Names have been changed.
It was 6th grade recess, and a couple of girls were complaining about how far away they lived from school. I stared off into space, kicking at the fake grass beneath my feet, hoping they wouldn’t ask me where I lived.
To the mostly White, wealthy students at my public school on the Upper West Side, it wasn’t exactly enviable to be from Harlem.
A White girl named Cassie, who I didn’t know well, joined our group and asked me and my friend Alex, who is Korean-American, where we lived. When Alex said that she lived on 116th Street, Cassie replied, “My parents won’t let me go above 110th.”
It embarrassed me to know that her parents thought our neighborhood was dangerous, and I was careful not to reveal that I was from Harlem too.
In 2nd grade, I had transferred to this school from my predominantly Black one in Harlem. Ever since then, whenever my classmates learned I lived there, their faces contorted into a frown and they looked me up and down disdainfully. It was as if I transformed into a different person before their eyes. Harlem, which they saw as a dirty, dangerous place, defined me.
The occasional snarky comment about how “people get shot there all the time” made it clear to me that, when they pictured Harlem, they pictured the “ghetto”: rampant violence, criminals, and drugs. I’ve lived there all my life, so I know that these stereotypes are not true.
My Beloved Harlem
When I walk around Harlem, I feel as if there’s music and soul everywhere. Often there are people with speakers jamming to hip hop on the sidewalk or cars booming rap songs as they pass. This may sound unpleasant to some, but I find it nice (as long as I like the song). Sometimes I can sense a rhythm to my step, almost as though the jazzy energy of Harlem has burst forth from under the ground and taken control over my feet.
There are mostly two types of streets. There are the quiet avenues with historic brownstones, and trees forming canopies that provide the perfect shade in the summertime. Then there are the busy streets with the typical hustle and bustle of New York City, but with some unique twists: for example, you wouldn’t find a group of people in lawn chairs in front of a laundromat playing R&B on 42nd Street, as you do here.
Harlem’s vibe is communal. It feels like the invisible strings of our shared culture, history, and identity as Harlemites connect us into one massive web of innate togetherness.
During the 1910 to 1970 Great Migration, Black people came to Harlem seeking refuge from racial violence, segregation, and other forms of legal and extra-legal discrimination in the South. It was a safe haven. Even though the New York City government and private banks deemed the neighborhood unworthy and restricted services, and denied investment in a process called redlining, the people of Harlem have done our best to maintain it as a sanctuary from the racial bias we face every day.
Harlem is the only place where I don’t feel like an outsider. But expressing my love for my neighborhood in an almost-all-White school often felt impossible.
What Happened to My Parents’ Dream
As one of only a few Black and Hispanic students, I already felt isolated at school. People often touched my hair. I never said anything, even though it made me feel like I wasn’t a peer, but a spectacle. When I walked through the halls, it was as though I was the only one there, and all I could hear were the distant, discordant sounds of quick-paced feet on their way to class. The walls felt dreary despite being covered in paintings and sketches from art students. I often almost shivered at the coldness of people and the atmosphere; the absence of community was palpable.
Although I felt proud to be from Harlem, the negative stereotypes I kept hearing from the White kids at my school eventually began to poison me with the belief that my community was inferior and, because I was so connected to my community, that I was inferior too. Shame welled up in me, and I worried constantly that I would be ostracized if people knew where I lived. I felt guilty for feeling this way, but I couldn’t stop.
I felt even worse about myself when I thought about how disappointed my parents would be. I knew how much my shame would hurt them. From a young age, they told me that their dream had been to live in an apartment in Harlem with a backyard, and how grateful they were to have fulfilled that dream. How could I tell my parents that I was embarrassed to be associated with their dream life?
That Word Again: Dangerous
As I made my way through my middle school years, I was able to develop a middle ground between my parents’ unwavering love for Harlem and my White classmates’ blatant disdain. Yes, there were aspects of Harlem that were unpleasant, but there were more parts and places I loved like the independent bookstore a couple blocks from my house, Harlem Shake (my favorite burger spot), and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Despite the love I felt for Harlem’s places and culture, it was still difficult to ignore the comments of my White peers.
Even so, my gradually growing appreciation for my home prompted me to open up to a White friend in 8th grade. But when I told her that I was from Harlem, she responded with the same, distinct grimace I had seen before, like she’d just eaten food a couple days past the expiration date. I didn’t know how to cut off my friendship with her, so instead I went back to pretending that my life in Harlem didn’t exist when we were together and whenever I was at school.
Then later in the year, she and her dad moved to Harlem. I thought that even though she was still White and wealthy and moved to the part of Harlem that was already gentrified, she might appreciate the neighborhood now that she was living there.
Instead, whenever we met at her house, which had beautiful traditional architecture and a shiny, marble floor in the lobby, we immediately walked down to the Upper West Side, which was only a couple of blocks away. “I hate going outside near my house,” she told me once, unprovoked.
“What? Why?” I asked tentatively, afraid of her answer.
“It’s so dangerous near here,” she responded.
There it was. That word. Dangerous. My cheeks and ear tips turned bright red and my eyes dropped to my shoes uncomfortably. While I knew, because she had told me, that her building was next to a block that often had creepy old men loitering on it, she refused to explore Harlem any further.
New School, More Black Community
In 9th grade, I enrolled in a more diverse high school in Brooklyn. Not being surrounded by whiteness was refreshing; it was the change of water I needed to start feeling like myself again. The first friend I made was a Black girl in my virtual freshman French class during the pandemic.
One day during sophomore year when we were back in person, she and I were chatting in the auditorium when she asked me the question I had been dreading.
“Where do you live?”
“Um… I live in Harlem,” I said, bracing myself.
“That’s cool,” she said. I sighed in relief. I could barely believe it.
Most of my new peers have responded similarly. My high school is composed of students from all over the city, from low-income to wealthy neighborhoods, so I don’t feel like I’m at risk of being pre-judged based on where I live.
Even so, the school population is predominantly Asian and White with very few Black and Latine students, so I still often feel isolated.
But fortunately for me, my high school has something that I didn’t have access to before: cultural clubs. In elementary and middle school, I shouldered my racial and ethnic isolation without support. But since I joined the Black Student Union (BSU) and ASPIRA, a Latin youth services organization, I regularly interact with people who have had similar experiences.
Many of the other BSU members are from Bed-Stuy and other Black neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Like me, they’ve been stigmatized based on that. We hold space to vent our frustrations together.
Having this support at school reminded me how much I appreciate Harlem. It is a place where Black people have formed a small community, and we embrace one another. In BSU and at home, I don’t feel different. I feel seen.
Now, when someone asks where I’m from, I feel prouder to say, “Harlem.” It feels like a safe haven again.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to break away from a mindset I spent so long in. Sometimes the desire to hide where I’m from creeps in, which is something that I still need to work through. However, I am grateful that, even though my relationship to my neighborhood is still healing and may never be fully healed, the people that make me feel safe will still be there. They are my refuge, my Harlem.