Urban Jungle: How I discovered the true meaning of community in Harlem

Founded by Mary Harriman in 1901 to help immigrant families on the Lower East Side, The New York Junior League has done outstanding work to strengthen communities for over 100 years. As an active volunteer for close to 15 years, I witnessed the difference that trained volunteers can make in the lives of impoverished women and children in New York City. Growing up, I was taught that it was important to give back. In my mind that meant that if you had a good education and had a good job, it was your duty to volunteer in charitable activities and help those in the community who were materially less fortunate.  It never occurred to me then that those of more humble circumstances than my own would be the ones to help me.

In May 2006, I stood in front of our newly renovated brownstone, overwhelmed by moving and all the work that still remained to be done, including renting out three of the apartments. I also felt some trepidation about leaving the comfort of our home on the Upper West Side, the neighbors I knew, the local businesses, and of course, my sense of safety.  We had invested our lives’ savings and moved to Harlem at a time when the press was reporting the latest Harlem renaissance. While most were sure this one would last, only time would tell. How would our new neighbors really feel about us?

I quickly found out, as my new neighbor, Jerrie, came over to introduce herself.  She shared that she had played in our house as a child over 50 years ago. She remembered how beautiful the light was as it came through the stained glass windows and streamed down the mahogany staircase carpeted with a rich oriental runner, all of which had been destroyed by neglect by the time we bought the house. Comforted by the warm greeting, I dove back into my work.

Two weeks later, as I sat in the front garden bedroom that served as my home office, I looked out onto the street and saw Jerrie and another longtime resident of the block, Miss Ellen, sorting through the garbage I had so neatly left at the curb. What were they doing? Certainly, they couldn’t be so deeply in need that they were fishing for bottles to return for a five-cent deposit. Were they looking for clues about their new neighbors? Was it some odd act of mild vandalism? I honestly could not determine what was happening, so I went outside and asked. Apparently, I had sorted my garbage incorrectly.  They were desperately trying to help us to avoid the $100 fine that the rapidly approaching Department of Transportation officer was certain to assess. I was so shocked by this act of kindness for which they clearly expected nothing in return, that I was speechless.  Little did I know that more was to come.

In addition to learning the do’s and don’ts of rubbish removal, I quickly learned that one says “Hello” or “Good Day” to everyone on the block. I gleaned that this was not merely a reflection of the good old-fashioned Southern manners with which many of our neighbors were raised, but also a subtle means of security. Like Jerrie, her daughter, and granddaughter, who had lived on the block their entire life, many of our neighbors had experienced the less glamorous and frankly dangerous times in the history of Harlem. Not knowing who was friend or foe in those crazier, crime-ridden days, they relied on each other for their safety. There was a silver lining born of that dark cloud, however – the wonderful tradition of summer block parties.

Every summer, the city allows blocks to apply for a permit to shut down to traffic for a day.  Neighbors come tumbling out onto the street with grills, music, lawn chairs, and umbrellas. The fire department opens a hydrant, offering a cool respite to the children who have been alternating between riding their bikes wildly up and down the block, and tossing them aside to pick up a ball and start a new game. These are warm, openhearted celebrations reminiscent of something one expects to see on Main Street, America, not necessarily in New York City. Albeit with a decidedly urban twist.

At one such party, our son had his brand new bike out. He loved his first top of the line, metallic green, big boy bike without training wheels; pride beamed out of his little face as he rode it.  Caught up in that great sense of joy that comes from moving so quickly and independently, he had the time of his life playing all day with the other children on the block, stopping only briefly to refuel from one of the many food-laden tables.  I kept an eye out for the bike from our stoop, knowing that despite all of the neighborly love, and the two policemen assigned to us for the day, the boundaries of our city block were porous – anyone could visit the party. Despite my vigilance, as the sun started to set and our little guy finally showed signs of fatigue, the bike was nowhere to be found. Realizing he was completely worn out after an action packed day, I didn’t want to alert him to the fact that his bike was missing, for fear that complete hysteria would keep him awake for hours.

The next day, we quietly let the block president, Sylvia, know what had happened.  A retired New York City public school teacher possessed of formidable energy and influence, Sylvia had lived on the block for decades and raised her children there. She knew everyone, including Jerrie, Jerrie’s daughter, and Jerrie’s granddaughter, Faith. During dinner, a couple of weeks after the block party, there was a knock at the door.  In came Sylvia, Faith, and the shiny, green bike. Faith wouldn’t look us in the eye. Why would Faith have taken the bike, and how did Sylvia know and get her to return it? Those were the thoughts immediately running through my head, but I had learned to wait and listen for the full story in Harlem. Sure enough, Faith’s reluctance to make eye contact was a result of her embarrassment over the strong-arm techniques used with the children around the corner who had stolen the bike. Faith had been determined to see justice done. She took matters into her own hands when she realized what had happened, and returned the bike to its rightful owner, a little boy who was far more fortunate materially than she was.

I am always so overwhelmed and deeply humbled by the acts of genuine caring and kindness that I have witnessed from my neighbors that it would be hard to call anywhere else home. In Harlem, I have learned the true meaning of community and neighborly love, and I have never felt safer.

(This story is dedicated to my neighbors. RIP Henrietta and Kutira)

Categories: Harlem

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