Urban stories

From Hudson to Harlem

By Andrej Mrevlje |

I am one of those privileged people who live in New York and have the chance to escape from the city on occasion. No matter how many loops a person bikes around Central Park, riding across the Washington Bridge, and biking along the nearby Hudson River, it is not until you get out of the city and higher up the river that you can really get lost. In nature. Where you can relax and recharge your batteries.

For more than two weeks I was sleeping, swimming, biking, walking, cooking, working and meeting friends in a cottage we rented overlooking the Hudson. It was an amazing and overwhelming place near Germantown. It was green, it was quiet; there were birds singing and wind talking; the sky was inviting – clouds billowing, the light changing every second. We got tons of home-grown food – tomatoes, corn, peaches, you name it – all with the kind of rich flavour you rarely find in the city, if at all. We got sunrises and sunsets. Everything up there seems to be opposite of the city. Right now, as I am writing this post, a police car is driving near my block, blaring its siren, warning me to beware the law and its enforcers. Upstate I never saw a policeman. I saw a police car once, but it was still and silent. There were no heavily armed, black-clad policemen like on the streets of New York. It was paradise… Until the soul of an urban animal rang a bell, and told us to go back where we belong: the city cage.

So we drove back a day earlier than planned. But in order to add a last bit of adventure to our vacation, we drove into Manhattan from across the Bronx, trying out the smaller bridges leading to town. Thinking of Bonfire of Vanities, the Tom Wolf novel that I loved in my youth, I drove into a narrow street entering Manhattan from the Upper East Side. There was a traffic jam, with long lines of cars sitting in front the traffic light. With the sun in my face, but still very relaxed, I passed a long line of cars and stopped in front of the red light indicating that I wanted to turn left. When the light turned green, I slowly turned left, and after 50 meters, I heard the siren of a police car behind my back. I thought the policeman was in a hurry, so I pulled over to the side to give him space. No need – the siren was for me. I got my first American ticket for what would be my Italian driving habit, vastly tolerated by Italian police because of the baroque design of the country’s cities, with narrow streets which require a lot of improvisation while driving. And of course, more liberal police, too, to whom I wish I could have at least explained why I turned left from non-indicated middle lane. The ticket was $138 and two points on my Italian driving licence.

With the green and aristocratic Hudson in my mind, I got up next morning, caught a train to 125th St. and walked east towards the indicated Department of Motor Vehicles to plead guilty and pay my fine. In theory I could do this online or over the phone, but none of it worked. Luckily, the day was gorgeous and walking east on the 125th St. has always been an a spectacular experience – it’s the most trafficked crosstown street in Manhattan. This is largely because of the overabundance of public buses, which stop every 200 yards along the street and create permanent bottlenecks. In spite of the myriad opportunities, I never saw a policeman giving a ticket to someone in this area. It seems almost as though the different areas of the town have different laws. This part of Harlem is lively and chaotic, especially on the curbs, with its picturesque images and thousands different personalities walking by, selling anything and everything, singing or arguing. You immediately feel like you are in another country. It almost feels like a souk, but for the clearly African-American inhabitants. I got on the bus, only to admire the patience and kindness of the bus driver, ready to stop for “hours” and block traffic as long as needed for an old or handicapped passenger to get on or off the bus. I decided that I prefered to walk. It was quicker and nicer. Back on the street, I was able to observe my surroundings more easily. Most of the people were poor and many of them did not look healthy. Quite a few were handicapped or obese, and were having trouble walking and breathing. I got dizzy thinking that all this people around me might have a heart attack any moment. How come I never saw people falling on the street and dying in this town? It was a scary and horrible thought, which popped in my mind in association with the reminiscence on the beauty of the nature upstate – where people from Harlem could never afford to live.

So this morning, when I went back to work, I opened my reading list and saw this:

The other day, a man stood near the middle of a half-empty New York City subway car. In a reedy, solitary voice just loud enough to be heard over the grind of the moving train, he said to his fellow passengers,

I’ll be honest with you, I smell bad. My deodorant and my soap, they were stolen from my bag while I was sleeping. I spent the night on the A train. I got tossed out of Starbucks because a customer complained of my odor. I don’t blame her. I hate to smell like this. I don’t want to be with myself when this smell sticks to me. It’s my own fault. I’m asking you to forget about why I’m in this state and just listen to what I’m asking of you. I want to take a shower. It’ll cost me thirteen dollars to take a shower.

This is how Michael Greenberg opens his piece, “Dislodged in New York,” in the last issue of the New York Review of Books. It is an incredible, almost unbelievable opening. I never heard a person, already in the humiliating position of talking about his body, apologizing for his bad smell and asking for money to take a shower. How many times have I gotten on the train to find my car empty just because an abandoned and smelly person is sitting there? Most of these people don’t even talk – they sleep, or pretend to do so.

Greenberg uses this opening to write about the 60,000 homeless people in New York – a number that, he predicts, will grow much bigger because of what is going on on the real estate market. In his piece, Greenberg also reviews a documentary Homme Less, which just opened in New York. Mark Reay, the subject of the documentary, is a fashion photographer who was dislodged when his landlord offered him a sum of money that he could not refuse. Reay took the money, but after he spent it in Latin America, he came back to New York, “the only place he knows how to cobble together living,” writes Greenberg. For the last three years, Reay has been living in a half-hidden fire-escape hanging just below the flat tar roof of a walk-up building on the Lower East Side. His home consists of a heavy-duty plastic tarp, a bottle of water, a urine jug, clamps, a thermal vest, a black woolen watch cap akin to those that burglars wear (because it makes his face less vivid), and a weatherproof bedroll.

It is fascinating to see how Reay manages to live like a beggar while still managing to earn money in the world of fashion, and how he spends his income in order to keep his life going. That is, up until the day he gets caught in his illegal lodging or till somebody starts paying him properly for the work he does. But his hopes are thin. According to a Wired report from two years ago, more and more workers are no longer earning enough money to pay their rent. This was in 2013, and it’s getting worse. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio seems to be aware of the problem, but the question is whether his symbolic budget proposal is anywhere near equipped to resolve the problem.

“Over the past fifteen years New York has lost more than 200,000 units of affordable housing—20 percent of the current stock. The rate of loss has accelerated in recent years, putting the future of the city’s remaining rent-regulated apartments in grave doubt. What becomes of a city that economically bars its working class from living in it? New York may be in the process of finding out. Once apartments become deregulated, they never come back,” writes Greenberg. This means that the people will have to migrate to the other places in the country.

While I was upstate, I talked to a friend who has been living in the area for a decade. Curious about the origin of the name Germantown, we started to discuss the arrival of the Palatine Germans in the area, and how they bought land from their former employers, who no longer needed their services. It may have been the early 18th century, but if the Germans were receiving favorable conditions to buy the land after their employers no longer had work to offer them, why not let the New Yorkers chased out of their houses by insanely high rent offer to work on farms along Hudson which are getting massively abandoned? Is this too much? So why doesn’t Mayor De Blasio at least provide decent showers and toilettes and return a bit of a dignity to the city’s homeless?

Yonder is a weekly newsletter from Andrej Mrevlje that connects global events in the news, delivered every week. Learn more »

Questions? am@yondernews.com