Magazine article Newsweek International

A White Guy in Harlem

Magazine article Newsweek International

A White Guy in Harlem

Article excerpt

Byline: Malcolm Beith

It always plays out roughly the same way. I get in a cab downtown. "East 127th Street, between Fifth and Madison," I tell the driver, advising him to take the FDR Drive because it's quicker. Mr. Know-It-All-Cabby replies: "FDR to East 27th Street? Much quicker to take Third Avenue." So I spell it out: "No, one hundred and 27th street, please." That's when the cabby's head does a 180-degree turn. "Harlem?" he asks anxiously. His brain clicks, and so do the door locks. We're off.

Bill Clinton's office is in Harlem, but I still get looks when I tell people I live there. You see, I've been white all my life--and Harlem's been black for a lot longer. And the Harlem that New York taxi drivers are getting to know today is anything but the Harlem of yesteryear, which few of them knew at all: a poor, angry, crime-ridden neighborhood evacuated after the booming '20s and destined for the dustbin of the 20th century.

Harlem 2004 is Boomtown. Trendy boutiques jostle with Starbucks. A hip new hotel is in the works at 125th and Park. More than a handful of swanky restaurants have opened since I moved in, scarcely a year ago. Upper-middle-class couples--black and white as well as twentysomethings like me are occupying renovated brownstones. Every Sunday, busloads of Japanese tourists spill out onto 125th Street, taking in the scene or attending a matinee at the Apollo. Used crack vials no longer fill Harlem's little parks; roses do.

Still, it's tough to convince most people that this New Harlem is for real. Everyone asks me if it's safe--and have I ever felt threatened? Well, I'll be honest. There's my "terrifying tuxedo" incident, to cite but one example. Coming back from a wedding about 3 a.m., decked out in a tux and just a little tipsy, I stopped at the corner deli to get some orange juice and the morning's Sunday paper. …

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