Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Borders (not the bookstore kind)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a running dialogue today about a NYT trend story that basically says non-blacks are taking over Harlem. He disagrees, but more to the point is indifferent about what—even if true—it even means when there are like, real problems for black people. Something like: Gentrification isn’t new, and the root problem is bigger than any one instance of it happening.

But the better question is whether it’s happening or not. He asks in this post:

Still, thinking more on the geography the Times calls “Harlem” raises some questions for me:

“But the neighborhood is in the midst of a profound and accelerating shift. In greater Harlem, which runs river to river, and from East 96th Street and West 106th Street to West 155th Street, blacks are no longer a majority of the population — a shift that actually occurred a decade ago, but was largely overlooked.”

By my estimate this basically places Morningside Heights (amongst other things) inside of Harlem. I imagine that might have been true at some point. But those borders sound really permissive to me. Am I off?

What I thought (and wrote a comment to this effect that is basically reproduced here) is that it’s no different than a phenomenon I was writing about earlier in Queens, where most black neighborhoods are referred to as “Jamaica” on the nightly news, et al., because it’s expedient. If the Times is including Morningside Heights in its map of “Harlem,” maybe they’re going by an old map that places it “inside” a greater Harlem, but I agree with (Run) T-NC that that seems a little off. Which gets us to the idea of how a place is defined. If Harlem did once swallow Morningside Heights whole, why doesn’t it now? And to where does it extend? Most importantly, why do we consider it to extend to wherever it extends?

A friend told me a long time ago that I was into the idea of “place,” and I’m really starting to feel that. I’m about 200 pages into William Vollman’s Imperial, which is already the most exhaustive account of the idea of “place” I’ve ever read—and I have 800 pages to go. It’s all about Imperial County, California and its sister region on the Mexican side and treats the area (wisely, I believe) as a single entity, with this crushing vivisection that makes it almost impossible to view as a unit. But for most of history it was a unit, and at some point it very well may be again. On top of all this, I was in Imperial County last week, spending 48 hours of Christmas break in Palm Springs with pops and bro. I wanted to see the Salton Sea—a reeking, festering, dead body of water around which a good portion of Vollman’s Ouija-like narrative revolves—but was talked out of it, or rather basically forbidden (as family time was short) by my stepmom, who said she had investigated it for kayaking purposes and found it “disgusting.” I didn’t have the heart to say well yeah…

But it all gets to the idea of defining a place. I’ve tried to do this before with MV and think I did a bad job [note: I just re-read it and it wasn’t as bad as I thought, but I feel like I was grasping for something I didn’t quite reach] but I’m trying with Queens now and I think I’m getting some good stuff down. Definitely helps to not be from there and not be there; while there’s something to be said for writing things down as they happen*, there’s also a value in using what you remember—it’s our memories that make places what they are, to us, and it’s important to be true to that.

* Of course, I did write everything down already, but that’s not the point.

The Inverted Pyramid

One thing I forget about my job from time to time is that it’s really a teaching job. I would like to think that, as editor in chief of a magazine, I shouldn’t have to teach people—but that was the approach that bothered me when I was on the other side of it. Case in point, in Queens the publishers of the paper didn’t like a lot of the editorials I wrote in my early years, telling me to do it “better” without giving me specific instructions. Their view was: We’re hiring professional journalists, so be “more professional” and do it better. Now that I’m on the other side of it, and I’m the one supervising people in their first journalism jobs, I realize that taking the easy way out and being vague about what you want is a great strategy if you really have no investment in the final product… or something less than full investment. I want my magazine to be good, but I’m not a maniac about it simply because the topics don’t really lend themselves to mania (It’s rather ho-hum business stuff that blooms with pretty pictures, which are the important things to get.) Still, I need to try harder to tell my assistant exactly what I need when her stories aren’t to their potential, and why, and right now she has a quirk that I used to have: Building to the lede instead of building from it. The thing is, it’s not really her fault. It’s hard to know what’s really important in the weird business I cover, and she’s learning about as fast as I did, if not faster. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t have learned faster here with some detailed instruction… and, in fact, I find myself lapsing into the exact same pattern that my boss imposed on me of passive-aggressiveness. My new goal is instead of building up to telling her that her article is wrong, just tell her it’s wrong and go from there. It’s the only way to work.