A Prairie Homo Does New York: Oh, The Places You’ll Go

A few weeks ago, I moved from Gabby’s apartment in the Bronx to Brooklyn: home of Robyn, the Canadian from How I Met Your Mother; and the spoiled, white, hipster girls in Girls. I met my super friendly roommates-to-be in a cute cafe full of young people wearing vintage dresses and multiple piercings. At first we just discussed the normal, everyday topics: likes, dislikes, chore expectations, jobs, interests. But later, as we walked up the street to the brownstone where I’ll spend the next three months, the personal turned more political as my roommates-to-be brought up gentrification, the neighbourhood’s violent history (“it was like a warzone in the 70s and 80s”) and the lingering tensions that still exist between the white and Jamaican populations.

“Hipster culture exists alongside Jamaican culture,” one of my roommates explained. “You’ll see a church with a name like End of Days Tabernacle right next to a vegetarian cafe.” We passed a group of young black men gathered around a boombox blasting dance music, and I remembered the bearded white guys wearing plaid I’d seen cycle past me on my way to the cafe. How many worlds can you fit per square mile?

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Yes, there is unavoidable multiculturalism right out the door, but for some, that’s more than enough. “I never really go East,” my landlord said when my roommates and I had him over for dinner one night. He’s an older man with round glasses and a Brooklyn accent like the kind I’m used to hearing in movies and sitcoms. We were talking about the neighbourhood and how much it had changed in the past few years. When he bought the place, he was one of the only white people around, he said. But that’s really changing, except things a few blocks to the East of the apartment are still the same, and he doesn’t go there because, why would he? What’s there for him, he asked?

“But isn’t it a part of your neighbourhood? Wouldn’t you want to just walk there because it’s… 5 minutes from you… just to see what it’s like?” As someone who continuously walks everywhere and needs to see everything, I found my landlord hard to understand. Just this weekend I walked 15 minutes to the East of my apartment for no other reason than to sightsee. It wasn’t much different from where I am now, except there were no white people, no fancy cheese shops, and fewer cute cafes. But there were a lot of dollar stores, laundromats, and DVD stores. Lining the streets were beautiful brownstones that weren’t just brown but pink, and yellow, and white. Big trees. Old, important looking brick buildings that had been converted into fast food joints. I couldn’t understand why my landlord wouldn’t go.

East of my apartment

East of my apartment

What I’ve noticed so far is that many New Yorkers try to make this big, diverse city as small as possible. West-Brooklynites stay in West Brooklyn. The white people at the South end of Prospect Park don’t venture to the North part where there are more people of colour. Middle-aged Wall Street bankers don’t go take butchering classes and hang out with the hipsters in Williamsburg. Of course, there are many exceptions to this; but it seems to me that even though New York is multicultural, some parts of the city are more sectional plate than melting pot.

Then there’s my neighbourhood, where the different cultures don’t melt into each other, but remain side-by side, tolerating one another. I could go to an End of Days Church, and then go next door to get a kale smoothie from a guy who’ll probably have a beard, a bike, and an awesome collection of alternative music. Unlike my landlord, it’s important not to set up invisible fences that keep us where we’re comfortable. There are so many amazing things and people to see in all directions and in all five boroughs.

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Malaika likes books, drinking tea, long conversations, dinner parties, making funny faces, bike rides, and dogs. Originally from Edmonton, she now lives in Montreal where she edits, runs, and writes about the Alberta Tar Sands for The Media Co-op. You can follow her on twitter @Malaika_Aleba.

Malaika has written 83 articles for us.

3 Comments

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    Yes! I love this. I notice this in my own neighborhood in West Philly… there are families who are lower income and from the area, University-associated middle-class families, hipsters, and young professionals/students and the different groups rarely overlap. I have no idea who my neighbors are even though we’re literally living on top of each other. It’s so different from my small town upbringing.

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    while i hear what you’re saying in this article, i just think that there’s some nuance missing here.

    although the hipsters are now part of brooklyn, i struggle a lot with their presence. gentrification is violent, and they have pushed out native black communities to areas with even less access and attention. these (majority white) hipster transplants don’t travel within brooklyn to parts where there are more native poc communities because these white folk are racist and privileged and lazy. your landlord is part of an longstanding overseer white working class presence and his unwillingness to travel within bk is based in anti-blackness. i think that there’s a big difference between poc feeling safe in the communities they’ve cultivated for themselves and white people who re-create privilege bubbles.

    growing up as a brown girl with brown friends- we went everywhere. we broke into construction sites on the les the same night we would eat at the 24hr diner on broadway and 21st in astoria. we knew the best places to get pizza in the bronx and all the bomb caribbean food on fulton.

    i don’t know, i think what im bristling at is the term “new yorkers” being used to describe everyone where the charges being levied seem to be direct at white folk. lets hear from some more brown born and raised new yorkers! we can tell you what’s up.

    regardless, i’ve been enjoying reading your perspectives& look forward to hearing more!

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    Malaika, I wonder if it’s bec of where you are from that you find it exciting to wander and explore outside the boundaries of a few blocks? Your landlord has never had to leave his block for anything he really needed, probably. So sad that he can’t see the point.

    And it made me smile to see “colour” with ‘u’.

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