It always plays out roughly the same way. I get in a cab downtown. "East 127th Street, between Fifth and Madison," I tell the driver, advising him to take the FDR Drive because it's quicker. Mr. Know-It-All-Cabby replies: "FDR to East 27th Street? Much quicker to take Third Avenue." So I spell it out: "No, one hundred and 27th street, please." That's when the cabby's head does a 180-degree turn. "Harlem?" he asks anxiously. His brain clicks, and so do the door locks. We're off.
Bill Clinton's office is in Harlem, but I still get looks when I tell people I live there. You see, I've been white all my life--and Harlem's been black for a lot longer. And the Harlem that New York taxi drivers are getting to know today is anything but the Harlem of yesteryear, which few of them knew at all: a poor, angry, crime-ridden neighborhood evacuated after the booming '20s and destined for the dustbin of the 20th century.
Harlem 2004 is Boomtown. Trendy boutiques jostle with Starbucks. A hip new hotel is in the works at 125th and Park. More than a handful of swanky restaurants have opened since I moved in, scarcely a year ago. Upper-middle-class couples--black and white as well as twentysomethings like me are occupying renovated brownstones. Every Sunday, busloads of Japanese tourists spill out onto 125th Street, taking in the scene or attending a matinee at the Apollo. Used crack vials no longer fill Harlem's little parks; roses do.
Still, it's tough to convince most people that this New Harlem is for real. Everyone asks me if it's safe--and have I ever felt threatened? Well, I'll be honest. There's my "terrifying tuxedo" incident, to cite but one example. Coming back from a wedding about 3 a.m., decked out in a tux and just a little tipsy, I stopped at the corner deli to get some orange juice and the morning's Sunday paper. Gathered around the store was a group of about 10 young men, each brown-bagging his booze. Trouble, I thought. The boldest of them fixed me with his eye. "You have a good night?" he asked. "Yeah, thanks," I replied. "Cool," he said, nodding. His friends concurred, and I went on my way. Let's face it, just for being dressed the way I was, they should have roughed me up--if only with wisecracks.
These are still the early days of gentrification. I remain an oddity on my block. Not long after arriving, I was buying water for my fish tank. As I placed 10 jugs of water on the deli counter, I heard a giggle beside me. "Damn, white folk drink a lot of water!" I turned and came face to face with a black girl of about 15, grinning ear to ear. I grinned back. Hey, it was a good joke. My favorite was when the local deli man confused me with my neighbor, another white guy. "Sorry," he apologized, trying to hold himself together, "but you people all look the same to me." Touche.
It'll be interesting to see how Harlem treats the next, bigger wave of newcomers. For now, Harlem's old-timers can afford their rent; small businesses are prosperous, and everybody gets along. But the richer the 'hood gets, the more rents will rise, and more locals will be forced out. Then animosity might appear.
That'd be a shame, because I really am starting to settle into Harlem. Sitting on the stoop with the kids on the block in the summertime or dropping by the Lenox Lounge for a late-night beer and some blues, I feel at home. I like to think that Harlem feels that I'm part of it, too. Recently I was handed a flier in the street, inviting me, a "member of the black community," to come hear a reverend speak at his church that Sunday. Hey, I thought. Maybe I'm not such an oddity after all.