, most of my upbringing took place on the south shore of Nassau County in a hamlet called Merrick, which was home also to Lindsay Lohan, Amy Fisher and lots of de facto segregation. I’d grown tired of spending most of my waking hours dodging drunk assholes on the Long Island Railroad while trudging to and from my job in the city, so moving to Manhattan in 2007 was an expensive but necessary course of action. Those of my generation–Millennials, if you must–who spent the bulk of their formidable years in the suburbs of this great city, only to return to Gotham as an adult, exist in a sort of strange sociological limbo. We’re natives, but transplants. We’re locals but out-of-towners. We’re jaded enough to avoid Times Square, but still excited to spend a night at Lucky Cheng’s. (Only me? Whatever. You guys just don’t appreciate good theater.) All I know for sure is I might not have as much street cred as someone who grew up on the Lower East Side, but I sure as hell have more than someone who grew up in the Midwest. After bouncing around between a couple of apartments through the years — including one in Los Angeles during a brief stint on the worst coast — I met the woman who will soon become my wife, and in 2012, I moved into her East Harlem apartment.
Locals call the neighborhood El Barrio, white people call it Spanish Harlem, and douchebag real estate scam artists call it “SpaHa.” But back in the 1940s, my family called it home. My father, his parents and all his Italian aunts and uncles lived in a single apartment building on East 104th (think: The Waltons, but with a lot more cursing). The neighborhood, especially east of Lexington Avenue, was largely Italian back in the day. Some remnants of “Italian Harlem” still remain — Rao’s restaurant, Patsy’s pizzeria, Claudio’s barber shop — but much of it has given away to the predominant Puerto Rican, African-American and Mexican populations. Now only 1,130 Italian-Americans live in East Harlem according to the most readily available data — and by “most readily available,” I mean what I was able to find in a 10-second Wikipedia search. That 1,130 figure is actually from the 2000 Census. Including my fiancée and I, East Harlem’s Italian-American population now stands at 1,132. But rather than be viewed as a prodigal son returning to his motherland, I’m viewed as an opportunistic hipster bent on destroying the indigenous population — like Christopher Columbus if he wore skinny jeans and listened to Interpol.
I realize why gentrification is seen as a blight. It’s been blamed for driving up rent prices and driving out longtime residents in neighborhoods across the city. Though the extreme humbleness of my studio apartment is well documented, it’s still a lot more than many families in the area can afford. However, at least in East Harlem, real estate development has seemed to work alongside local businesses through mixed-use solutions like the Casablanca complex. And in what used to be a fresh food desert, there is now several, affordable grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables. What can I say? White people love their kale. I’m sure the socioeconomic impact of gentrification is way more nuanced than I’m able to understand, but as far as what I can tell, the rise and fall of neighborhoods is just the natural evolution of a city that never sleeps. Italian Harlem is now Spanish Harlem. Little Italy is now Chinatown. Hell’s Kitchen is now gay.
My one true hope for East Harlem is that it retains its cultural identity through this next wave of change. I haven’t come to destroy; I’ve come to experience and support a part of the city that many of my upbringing are too close-minded to experience. If I wanted to live in a homogeneous neighborhood, I would have just stayed on Long Island…or moved to Murray Hill. I have never been made to feel like I don’t belong here…well, except for one time when a homeless man on my corner threatened to slit my throat, but hey, it was a Monday. Quite frankly, with my dark Italian features, I tend to fit in more so than the average Caucasian. A Hispanic woman in a store even gave me a nickname once — “lil papi,” which I believe means “little daddy.” I’m not sure if she was sincere, but anything’s better than what my dad and stepmom used to call me when I was younger — “little bastard.” Sure, I still feel like an awkward, lazy, privileged asshole when I walk through the crowded laundromat with my bags of dirty clothes and drop them off with the lady for wash-and-dry service, but she never feels awkward about taking my money. In a city of black, white and every color in between, the color that people are most concerned about at the end of the day is green. I try to shop as much as I can in the neighborhood, and I want to start donating to the local food pantry — to give back to the neighborhood as much as I take from it. I used to think this was white guilt, but now I realize it’s just being a decent human being.
So, call me a gentrifier. I suppose there needs to be a bad guy in every tale of two cities. But please know that I’m not your average clueless white guy looking to save a little bit on rent at the expense of an entire generation of low-income families. I know the history of this neighborhood, and I want to be on the right side of it. Besides, there are worse gentrifiers than me in this city. At least I’m not one of those Bushwick assholes.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons