kitchen table math, the sequel: Sesame Street

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sesame Street

apparently being barista also means being neoretrosoulculture DJ at this Harlem Starbucks, two blocks from the A-train Express station on 125 St. Their murals romanticise graffiti. You can see gentrification slowly creeping up from the south, bringing fashionable billboards and storefronts -- but then again before the Great Migrations this place probably was gentrified anyway, to some extent. I am told that the well-to-do south of Central Park used to buy summer houses up here, because they were cooler. The houses 20 blocks north, probably built more than a 100 years ago, have grand marble staircases and dumbwaiters inside. Even in a single residential area, the demographic can range from working to upper middle class. A working mother comes home late at night while luxury cars are parked along her street. It is perhaps a juxtaposition that has arisen as an effect of rent stabilisation laws in the midst of gentrification. The sidewalks of the avenues are wide (alas, unchalked) and at 7:30 am are full of busses full of people on the commute.

There is a sense of pride in this neighbourhood. Not swagger, but hold-your-head-up-high pride -- the pride I suppose a UVA student gets walking past the ampitheatre in the morning on their way to Cabell. An elderly man holding a Macy's bag (walking north) looks like he's shuffling to a beat. Even at 11 pm stepping off onto the subway stations here, you get the homely vibe you get from stepping off at the Redhill MRT station in Singapore. In the night, off the avenues into the streets, the blocks are quiet residential areas and while the buildings look old, their exteriors are kept immaculately neat. That man in a hoodie loitering on the corner is actually a guy hired to make sure passersby don't miss his underground candlelit restaurant. There is a vibe here that you don't get in Times Square or Flushing -- no one is on their guard. The baristas (a girl and neoretrosoulculture DJ -- a guy) are singing to a mean beat.

A writer-looking chap (Ice Cube beard, Malcolm X glasses) writing in the corner has just quietly protested the actions of Neoretrosoul DJ who had expelled an aging chap with a green ski hat reading the NYT at a table.

"I lost my job, I'm on welfare," green ski hat guy had said.
"Please leave the store," sternly commands neoretrosoulculture DJ, almost shouting. Green-hat guy turns to leave quickly; he seems used to this treatment, but probably didn't expect to be noticed so soon.

As he was halfway through the door, neoretrosoulture DJ cries, "Loser! buy your own paper!"

It was then that I could see, that despite his seeming musical literacy and sense of good taste, that neoretrosoul DJ could not be much older than a high school student. But he micromanages the place; this Starbucks is /his/ baby. Writer-looking chap disagrees with this aspect of management though. Did you really have to expel him? His voice is low and I can barely hear -- but with his expression and stern eyes, I think I can make out -- "What sort of example are you setting for our community?"

At 8:45 am the demographic changes; it was initially occupied by a handful of people looking for quiet morning solace -- none of the 7:30 am commuting demographic bought coffee. Now come in the cashmere scarves, tight jeans and Northface jackets; a woman on her way to work with a tomboyish haircut and pearl earrings, but also with Estee Lauder to hide her wrinkles; a large Italian tourist family.

The Payless "Shoesource" across has a street mural painted on its shutters. It's a street message about Liberation and the Struggle of Our People -- but it's tasteful and among its many images, has exquisite 3D detail of children's faces gazing onto some promised land. There must be several dozen shades of colour; it's not gaudy like the murals you can see from the 7 train in Queens (before you disappear underground into Manhattan.) I can see why the owner hasn't done anything to remove it. The shutters go up and down several times before the store finally opens. Many of the other stores don't have shutters, but glass windows with metal blinds -- even though the store is closed, they are open, and they are in pristine condition. One boutique is outfitted in shiny marble, right next to the gaudy "We buy gold and diamonds!!!" store with two graffiti tags painted on its shutters.

The writer-looking chap acquires a pretty date for morning coffee; they study a notebook. She animatedly makes suggestions and inquiries, but writer-looking chap retains a rather stoic expression though his mouth moves passionately. He looks at her with a stern gaze as he explains carefully why he can't implement her suggestion; she looks back at him, locking his eyes in her gaze for half a minute, talking slowly but with an air of protestation . She continues talking more confidently as the conversation progresses. His stoic face breaks into a smile.

9:30 am and the customers stream in; a serious line forms and the Starbucks is full. I'm now not the only Asian in the store. The suitcases walk south; the Times Square shopping bags move north. The bass rhythm underscoring a spoken word piece blasts in the background. The cars streaming by now outnumber the busses 30:1. I converse with a woman with a gospel voice, librarian glasses, a leopard hat, and a drawstring bag with three different cloth patterns -- about computers. With loose strands of brunette hair dangled in her face, morning coffee date suddenly lights up and points out to writer-looking chap that it's snowing. The store's customers now don't seem very different from the SoHo demographic.

But something is different.


What does it mean? A promised land? A selling out? A reintegration? A disenfranchisement?

Can you integrate without losing your culture?

tidbit: Harlem is the centre of education reform in NYC; 18 out of 25 charter schools in NYC are in Harlem.

an interesting article:

1 comment:

Hainish said...

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