The newlyweds in 5L pull open the door at the same time my boy D does, and we all step into the hall landing, blinking freshly ceased sleep from our eyes.
The four of us stare at one other in our variegated pajamas, fairly uncertain of what to do next. Besides ducking, it’s clear no one knows the protocol for a live Harlem gunfight. But Tech 9 rounds are flying just below the place we all call home, and it’s authentically terrifying.
No need to call the cops. Sirens from the precinct on 119th are already hurtling towards us. Passive as it seems, bonding in disbelief with the neighbors at 3:30 in the morning feels better than chaining the door and pulling the sheets overhead.
Andy and Sara in 5L are a lot like D and me, only a few years younger, and at the moment, very pregnant. Their unrelenting amiability makes the building feel more like home, and the key swap to insure both of us against the inevitable nightmare lock-out has already been enacted several times. It’s nice to trust your neighbors.
More gunshots rip through the air. Pings ricocheting as if straight from a sound effects library. Our quartet ducks in unison, as if choreographed for a camera take. Protracted yelling follows the shots: threats and furor nearly as bone chilling as the gun play. It’s life and death on 114th tonight, and no one knows whose just yet.
The imported prosciutto and mozzarella at their house warming put Arthur Avenue’s best to shame. They’ve only lived in Harlem three weeks, and their bemused expression is asking if shit like this happens here often.
Another shot. And a barrage of return fire. This is insanity. Is there really a shoot out happening in the middle of this street? Flashes of yellow-white light off windows and windshields answer a resounding yes.
A beat of quiet… then more yelling. It escalates between two guys in the remaining party, right in the middle of the block. The angrier voice is vibrating with emotion, with urgency, overpowering the other voice with the most desperate acrimony imaginable.
Twelve sets of ears tune in to the desperate dialogue. No one moves a muscle. Breathing stops in anticipation of the next munitions discharge. The one that takes B’s life away, for what ever it was he did or didn’t do.
You supposed to have my back, B! I fucking trusted you!!
To be on the receiving end of such concentrated vitriol would be nearly as frightening as a gun in the face. We’re five stories up, inside a solid brick building, and everyone’s white with terror.
What i’m gonna do WITH YOU NOW, b? What the fuck I’m gonna do WITH YOU NOW?
Hang on, B. Whoever you are. Just shut your mouth and ride this out, kid.
The Asian sisters from 3A join the landing party, their adrenal glands pouring out the cortisol. The shorter one has tears in her eyes. I realize I would want to cry too, if I wasn’t trying not to piss my pants. We have not formally met them yet, an issue D and I resented a bit, but they are hugging us right now. No one wants to be alone.
These are the closest gunshots any of us have ever heard. Close enough to smell the weapon’s singed sulfur. Close enough for a bullet to deflect off a light fixture and find a home in the wet, grey tissue of our brains. Language has failed down below.
And if one thing is true, it’s that bullets don’t discriminate. We instinctively move away from the window as our conversation zigzagz between how we’re feeling and what we think about how we’re feeling: nothing like the fear of violent death to get the synapses firing.
The area has improved so rapidly in the four years since D bought his pad that tonight’s incident is a stark reality check. Much of what passes for gentrification is cosmetic in actuality.
SoHa, as trendy realtors have labeled South Harlem, is similar to any ancient city built on top of the relics of a previous culture. Just beneath the surface of the new are generations old rivalries that will erupt without warning.
Spirits linger in the ruins. You can see them if you look carefully. The remaining locals, most of whom posses some disability we simply refer to as The Harlem Limp, are being forced north, and they don’t much like it.
Headlines concerning the near misses might serve the general public, but the city repeatedly defers to the illusion propagated by the developers they make their deals with. Harlem Is ”up and coming”, if not already up and came, and all unsubstantiated evidence to the contrary will be suppressed.
The powers that be have too much at stake to allow any spin but the positive, of which there is plenty. Abandoned buildings have been converted into condos. Bike shops and organic cleaners have replaced the bulletproof glass of local bodegas. Chase Bank, Duane Reade, Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks may have made the transmogrification official, but innumerable independent gems which have sprung up (nail salons, wine shops, ethnic food) have fortified it. The hood’s alive and kicking, with no less than seven large-scale construction sites in plain view from the roof of 284 w 114th. According to the city, more than 20 residential projects are currently permitted and underway, with another 10 pending licenses.
The most recent site usurped the abandon lot across the street where adventurous miscreants had been unfruitful in harvesting worn-out tires. Seven months later, it promises 12 more floors of luxury living.
Daylight hours are a whirl of yellow hardhats and Latin profanity. Cement mixers spiral above the steady march of weathered Timberlands and beneath a towering crane’s echoing refractions. Battered orange pylons create makeshift traffic lanes, and despite signs threatening fines, the honking never relents.
Fingers point to the West Africans for double-parking five times a day during Call to Prayer. The storefront mosque on the east side of Fredrick Douglas between 115th and 116th fills with hundreds of shoeless faithful huddled over portable Korans. Their impassioned Imam shouts holy passages at diatribe decibels. This is a religion of determination.
The men spill out afterwards, their women waiting behind foldout tables selling spiritual adornments and local cane drinks. You’d swear to Allah you were in Senegal or Côte d’Ivoire.
Instant immersion in such culture would be inexplicable to anyone other than the seasoned New Yorker who breezes through oblivious to anything but the compressed culture on his or her iPod.
The West Africans aren’t the only relief from the relentless race to raise property values, however. Just east on 114th, in the middle of the street, is a beautiful arts school, balancing the block’s chaos with children’s laughter and the metronomic snap of Double-Dutchers.
As night falls, the laborers slide down the tails of their dinosaur power lifters and submerge into the subway. Bodegas screech down their gratings. Bus loops drop to twice an hour. The Mr. Softie finally pulls away, its comet tail of pre-recorded jubilee trailing off into an eerie silence.
Tranquility doesn’t suit Harlem and is almost always short lived.
The first wave of actions kicks off around 9pm. For some reason, and no studies have yet been commissioned, though Columbia is a stone’s throw away, Harlem natives talk at alarmingly high volumes. It doesn’t matter if the speakers are three feet apart or thirty, five stories up, one can make out every last non-nuanced exchange.
Perhaps it’s an unconscious attempt to repossess the streets they’ve been priced out of or maybe they’re just matching the day’s hammering din. But the folk on 114th talk really loudly, YO.
One particular voice has become all too familiar to everyone of us on the landing: a baritone holler known to every resident from 113th to 115th, for damn sure.
HEY RED? YO Red! That ‘chu?
A bottle rattles off a stoop, into the street, but doesn’t break.
Red!? Where you been, man?
Red eventually responds– how could he not– but as the two voices close in, their volume stays the same. 50 yards, 30 yards, 10, 5… The men are now face to face, but a court stenographer in Bed-Stuy could transpose their entire conversation. It’s impossibly distracting and utterly irrelevant once the music starts.
In the summer, the street rivals a Penn State football tailgate: party people hopping from huddle to huddle, grouping around portable BBQ’s, shouting and singing and teasing and drinking. No ageism at these festivities either. Two year olds are happily participating well after midnight. Honorable mentions for good parenting are not awarded here.
Screeches of laughter battle with overt quarrels omitting no expletive. And the mid-century brownstones stand shoulder-to-shoulder creating the sturdiest of echo chambers.
One feels for the insomniacs, as late-night television is impossible to watch unless blasting. With a little openness though, one could experience the urban drama outside their window as far more authentic than anything playing on HBO. It’s not TV. It’s 114th street.
From 12 to 4 am the party rages, wavering between ecstasy and desperation. The first half of the night is predictably “the high”. Belly laughs force their owners to gasp for breath. Hip-hop sing-a-longs, or the working out of original material fill the air. The yelling from Red, and G and Blackie, and whoever else, are usually invitations to join the debauchery.
But as the eve wears on, the high wears off. Somewhere between 2 and 4 am, the tide inevitably turns, and exchanges go from celebratory to confrontational. I’m told by a local that scoring “good rock” is like buying diamonds: the higher the carrot, the better the feeling. Low-grade vials go for $10 a pop; the best sells for $50. This is why you can’t cross the boulevard without hitting a panhandler.
Yo, ya gotta dollar, asks a limper, though it’s not a question. C’mon, man. You got hundreds. He pleads, not having spoken to my post-crash financial advisor. How ‘bout a ciggy, kid? I nod my apologies and swipe myself inside.
In three hours the whole block will be awoken by gunfire, but right now I’m feeling bad I can’t spare some change. There’s a recognizable hierarchy on 114th. On the lower end are the Scouts; younger teens looking out for the heat. Capos are a bit older and have the authority to make the deals, or in some cases deny them.
Maybe once a week, a Porsche or Range Rover cruises through: the Suppliers. The dudes with the guns. The ones the police hope to catch in their sweeps, but usually suffice with the usual suspects.
The 5-0 finally arrives, red lights spinning apace with our heartbeats. Of course, the violence has completely subsided. No weapons left to discharge; no catcalls or greetings of execrations from a hundred yards away. The troublesome elements have slipped back into the post-modern cracks that gentrification tries in vain to pave over.
Hard to sleep after all the Fort Apache action even with a proper Irish buzz. 200 feet above the fray we neighbors flirt with filing a formal report, then depart, pair by pair, to cuddle or cry or spend the rest of the night not talking. As final goodbyes are said, and the chain on the door is locked, my mind races back to sophomore year at university.
I am seated in American Lit. and we are discussing the ideal of equality for all people, be they black, female, Indian or immigrant. The book is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845. The quote on the chalk board reads, “I would unite with any one to do right, and with no one to do wrong.”
The hoods on the block would do well to skim the autobiography. Emancipate themselves from the repetition of self-defeating behavior. Maybe even empower themselves against The Man.
How Mr. Douglass might have directly inculcated morals into the renegades below who value only ammo and bling is anyone’s guess. It’s still all there for the taking: a wealth so much bigger than the corner score or some territorial retaliation.
D and I sit in the lingering silence, meditating to Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, on vinyl. Not much more to say at this point. The Jamesons is damn near finished. And no sleep to Harlem.