Borders (not the bookstore kind)

by Bryan

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.

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