Authenticity Watch: Harlem

I spent a good chunk of the past two years living part-ish time in Harlem, in a brownstone at the corner of 128th and Madison. And so it was with a mixture of titillation and sadness that I read of the Memorial day excitement that saw six teenagers shot on Lenox avenue between 127th and 129th; that is, two blocks away.

lenox ave

At its best, Harlem is an utterly magical place, the locus of the best that urban (i.e. black) American culture has to offer. The next time you’re in New York, take the 4/5 to 125th; if you’re lucky, “the captain”, a busker with the drum kit will be there, and he’ll be playing a slow shuffle while six year old boys breakdance on the platform in front of him.

Despite the relentless gentrification that the area has undergone over the past two years (Starbucks, sushi shops, a champagne bar), with new condo developments going up on every block, this part of Harlem has not come close to completely shedding the cultural and economic effects of the crack plague that turned it into a war zone in the 80s and 90s. But it isn’t so much the drugs or the crime that keep Harlem down, but rather the serious health problems that affect the long term residents. Honestly, taking a morning walk down Lenox to the Starbucks at 125th is like being on the set of Dawn of the Dead. Diabetes is rampant in Harlem, and the number of not-old people you see limping along with a cane or doing the old-man shuffle across an intersection is heartbreaking.

Obesity really is an epidemic in Harlem, and it is an illness whose prevalence is exacerbated by the fraud that is Soul Food. More than almost any other group in our society, blacks in America are victims of a cult of authenticity, one that convinces them that being authentically black involves eating colossal amounts of deep-fried heart attacks. Don’t get me wrong: Everyone should have chicken n waffles once or twice. (Seriously, you have to try it). But not as a matter of routine, and certainly not because it represents part of your “authentic” slave past.

Which is why the following exchange, from the NY Times after the shooting, was a bit depressing:

“They’re building up all these banks, why not build a community center? We don’t need a Planet Fitness gym, why can’t it be a community center?” said Mr. Hassan, who said he spent six years in prison on drug and weapons charges.

Community centers are to blacks what local farmers are to bourgeois whites: namely, an imagined repository of all that is good and authentic in their imagined past. Once upon a time, thinks the suburban whitey, we were all gentlemen farmers. Once upon a time, thinks the urban black, we all played basketball and then the minister came around and gave us some advice. For whites, the appeal of the small farm is that it is a place before technology; for blacks, the appeal of the community center is that it is a place before drugs.

Harlem isn’t lacking in community, and it isn’t lacking in places where kids can play basketball. What it does lack – probably its biggest problem — is a culture of health and fitness. The best thing that could happen to the neighbourhood is for a dozen Planet Fitness franchises to open up.

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