The “Oh, You’re from Harlem!” Conversation

The conversation usually goes like this:

Supervisor: “And this is Jason Clinkscales.”

Me: “Hello. Good to meet you.” Shakes hand.

Co-worker from another department: “Good to meet you, Jason. You’re working with a great group!”

Me: “Yeah, I’ve got that sense from the moment I first interviewed with them. I’m excited.”

Co-worker: “Happy to have you here. And where are you from?”

As one gains professional experience in a given industry, this answer to the question isn’t about geography, but previous place of employ in the likely chance that you left it to accept the new job. The one where you won’t remember anyone’s name for the first three months, but such is life.

Me: “I came over from (company redacted).”

Co-worker: “Oh yeah, did you work with (you former supervisor, a mutual connection of an occasionally random person you never heard of)?”

Me: “A little bit, but I was actually working with (names of former colleagues.)”

Co-worker: “Oh okay, cool. And where do you live?”

I cannot confirm this with most cities and suburbs, but a big thing in workplaces in the northeast or large cities such as Chicago or Los Angeles is asking where someone lives. We just met, but hey, we all go somewhere after we punch the clock right? Not exactly sharing state secrets here. More on this another time.

Me: “I live in Harlem.”

Co-worker (who has gotten very excited to meet a native, probably the first time): “Harlem! Yeah, I have a ton of friends who moved up there!”

Okay, so let’s all take a step back for a moment.

In 2001, former President Bill Clinton decided to lease office space in Harlem for his famous Foundation. While Barack Obama is the first actual African-American to take the Oval Office, Clinton had been often referred to as America’s “first black president” because of the commitments he made to improve race relations in the United States. Well, it was actually a famous quote from noted author Toni Morrison got that “first black president” ball rolling because of his scandalous years in Washington DC.

Now imagine being a native to the community at the time. This was the moment where mainstream America began to speak of a neighborhood left for dead in sterling superlatives. The loudest and most common had variations of “Harlem has arrived!” or “Harlem is back!”

So what if the changes in the neighborhood had been three decades in the making, going back to the slow, but steady investments from community groups and some federal government funding (Note: former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani didn’t do a damn thing for anyone north of 110th Street except continue the city’s trend of cheaply selling off abandoned/undeveloped lots, despite having no belief that the people could rebuild them.)

So what if your immediate family has deep roots in the community or has generations that go even further back.

So what if being “back” to one group is “never left, but it’s getting harder and harder to stay” for another.

It was one thing to have people asking about this apparent resurgence while away at school as college students are nothing if they are not curious. The majority of students were mostly from somewhere else and in a time of exploration, there was at least a base-level interest in how and why we arrived from these communities that molded us.

But, in the working world, there honestly isn’t that investment in the backstory of an employee other than the last job, if (s)he is married and where (s)he likes to drink.

In these introductions, your new co-workers genuinely mean well and are likely good people. You spend more of your waking hours at work than at home, which means that getting to know one another is crucial to your professional and personal sanity. Where we once called or still call home is important to our identities as they help us form our belief systems and social faces to the world around us. It’s great to have a common bond with someone from a similar locale and meet people from places you have yet to visit, if you even heard of.

And yet, we forget that these hometowns come attached with stigmas, stereotypes and stories shaped from television shows or controversial documentaries. Think of Baltimore and to a born-and-bred native, she’s already preparing the first mention of The Wire; a show she hates because, well, she read this. Or make the mistake I did and mention the 2003 film City of God on someone’s Facebook wall during the chaos of last year’s World Cup in Brazil (another person was not happy with the reference, and a sincere apology understandably went unanswered. I’m still sorry about it.)

When you’re from a city that has been significantly altered by GenTriFicatiOn, you are well aware of an ongoing social discord. The born-and-bred and to an extent, transplants of yesteryear see rapid changes and wonder if they have the incomes (and patience) to keep up. Many of the new and moneyed or at least loan-rich residents that these cities have courted see opportunities to work, play and live in the curated enclaves that feel less like settled communities and more like the set of How I Met Your Mother.

Sure, you appreciate some of the new changes – a supermarket that finally has good product to price gauge, repaved sidewalks, parkland no longer neglected, a gym, a Starbucks and full-service banks that won’t overtly redline. And of the new residents that actually interact with the community as opposed to treating it like scenery in their stories with their friends, you may find that they may be, by and large, decent people. However, these changes undeniably come at the sacrifice of the natives due to absurdly higher housing costs against stagnant inflation. Your income can’t rise fast enough, if at all.

With short-term greed being the name of the game, the community you knew has suddenly been taken over by a flood of people who are here because of some arbitrary “hottest new bars in town” list they found on Twitter.

And in seeing these newcomers as nothing but their parents’ open wallets, your landlord has now decided to make fixes and remodel apartments in your building despite years of shoddy service. Lovely.

Now, let’s return to the conversation in progress.

Me: “Yeah, Harlem’s pretty popular these days.”

Co-worker: “I know. You been to Restaurant Row? They have these great places to eat. And that beer garden.”

Me: “Yeah, Harlem Tavern, been there a few times. A good spot.”

Co-worker: “How long you’ve been living there?”

Me: “I’m actually from Harlem. Grew up there, still call it home.”

Co-worker: “Oh, you’re actually from there! That’s awesome! It’s expensive up there, though.”

In my head, a thought bubble comes up: Gee, I wonder why.

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