I think I captured a tiny glimpse today of what Ed Morales was talking about in his article “Spanish Harlem on His Mind.” In this essay, Morales speaks of his memories growing up, the changing culture of Harlem, gentrification and community activism.
Today I took pictures of a few murals, Puerto Rican flags, signs of life, age. I am conflicted because while I am glad to be working in Harlem this summer, my very presence indicates gentrification. I appreciate the diverse cultures, the many languages I hear on the street, and the people I’ve met. But I only speak English, my families roots have been laid in the states for about a century and that’s all there is, all I know. The family that stayed in Europe, from what I understand, is gone, lost during WWII. So what I know is “American”. I think I become more lost the more time I spend with people who feel they are part of their heritage, proud of their culture, since I know nothing of my European/Russian roots.
The mere fact that I’m trying to take part in this bigger way of life, in a way, detracts from its purity. And I don’t mean this in the sense that I am not welcome, it just is that as I walk the streets, I am truly an outsider looking in. I don’t understand the language, I don’t live there, and I don’t know the culture. So I’ll just keep walking. Appreciating that so many people are out on the streets, greeting friends, catching up, relaxing, playing board games, talking business, eating shaved ices, waiting for the light to change.
I’ll do what I usually do, stick around until things start to make sense and feel comfortable. Until then I’ll be with my camera, taking pictures of the thriving urban beauty that surrounds me.