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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!

1 comment:

  1. On further thought I think the title of the New York Times "When in London, Eat in Brixton" piece should should have been expanded to "Now that those Pesky Black People are Gone with their Smelly Cooking you can visit the birthplaces of David Bowie and Mick Jones..." They also failed to mention that the London cops will not hassle you for smoking weed either.