November 17, 2010
All this finished with the 60s. The drugs turned Harlem into a war zone, with hulks of burnt-out buildings replacing the once-fancy mansions and apartment blocks. Spanish Harlem began to resemble the Berlin of 1945. Blacks turned to drugs en masse, and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans supplied them and fought turf wars among themselves. Politicians pretended not to notice, and the media were even worse. Black is beautiful, they kept repeating, too scared of being called racist to expose what drugs and lack of fathers were doing to the black family and community. Whites fled to the suburbs quicker than the Kuwaiti ruling gang ran away at the first sight of an Iraqi tank in the horizon.
Fifty years later the place is different—much less charming, but nevertheless thriving. The swells are no longer, replaced by the rapacious Wall Street beasts. The Jews, Italians, and Irish are now mixing freely with the blacks and Latinos, as they call themselves. New York has always been a world city; Chicago, as Tony Judt wrote, was THE great American one. New York led the world in culture from 1945 until the 80s, when the pursuit of the almighty dollar replaced everything, including culture, religion, and apple pie. Last weekend I drove through Harlem on my way to Connecticut, and the place is once again gentrified, prettied-up, yet violent. Drugs are rife everywhere. On my way out of the city I took stock. In the morning I walk outside my house to Kevin’s, born in Trinidad and as nice a gent as one hopes to meet in the city. He has my three dailies ready, and we wisecrack with the mostly blacks purchasing lottery tickets. Next door two Uzbeki Jews run the shoe store where Ecuadorians and Mexicans shine shoes like no others. Just across them, Panayotis and Dimitris, two Greeks, cut hair, including mine, and Mila, from Moscow, takes care of nails and gives foot massages. An Italian trattoria, Sette Mezzo, serves the best pasta in town, and a broken-down WASP store sells the best antiques, and all this is within twenty-five yards of my tree-lined street. I have two maids, one Colombian and one Brazilian, an Irish-American secretary, my wife is German, and I am an ancient Hellene. This is New York.