[Before it’s too late to write about beginnings…..I wrote this last week but haven’t had a chance to type it up til now]
Going to sleep my first night in New York City on my new street in the Dunbar neighborhood in Central Harlem I heard yelling outside my window. I thought ‘Oh god a fight outside my window the first night I’m here…welcome to the city.’
Couldn’t have been more wrong.
The yelling–banter really–diffused unexpectedly to singing. A Gospel hymn to lull me to sleep. Welcome to the city and my neighborhood indeed. The men, two friends evidently, happened to happen upon each other under my window that first night. After the song, beautifully sung, faded away they parted ways shouting after each other ‘I love you man!’ ‘I love you!’ and other affirmations.
New York, specifically my neighborhood in Harlem, has welcomed me in many unexpected ways from the family of mice in our house to an older lady at a bus stop wondering who we were–as 7 girls we tend to stick out–and welcoming us to the neighborhood. I’ve seen a few New York sites from the Brooklyn Bridge to the High Line, watched a movie in Central Park, peered at Yankee Stadium from my roof, and participated in the uniquely crazy J’Ouvert and West Indian Parades.
Out of the many welcomes that midnight song stands as my favorite.
I got a wide variety of reactions to the news I would be moving to Harlem–btw that is a pretty nebulous reference to North of 96th and there are more neighborhoods with different characters in the area loosely defined as ‘Harlem.’ From ‘you don’t want to go there’ and ‘your mom should be more worried about that than Brazil’ to ‘Oh! well that areas gotten ‘better” and the ever common ‘Bill Clinton’s office is there!’ Some people didn’t know what to make of my move and some people thought it was ‘cool’ or something.
And now I’m here, having spent less than 24 hours in the city prior to moving in on August 13th. Harlem and my neighborhood, from what I have seen and experienced thus far, is a residential area filled with homes, families, small businesses, 99cent stores and Pathmart for groceries, too many Chase Banks, a beautiful park named after Jackie Robinson, that one subway stop recommended we don’t go to, and the famous Apollo Theatre. It is these things on the surface and I only know it surface deep at this point.
Wide boulevards and beautiful apartment buildings speak of Harlem’s origins as an escape for the upperclass of New York. Many people have passed through and much has changed since. There’s rich history behind the faces and inside the buildings of Harlem, as there is in any place where people live, work, and dream. I’m curious and eager to learn as much as I can from as many perspectives as I can this year.
I’ve walked around my new neighborhood’s streets with my guard up a lot. Admittedly, nearly the first thought getting off the subway at our stop–the last stop on the 3 train–was ‘What in the hell am I doing here?’ What am I doing here, a foreigner in this city and neighborhood committing myself to work for grassroots change and live the four values of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. What am I doing here, UofM B.A. in hand, where I stick out not just because of the color of my skin but because of the look of wonder plastered on my face and the group of six women I travelled with heading to our new home on 151st.
I’ve had to remind myself why I am here over these last–overwhelming–weeks. I’m here, fresh from leaving my newly made home at Nazare–to make a new home here. I’m here to fall in love with the people that surround me, that I live and will work with, will cry and laugh with. I need to let myself love openly again — to learn to live openly again. I’m here because we made the scales of justice in workshop and a man asked me what is justice? to lock away a kid for the rest of his life? I’m here to figure out my role, given who I am, in fighting for creating a more just, loving, human world.
These are lofty goals–I know. They are lofty goals I am figuring out how to live practically-day to day-for the long haul as Myles Horton would say. As a first stop I’m learning how to be in this city and my neighborhood. I’m figuring out how to walk around mindful of my surroundings but not with my guard up all the time–that’s exhausting and not necessary. I’m learning that people aren’t as smiley as in the Midwest but if I hold open the door twice for someone we have a good laugh together, walking the street people say good morning and mean it, and my smiles to strangers on the street do get returned. Im learning to let go of the judgments I’ve been assuming are being made about me and concern myself with just being who I am. I know I will learn and change and grow in this year in New York City but I don’t want the city to change who I am day to day, a friendly Midwesterner at heart.
I’m learning to recognize the face of God in the people on the subway and walking down the street. It’s making all the difference as I learn again who I am and navigate my place in this city of millions.
My second or third night here I fell asleep thinking, ‘I could grow to love this place.’ At other times I’ve wanted to be anywhere but here. I’ve wanted to be in Ann Arbor, in Nazare, in all those places I already call home. But, I am here. I need to be here. To live and learn and fall in love again. As Liz, my roommate and community member said, “It’s not home yet, but I know it will be.” Rounding out my first month in the city, I am beginning to believe her statement to be true.
Me doing being a classic tourist in my new city