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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Harlem Brixton

Harlem New York, like Brixton London, both lie abutting the most expensive real estate (both near rivers) in their respective entire countries. It was only a matter of time before they both became  "gentrified" (do hipster f**kwads qualify as gentry?). Both areas were the the centres of Black intellectual and cultural life in addition to being their physical addresses in large metropolitan cities.
Harlem as an entity and of course subtracting the elements of human racism and fear of the unknown "other"was always a mystery to me, and anyone who knows me long enough will remember my wondering aloud and often on why the nicest geographical area on the island of Manhattan, that begins at the northern edge of Central Park known alternately as Cathedral Parkway or 110th Street (consider: Central Park West, Central Park South, Fifth Avenue all addresses of the world's wealthiest, the most powerful and the most famous), hadn't been "reclaimed" by the moneyed long, long ago.I say reclaimed recalling the fact that Harlem once was the summer residence of New York's wealthy when New York mostly existed below 42nd Street. It wasn't that I desired this occurrence, to the contrary, it was only that I had reached a certain age, had become more cynical and was looking at this situation coldly in the context of the City in which I lived.
When gentrification of Manhattan began in the early 1980's why was the Upper West Side and Gramercy Park/Chelsea done first when in reality Harlem, for me at least, the jewel of Manhattan was always the ripest for the taking by the infamous New York granite-hearted property developers.
Harlem has more brownstones than the rest of Manhattan put together, plus large, solid attractive apartment buildings, and row-houses fronting wide avenues and shaded side-streets, set on hills with excellent subway and bus connections on the east and west sides plus they were adjacent to the major bridges that afforded exit to the other boroughs, suburbs and countryside to the north, east, and west. The residents of Harlem largely do not own their homes (save the Jamaicans) making them easier to shift. In fact Harlem has everything necessary to become a "new improved" Greenwich Village, a more gentile Upper East Side or perhaps a New York version of what Notting Hill has become.
My wife told me I was mad when I suggested we buy in Harlem, mainly due to the attention and hassle  our racial "impurity" might bring us, though we had vaguely started planning with her brother Beres (who thought like me!) to buy a small apartment building or a house with 3 flats. To go even further back, Mr. Watson, my wife's father, had planned to come up to New York from Kingston and buy a building for his two youngest daughters to live in and manage. Oh how I wish he had lived long enough to realise that ambition! Jamaicans like my wife's family are believers in property ownership and his 2 daughters were paying landlords rent you see...
As I am writing this I see in the news that Sylvia Woods proprietor of the venerable Harlem soul-food establishment on Lenox Avenue has passed on. I ate at Sylvia's only once or twice and that was way back in about 1975/6. It was a neighbourhood joint for my friend Mike Davis who was the drummer in our band. He lived on 124th Street & Lenox Avenue just a few doors down from Rice High School, a Christian Brothers school which had the same order of Brothers that taught my 2 older brothers and me. The food at Sylvia's I found was good soul food, kinda like somebody's mom gave you if you stopped for dinner. I had heard it wasn' t the same recently as her fame and clientele expanded, but I enjoyed the fried chicken, collard greens and rice just fine when I had them.

Here's another sign of the shift from today's Sunday Times

Brixton lies almost dead geographic centre of London if one looks at a map. It was where many Jamaicans and other West Indians of the post-war Windrush generation (named for the steamship that brought many to England from the Caribbean) settled. Those brave souls that ration-era Britain enticed over to do the dirty work in the hospitals, bus and train yards, Postal Service, building sites etc.
Brixton and Stockwell were South London neighbourhoods that had lost their former glory and where there were rooms to let and landlords needy enough or greedy enough to forsake the usual policy indicated by signs found in the front windows of bedsits "No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish".  Over the years it served many of the same functions for West Indians and Africans that Harlem did in the USA. It became a place where blacks felt free, were able to express their various cultures, could find their friends, their foodstuffs, their book stores, and importantly their music shops, in short, their cultural centre.
West Indians firmly believe in owning their homes and so many of the houses and shops in Brixton reflected their clientele. Now, several generations on after a profitable property boom, this is rapidly changing. My friend Nigel who has lived in and around Brixton since returning to England from his years in the USA tells me that many of the first wave of immigrants have sold off and taken their pensions back to live their dream life in Ocho Rios, Mandeville, Bridgetown or Port of Spain. The ones who remained, well,  their sons and daughters  have sold off their mum's and da's houses and moved to the suburbs. Those that remain who are unlucky enough not be able to afford to own their homes are finding it too expensive to stay.
These residents are fast being replaced by middle and upper-middle-class whites changing the entire complexion (pun intended) of South London and Brixton Market on Eddy Grant's Electric Avenue now has gourmet hamburger joints and the like....gone are many of the stalls where we shopped for snapper, callaloo, yellow yam, or goat meat. 
So the moral for both New York and London or wherever is I guess "Money talks..." One thing I do know is I cannot remember the New York Times ever doing an "EAT IN BRIXTON" column when the eating was West Indian!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Crosby, Bleecker, Red Stripe, Thierry Henry

Let me start by saying I used to love Crosby Street. It was one of those rare places where you could be alone in New York City. Amidst the hustle-bustle of Manhattan, blocks from Chinatown and Little Italy, one could walk unmolested in the night for a few precious blocks at least.
Crosby Street used to be empty, literally deserted, after 5 pm. Crosby Street's begin at Howard Street and runs north across Houston to its terminus at the eastern end of Bleecker.  Crosby well into the 1990's had wholesalers and what seemed to be mostly closed store fronts or the backs of premises that fronted east on Lafayette or west on Broadway. I used to frequent an illegal beer hall there named "Red Stripe" which was "licensed" to only serve beer basically and played loud reggae. The bar man, Chris, used see me coming through the front door, pop a beer and top it up with Overproof from a bottle they kept behind the counter for regulars. Yikes!
In fact I was in there watching the Knicks playoff game the night of OJ's Bronco ride with Al, and the game was cut to watch that stupid occurrence and I can recall my reaction being an angry bellowed "What The F**K?!?!?!" followed by a cry of  "Go back to the game!"  It didn't happen...

This is the link to a NYTimes article about French former Arsenal, Barcelona and currently NY Metrostars football superstar Thierry Henry's move to New York City, specifically to a 15 million dollar triplex on Crosby Street:

I looked on Google earth and using the street-view Crosby Street has become a place I no longer recognise.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Gem Spa et cetera

In New York City in the 1980's and 1990's we were fortunate to live near the Gem Spa a soda fountain and newsagent at the corner of St. Marks Place and 2nd Avenue. There is testimony from neighbourhood residents who could remember going into the shop as children before WWI.
The Gem was a holdover from the days of proper soda fountains where you could buy an ice cream or egg cream, a cup of coffee, or a root beer float or sundae. It is one of the very few left. They also were and still are an excellent newsagent. Oh and an "egg cream" is a particular New York fountain soft drink which was created in Brooklyn and which does not include either eggs or cream.
Way back in the misty past of the pre-internet days I would purchase my NY Times, Guardian, Independent, Irish Times and other papers from their extensive selection of papers in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Italian and Chinese. They were one of the vendors that received and sold the complete Sunday New York Times on Saturday evening.
Antoinette and I used to walk out of a Saturday evening to see and be seen taking in the human carnival that was the East Village in the late 80's leaving Sean at home sleeping soundly in the king position. We'd head up to De Robertis' pastry shop on First Avenue and 11th Street order a half dozen large cannolis and pass by the Gem to pick up the NYT before heading home to put on a pot of coffee. My wife would grab the News sections, I would grab the crossword and Arts sections and plunge into the coffee, paper and connolis.
What really excited me though was their magazine selection. For a narrow little shop they had a huge selection of magazines covering many interests and again in several languages. They had all the British music publications like NME and Melody Maker and The Face in addition to Rolling Stone and other US pop star mags, auto and racing magazines, news mags, fashion mags, glamour mags etc. and best of all they sold no pornography.
I used to eagerly await the arrival of the latest CAR magazine from England with its stellar staff of editors and contributors which included  George Bishop, L. J. K. Setright, Ronald Barker, Mel Nichols, Steve Cropley, Russell Bulgin, Philip Llewellin, James May, Alexei Sayle, its sister Sports Car, and what grew to be my favourite, Classic & Sports Car. The British auto mags had larger format trim sizes and the paper stock was of a higher quality which increased the effect of the photography on their pages exponentially. Classic and Sports Car over time became my favourite due to its focus on a wide variety of vintage vehicles, British, European, and American. It covered too, the vintage racing scene which was much more active in Britain in those days than it seemed to be in the USA and had fascinating classifieds.
They also employed an illustrator who did a dissection of the vehicle that was featured in each issue and they used it to point out places on the car that needed special attention for maintenance and for restoration. Expert restorers were consulted to contribute their opinions and experience. It made for a thorough and invaluable resource for someone like myself who was seeing some of these cars for the first time or for someone who was considering purchasing or restoring one. In short, terrific stuff for motor heads.

A visit to the Gem could cost me quite a bit as it could involve purchasing 2 British magazines at about 5 bucks a pop (the US ones -Road & Track, Car and Driver, Autoweek- fortunately I received gratis at work) a couple of newspapers at $3.25 each, the latest NME $3 and a pack or 2 of cigarettes.
Have I mentioned they were also tobacconists? They stocked Rothmans, Dunhill, Players Navy Cut, Gaulois, Gitanes, Craven A's from Jamaica along with all the US brands, cigars, loose tobacco, and cigarette papers.
In short a small slice of heaven for me and just a few minutes walk from our flat on East 3rd Street.