What Harlem taught me about diversity

This past spring break we put together a tour of two cities that ended up being what I call the “Freedom is not Free” vacation.  We started in DC, touring the monuments, government buildings and museums.  If you have not been to the Holocaust Museum, you must!!  Unbelievably humbling, sad, infuriating and empowering all in the same breath.  The room of shoes literally takes your breath away.

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In NYC, we had the unique opportunity to stay with a dear friend of ours in her brownstone in New York City, specifically, in Harlem.   Harlem is a vibrant part of the City with enough character to go around the whole island but we all know the reputation that precedes it; poverty, drugs, crime and racial inequality.  .  I took the picture below on the last morning of our stay in NYC.

NYC Window

Those buildings you see across the way?  Those are the projects, literally.  I was expecting it to be a culture clash for my kids and one that I worried they would be afraid of.  The fact that it wasn’t was beyond surprising.

It was rewarding.

We arrived in New York via train on Thursday evening.  Harlen was our conductor on the train and a New York native.  He had taken an interest in my boys and was determined to show them everything they could see from the train itself including Freedom Tower, the Empire State and of course, Lady Liberty herself.  As a Harlem native, Harlen set the bar of expectation high in my boys heads (imagine how rough that had to have been, being Harlen from Harlem.  And you thought YOU were teased for your name in grade school!!).  Once we pulled in to Penn Station we immediately pinged out for UBER.  The driver’s response to our destination was a hesitant “That’s interesting” and not nearly with the same enthusiasm as Harlen.

My boys really did not have any clue as to what to expect from Harlem.

My boys really did not have any clue as to what to expect, no real preconceived notions of what ‘Harlem’ was supposed to be about.  On the drive from Penn Station to North Harlem, we passed the USS Intrepid, saw the multiple Trump buildings along Riverside Drive and passed right in front of the iconic Apollo Theatre.  We were in the heart of Harlem, A Train and all.

Our home back in Texas is on a very ethnically diverse street.  If you walk four houses in either direction of our quiet suburban home you can find families that originally called Columbia, Pakistan, Germany, Korea, Ecuador, Japan, Turkey and Chechnya their home.   However the diversity and more importantly, the community, my boys were able to witness in Harlem was something on a different level.  We were able to meet the home owner who with his partner hosts aid workers from around the globe in ‘The People’s Brownstone’.  We heard tales of Dotty, the Mayor of W 131st Street who is up in everyone’s business– my greatest regret of the trip was we were not able to make her acquaintance.  There were families, kids, mothers, neighbors and mailmen all in the neighborhood and yes, everyone was in everyone’s business.  It was neighborhood, a real neighborhood.

My favorite encounter was on our first full day in the city.  We left ‘The People’s Brownstone’ early in the morning and headed over to the subway.  We were no more than 10 steps away from the front door when 2 gentlemen and a woman from the neighborhood questioned where we came from.  Repeatedly.

Neighbor #1: “Did you just come from that door?”

Me: “Yep”

Neighbor #1: “The one with the plants on the stoop?”

Me: “Yep”

Neighbor #2: “That one right there with the red door?”

Me: “Yes, sir.”

Neighbor #3: “That’s where that One Lady lives!”

Neighbor #1: “Oh, OK then.”

We were in a neighborhood where the white family stuck out like a sore thumb but ‘That Lady’ was our friend and host and everyone in the neighborhood knew ‘That Lady’.  They knew that she was in the business of helping the most downtrodden across the globe.  They knew that she and the owners of the house hosted visitors of all nationalities, ethnicities and communities regularly.  You see, even though Harlem is incredibly ‘diverse’ it is also monochromatic for the most part.  We definitely stood out and neighbors were watching out for neighbors.  It was refreshingly awesome.

As someone who travels the country regularly, I have the benefit of literally seeing all types and sizes.  I see diversity if for no other reason than the number of time zones I touch in a week but too many of us do not.  We live with those ‘like us’.  We work with those ‘like us’.  We church with those’ like us’.  We need to take time to be with those who are not ‘like us’.   A special shout goes out to all those in Harlem who welcomed us with open arms so that my family and I could introduce ourselves the NYC and did not shun those not like them but reached out to meet and learn about those ‘not like them’.  I cannot wait to go back and visit again.

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