Dancing Down Lenox

If you recall, I had to write a portrait of my neighborhood.  For the next assignment, I had to write about the experience of Harlem from the perspective of a tourist.  This is what I came up with…

Coming off of the subway, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  The map said this specific stop was “Central Park North” and I neither had ever been to New York before nor liked asking people for directions, so I tried to find my own way.  I exited the subway at 111th Street and knew for sure that I was no longer in Kansas (or SoHo for that matter!)  I was suddenly shell-shocked and seeing things that I wasn’t expecting.


Behind me, just South of 110th Street was, indeed, Central Park.  But in front of me I saw the neighborhood known as Harlem.  The cross avenue was Malcolm X Boulevard.  I knew nothing but horror stories about the area from my parents and grandparents.  I was expecting to be met with gang-bangers, red or blue bandanas, machetes, angry people wanting their neighborhood to keep containing the life previous to gentrification.


Instead, I saw people sitting on the corner playing cards.  They had set up a table underneath a tree.  The shade provided a nice escape from the hot Harlem sun.  There was a boom box blaring hip hop.


I hadn’t seen a boom box since 1997.


Facing East, I saw an old church.  It was the first Baptist church of Harlem.  I imagined gospel emanating from the windows and doors on Sundays; older women with sun hats; children wearing jelly sandals.  The red outside seemed to be in bad condition – deteriorating from the weather changes and clearly lacking the funds to keep up the building.


To my left was a small bodega, selling fresh fruit and other assorted produce.  Watermelon was sliced into fourths, coconuts were stacked on the ground, there may have been a papaya.  Next door to that was a restaurant specializing in fried chicken and waffles, though it offered other fare such as burgers, pizza, ice cream, shakes, and even eggs and coffee for the morning commuters.  I breathed in the scent of grease from the short-order grill and became dizzy because it mixed with the smell of detergent and dryer sheets from the laundromat next door.


Instead of walking South into Central Park, I decided to detour and make my way North into the “heart of Harlem.”  I walked fourteen blocks up to 125th Street.  I passed the Martin Luther King housing projects, a few playgrounds with handball courts, and several vendors selling Italian ices for a dollar.  


I stopped and bought a scoop of mango flavored ices.  The best dollar I ever spent.


When I finally found my way to 125th Street, I was greeted by a barrage of different sights.  The street was lined with people selling everything.  The smell of fresh cocoa and shea butters took over the corner, as I saw at least ten different tables with men or women dressed in proper Dashiki attire — head dresses and all.  They were also selling Rosary beads, different incenses, candles, and an assortment of wooden statues.


I never felt such a sense of authenticity before.  It was so refreshing, and even though I didn’t live there and had stumbled upon the area by accident, it was an incredible experience.  After a while, I decided to turn around and head back towards the park before it got too late to enjoy it.  I walked from the tip at 110th Street all the way to 59th Street – Columbus Circle.  The two areas could not have been more different.


Looking back, I wish I had purchased something other than the mango ices, but at least I have incentive to return in the future.


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