Harlem Shuffle

And the time came to let go of my white people on a residential rooftop view and waterfront backyard with a baseball field on the side. With all its man-buns, diverse restaurants, bars, Polish culture and consignment shops, Greenpoint couldn’t compete with uptown Manhattan, where a renaissance of black excellence ascends history at more counts than Basie. Long held my heart has Harlem Word.

When I first moved to NYC in 2009, I rented a three-bedroom third floor walk-up nestled between a Senegalese restaurant and a bar on Seventh Avenue, just north of 132nd street. Though the apartment kitchen was small and there was no living room window—not to mention two of the bedroom windows faced an alley—it was as close to perfect as I’d seen. My tenancy would last but a year, the landlord refusing to renew for no official reason but what I assumed the result of my youngest habitually over-filling the tub.

And just like that again I was moving, this time settling on the top floor of a three-story brownstone owned by a man who’d inherited the building from his aunt, a mink-wearing entrepreneur greeting residents and visitors through framed photos hanging in the main foyer, her many city-certified and media accolades sprinkled throughout. “I’m so excited to be renting from a black person,” I told my mother after submitting all the details to the trust for approval.

All the building woodwork was painted gray and the staircase leaned, but the actual apartment had charm. The large living room windows were accommodated by seats and the original wood shutters functioned to a tee. From those windows, I watched the crowns of the trees lining Seventh Avenue sway, spied handfuls of black princesses sashay in the African American Day parade, and looked out for my children returning from school and various extracurriculars, including music, acting, gymnastics, swim, and the Schomburg Scholars program. There was no auto buzzer for the building front door, so sometimes I dropped the keys down as they arrived home. One couldn’t help but feel a bit like Rapunzel when leaning out the window.

Around the corner was Striver’s Row, a luxurious remnant of white flight once denying blacks, then a beacon of black accomplishment, now—the only constant—the best block in Harlem, hosting all kinds of people including a large Mennonite family my children referred to as The Pilgrims. When I wanted to forget how financially destitute I was upon the dissolution of the family trust, I’d stroll down that wonderous block between Seventh and Eighth. “This is a good place for you to lay roots,” the broker rightfully predicted after I’d signed the lease.

The apartment had no central air and in the winter warmth was provided by a steam heater, so windows remained open to some degree year round, the air flow bellowing the curtains and creating a perpetual romantic, picturesque mood. The living room had, in fact, sold me on the apartment; its black painted original paneling and trim contrasted beautifully with the flat, true white color of the walls—magnifique!

It was a joy to decorate. Below the sofa and atop the walnut floors lay a white cowhide rug, purchased at an animal skin wholesale store back in Kansas. Throughout the apartment walls hung original artwork. The cocktail table was a solid slab made of ebony bought from the same store as the camel sectional, as well as the white clean-line-contemporary console table, which held an African bust, carved ivory figurines and other lovelies snagged from my mother and an older lady named Mrs. Kelly, a midnight-complected woman who had attended the University of Chicago, Columbia University and The Julliard School, and globe trotted before settling in Kansas and becoming the neighborhood piano teacher. She’d spent her last days living in mother’s home after experiencing elder abuse at the hands of a family friend. Having no children, she gifted me mink coats, china, jewelry and Japanese antiques, relics beguiling the fact I was broke.

But within a year the honeymoon was over: the bathroom door unhinged; the oven wouldn’t heat; only one eye on the stove lit; the toilet leaked; and the entire building became infested with cockroaches. The rent, once an afterthought, was in arrears from approximately six months after trust fund support ceased. Though I’d landed two jobs during my tenancy tenure, neither lasted very long; my contract copyeditor gig ended when the educational testing company downsized and my contract grant writer position at a small Hasidic family-owned security company in Crown Heights stopped when after being posed with the moral choice of writing a grant for an all-male school with a history of sexually abusing low income boys I declined.

The landlord, from whom I’d been so excited to rent, became a foe to both the young lady who worked in entertainment and lived on the first floor and myself. The lean times experienced intermittently by each party created a hostile environment of heatless winter days, yelling on landings, theft and lies. Who knew the reverse mortgage the landlord had convinced his aunt to take would go unpaid and was in default; that it would take me longer to fly than anticipated; that the tenant in entertainment and television would have her salary reduced by seventy-five percent? In the end, I would be the last to leave, finagling myself into a three bedroom apartment with a terrace in East Harlem—or Spanish Harlem—a stark departure from Central Harlem, where the community takes care of its youth through a host of programming and churches, and the hope of the ivy on the hill entangles in another middle school graduation or parent program at Columbia.

It was an elevator building—a first for us—and close to everything, including the 4/5/6 train station on 125th, convenient but near a methadone clinic. The addicts never rest. No matter how early I left to head to my assigned school of the day (I’d moved on to substitute teaching), the streets were filthy and the addicts were out, some with missing limbs, some more normal looking. It was a waste land of zombies; even the view from the terrace overlooked an empty field my daughters nicknamed Rat Garden because the rodents were so big you could see them from five stories high.

From this building I would leave Harlem for Wichita, a decision made with my daughters from a bench on the border of Morningside park after church service one Sunday morning. The rent was high and in arrears, and I would not be teaching throughout summer; the PATH DHS Assessment Shelter appeared too dangerous when I’d scoped it out twice, although I did not admit this to my mother. No, instead I yelled out over the phone in response to her coaxing me to move back to Wichita. “I’d rather live in a homeless shelter than come back!” How I ate those words. But that’s another story for another day.

When we made it back to NYC after two long years in Kansas (read about the return here), after dad passed, mom was on her death bed, I’d been diagnosed with a rare cancer; after many things, we ended up in Brooklyn, first in one of its more undesirable neighborhoods, then in its most desirable space.

But that, too, is another story for another day.

An affordable co-op in Manhattan is a lifetime opportunity. The purchase required all-cash and board approval. A decade ago I’d walked past the very development and thought, now here’s a place even mom would approve of; here’s a place she could come and age well. The courtyards hosted mature trees and meticulous landscaped grounds boarded by (how New York) black rod iron fences. Scattered about were what I imagined legacy HBCU alum, entrepreneurs and attorneys. And now, ten years later in the prime of a pandemic, a long-shot opportunity to buy a unit in that very development that rarely ever has units for sale presents itself.

Considering my meager salary at the non-profit organization I’d labored for around five years, I didn’t know how I could afford it. But then, I knew it wouldn’t be me to make it happen, but Him. My eldest brother once told me, “You cannot profit from doing wrong.” Anytime I’ve plotted, frauded or finessed a situated I’ve ended with balance zero. Like biblical Jacob, I had to wrestle and be maimed to receive my blessings; I’ve had to learn patience.

And a decade is a long wait. Between the time I first saw the development and an apartment (actually two!) going up for sale, much had taken place; besides the passing of both my parents, beyond the rare cancer and return to Wichita, my three children graduated from high school; what’s further is we were homeless.

But God doesn’t place a lingering vision on one’s heart without bringing it to fruition, even if the world around is seemingly crumbling; in fact, sometimes the blessing is found in the tumbling. Ascension only comes after a fall.

The world was two months into its initial Covid-19 shutdown, and New York City was hit particularly hard during this time. I was working from home, cognizant I could lose my job any time after June when layoffs would not prevent the conversion from PPP loan to grant. I was, in fact, surprised I wasn’t among the six let go when June finally rolled around, but then I would have kept me, too. Still, the shutdown had been a refuge from a year of workplace sabotage, hostility and harassment.

Yet another story for another day.

Working from home provided the necessary time and space needed to continue to outperform all my work peers while building a business, writing, and reflecting on how I would purchase the co-op.

Or should I? My Greenpoint apartment was rent stabilized and beautiful. My children would have succession rights and I could purchase a country home. “You need to get clear with your intent,” an old friend met in Harlem advised. Almost all my New York friends, some like family, were met in Harlem.

Oh, Manhattan. Money-Making-Manhattan.

Try as they may, Manhattan outlanders’ claims of residencies as magical as the towering borough is all smoke and mirrors to conceal one fact: they reside in a lesser borough or city or state (I see you, Jersey residents, still representing NYC) because they are priced out.

Of course I should buy a co-op. But how?

I started praying the co-op issue be resolved in God’s own perfect way, in His own perfect time through Jesus. First came the money: Proverbs 18:24 “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother”. Then came the final approval after clearance of three mandatory reviews: Isaiah 43:16 “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path through the mighty waters.” Since moving to New York, I’d often daydreamed about closing on a home just in time for Christmas. I figured 2020 would be the year. But it was not. 2021, six days before my born day came the closing, a birthday gift only God could deliver.

So I am back in Harlem, a village enveloping its people into true community—the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s where God sent people to replace the family I left behind; it’s where my children took to the streets and filmed a scary movie, men cursing on the sidewalks in the background as they skipped along, never breaking part. The girls were twelve, eleven, and nine when we first moved to New York; they grew up in a village showcasing the best and sometimes the worst; they had adventures I could have only imagined as a child—a real life mix of Fat Albert and The Wiz (which I’ve always preferred over The Wizard of Oz).

No matter how tall the obstacle blocking one’s promise, mountains are moved by mere faith. The forty foot walls of Jericho came tumbling down by the obedience of the Israelites, making way for the victory and procurement of the promise made to Abraham some five hundred years earlier. It is our obedience that fuels our trust in the Lord and thus strengthens our faith.

There is a saying among the evangelical circle that “the anointing comes before the appointing.” Recently, my toxic workplace and I divorced. Obedient to letting my little light shine, I consistently toiled away beyond the scope of my job description, executing several self-initiatives, collaborating within and cross departmentally and working closely with clients, getting to know many personally and becoming inspired by the flames of hope they carry within, kindled by the programs I was so honored to run and create. I stretched myself up, down, and all around with no appropriate recognition or compensation until by separation I am stretched into the next opportunity—my appointment. Oh, the excitement! Oh, the praise!

More to come.

Happy New Year, ya’ll!

In 2012 the author moves into her third Harlem apartment

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  • Margery Hannah

    “A writer writes, aways.” (Larry Donner, Throw Mama from the Train) The musings of Margery Hannah, a multi-genre writer, on an array of subject matter through a literary lens. Every raindrop has a story.

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