The neighborhood has been changing in the past few years, but then in Gotham, what area of the city has not undergone a transformation that has supplanted previous generations’ efforts with the tap of the wrecking ball to create new forms and glamorous life? These changes have also come to uptown as the push of middle-class residents has moved up from the 72nd Street parallel in the 1980s to the 96th Street parallel in the 1990s, and now the frontier above 96th has been broken.
Save for a pocket of old New York in the area of what is often called East Harlem or Spanish Harlem but is known as Junkietown or Oh God That Place or Get Back in the Cab Kids We’re Not Visiting Aunt Tilly Today, things were different today. Uptown has changed and areas formerly considered off-limits are now areas of growth, Macy’s, Whole Foods, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Harlem has transformed before. It was once home to a number of respectable people who attended well-constructed churches and lived on or close to Strivers Row and was an area where African Americans lived and thrived as much as they could in a nation where things were “separate but equal” in the North and certainly not that way in the rest of the country. The 1920s was a sort of Renaissance that would for generations be one of two things white people knew about Harlem, the other being weed could be bought there. At some point, depending on the sources and timelines and political inclination or knowledge of the author, the area declined, and the once fancy strivers moved out and the junkies, criminals, and poverty moved in setting up the common conception that Harlem was a place of danger. A place to buy drugs from the “candyman walking down the street” or find that “everybody’s here but the police, and they’ll be here any minute.”
My first trip Uptown actually started downtown. I was working for an arts organization and for reasons I don’t exactly remember, I was at an art opening in SOHO in the back of a hair salon. This was no ordinary salon, but seemed right out of a bad 1980s film except everyone was from Miami, and all they knew of New York City was either the film American Psycho or Bright Lights Big City. No one I knew was there. A poofy-haired gentleman started whacking away on a peculiar instrument that was a small plastic electric violin, the sort bad science fiction films have aliens that look like humans with poofy hair and stupid clothes play. Which means this guy, and by extension, the party, was comprised of space aliens.
While I waited for the others working on the arts organization to show up (this was before cell phones kids), I had some crap vodka drink out of a fancy plastic cup. The event was an art opening fundraiser for a guy whose project was to drive his yacht about the Pacific Ocean and trace a huge pattern of a sea turtle over the course of several years using a GPS to trace the lines. Life for a certain set of our population is the Théâtre de la Cruauté, and most of us are just silly and expendable audience members. Somehow the organizers of the art opening got the orgy sponsored by Dr. Wilson’s Discount Vodka and also, and inexplicably, FLCL Sake. Nothing is better than sake and vodka hangovers. The huge plastic promotional sake barrel thingy was pulled in on poles by appropriately Asian men, and the crowd blew kisses, and frosted tips flew in the air as these glittering boobs pressed about the vat to dip in cups or perhaps straws to ensure their later vomit would be supple and a mix of cultures and contrasting zest. There seemed little for me to do but stare at the vapid, stupid art, listen to the nice man rape my eardrums with his electric plaything, and wait for an evacuation of some kind. Before I could move on to the dark SOHO streets, one of our organization’s artists showed up, a man some of us referred to as 88 Keys after one of the villains in Dick Tracy. 88 Keys was a filmmaker and musician who did that stuff when he wasn’t womanizing or blowing cocaine in the bathroom with “colleagues.”
Mr. 88 Keys was a dapper man of an older generation who could drink and drug us “kids” under the table. He had partied with Duke Ellington and knew all the aristocrats of New York jazz. I am not sure what he did for money, but he had a sweet spot up in Harlem where he gathered musicians and local artists for salons and all-out ragers. 88 Keys maintained a small pencil mustache, a smile on his face, and was always dressed impeccably as many men of his generation once did. He was also incredibly crude when he wanted to be. “What a crew of fucking ugly [people],” he may have said. He arrived from a previous event already a few drinks deep. It was clear we were the only ones from our organization who had shown up. We had a few drinks, and then he recommended we split with a few drinks tucked into our coats.
Mr. 88 Keys loved old cars and outside of the salon-orgy-art-fuckery was one of his collection, a large Cadillac of some grand vintage. We jumped in, and he hit the gas before I had even found my seatbelt which in those vintage cars were usually tucked away as an afterthought. We hit the FDR, a highway of ill-advised construction that runs on the east side of Gotham and sped up towards the Harlem River drive. Fuck that shit, that isn’t art or music, and who the hell serves sake and vodka together, Mr. 88 Keys exclaimed as he handed me a joint. We talked of goings on at our organization, the already dilapidated state of the art world, and perhaps some other topics now forgotten in the smoke and fog of time and inebriation. We sped on up the FDR, our finished drink fancy plastic cups and the spent roaches tossed out the electric windows of the car with little concern for the environment. You don’t want that shit in the ashtray, what were you thinking, he exhorted me.
We got to Harlem, 125th street exit. I hadn’t planned on going uptown, but here we were in a cold city night the streets shimmering with a smattering of rain. A few turns, another set of red lights, and we were there. Mr. 88 Keys townhouse. Entering the townhouse, there was already a crowd. Apparently, some of our strange fraternity of artists and hangers-on had met up and sprung themselves on Uptown, and I was not sure if this was planned or just another Tuesday night. The musicians started showing up, and I was told that things didn’t get going on the late side and last long into the first musing of the winter day.
The comings and goings seemed not to bother the neighbors and while an enclave of homeowners (it seemed), there was a lax sense of enforcement for many laws and social norms. People came in, and more drinks were produced. I had to work on the early, so had to remove myself, and by this time Mr. 88 Keys had moved on to speak to some bird and seemed occupied for the night. I left the house a little spun, and walked quickly to the subway since in those days, taxis didn’t roam the streets as they do today and the Uberlyfts were but a sketch on some technocrat’s high school shop class three ring binder dust cover.
Harlem in the past few years has seen a New New Harlem emerge built on the crackheads and cobblestones of the past decades. Today’s Harlem is a mix of migrants to the city who have come from the suburbs of Miami, the wealthy androssiments of Paris, boring condos of Vancouver, overpriced Brownstones of Brooklyn, or are Columbia University students. All come to old Harlem for the Jazz, soul food, and rents comparable to what Astoria Queens could offer in 2015 and Yorkville had in the 1990s. Now that the areas of Manhattan proper are no longer affordable, people are willing to forget their fears, shed a little racism/exoticism in search for more affordable neighborhoods. New restaurants are today not always soul food. They are sushi eateries where to sit at the counter it is a minimum of one hundred dollars. They can be French-African fusion eateries with fifteen dollar drinks. Music venues may host Congolese Afro-Punk or Blue Grass jug bands right up from the deep woods of Athens Georgia, Austin, Portland, Asheville, or anywhere people of not colour frantically play music created by people of colour. Mr. 88 Keys is dead and gone, and I like to believe that jazz men and all sorts of hip cats still gather together to make a riotous time, good music still carry on in Harlem and I am just too old and not jive enough to be part of that world anymore.