Back Down Memory Lane
I was having a conversation with a young Harlem native earlier tonight and she suggested that I write about “the good old days”, when the city was gritty and grimy (which we preferred to the glistening lights and ribbons in the sky in some parts of the borough). I decided to take her up on it. I would really like to go a step further and find someone in their 90s who can tell me what it was like growing up during the last days of that classic pre-war era in Harlem. It’s one thing to read in books, but it’s another to talk about someone who was here living it.
As everyone knows, I’ve spent more of my life in the south than here, although I came up when I was little, and initially on my own when I was in my teens. Although I left just before 9/11, I was back for a good portion of the year until I finally moved back for good three years ago.
My viewpoint on nostalgia is great. Things “was” (not “were”) wavy back then. I was here when Mike Tyson punched Mitch Green at Dapper Dan’s… back when the Mart had just opened on 125th St.
I remember when you didn’t want to be caught dead on St. Nick, Frederick Douglass up to the Hill or 7th Ave. up to Drew-Hamilton and on the “wrong side” of City College’s gates by St. Nicholas Park. I used to be on Sugar Hill back in the 90s, obviously going over to Rucker Park (avoiding areas that I “shouldn’t” go, even though my parents worried themselves nearly to death, as did my aunt, who I lived with at various times in Newark and on Staten Island) and everywhere else in Harlem. I remember hearing gunshots seemingly every time I was over by Morningside Park — where the “Carter” was (just a few blocks away from my cousin’s brownstone, which later became home base for me). I have a friend who lived in that area and she said she remembers seeing rats roam in droves. I remember cutting through Morningside Park to get to the 1 line, or vice versa to get down to the B/C at 116th to get over to Brooklyn.
I remember those rainy days when I had Golden Era hip hop blasting out of my cassette player, blasting NaS, Biggie, Wu, Puff (first album, don’t even try to play me, that was a classic), Mase, Mobb Deep and what not.
Being an explorer, I was always on the move. If I wasn’t in Brooklyn at Long Island University, where I began college, I was Uptown. If I wasn’t Uptown, I was in midtown roaming all the stores like the Virgin Megastore in its early days — where I would chill for hours on a cold or rainy day, or Tower Records, HMV, or the classic Record Shop in Harlem or the joints down on Bleecker (still open).
If I wasn’t in the city, I was in Newark, which wasn’t as bad as some people make it out to be. Oh, you had to keep your eyes open and still do today, but you understand that. The air was just different before 9/11. Everything felt dirty — AND WE LOVED IT.
Coming up 95 into Newark, during the summers, you could smell the beer factory and those hops brewing, which smelled like a combination of Precious’ fat folds on a summer day, morning breath and garlic burning. I miss that.
I miss riding out to Staten Island, where my cousin Trina worked at the time, and we would joyride around with young Mike in the back seat. Young Mike was about 6 at the time and was even willing to ride out with us when I was moving my stuff over from Newark into Brooklyn back then.
I miss going to Liberty State Park. Before they screwed up the pier that was on the water, you had a world-class view of the skyline, anchored by the World Trade Center.
I miss the dirty New York City. Broken lights, broken bottles, just dusty buildings, grey skies 250 days out of the year, New York City. I miss riding up to Yankee Stadium and hoping to be able to get into the game with a couple of new friends from LIU (we did, twice in ’97 — which was a lost year for the Yanks). I miss the dirty subway trains. The new iron horses are cool, but it’s just a reminder of this Utopia-in-the-making and another piece of the old city that I loved so much when I was little.
The C trains are still dusty, loud, creaky and bumpy like they always have been, though.
I miss being able to go through Herald Square and Times Square and not feel like I was on the Boardwalk at the Shore.
I remember not being caught dead past the Metro North station on 125th past dark (and on Park Ave over by Taft, 1990 over on Lex. and 121st, Wagner over by the Triboro, you still won’t see me at night alone — not scared, just not STUPID).
I remember Brooklyn being the place to be, like Buckshot said.IT AIN’T NOW, SMH.
I only went to Queens when I absolutely had to, but I do remember my first time seeing the Graffiti Shrine (as I call it) out in LIC. On the 7 line, you get a nice, up-close view of it.
I remember almost getting hit by a car a few times on Queens Blvd. and those sharp curves and mad hat drivers.
I remember being down on Flatbush and Avenue U. and shopping with less than $20, but always managing to have fun, somehow.
I remember the Avena Lounge days. WHO REMEMBERS THAT?
I remember when Fulton Mall (Albee Square Mall) was the after-class spot.
I remember Pan Pan’s before it burned down, and Crazy Eddie’s.
I STILL SAY NOBODY BEATS THE WIZ.
I remember those signs on the walls at Shea Stadium, as well as the commercials during Giants games.
I remember the epic road trips from North Carolina, which were never dull, and the music of the times were the backdrop to my memories. A song can trigger 100 memories of a single summer, a single year, or a decade in time for me.
I remember down south in the 80s. Henderson, North Carolina was a utopia unto itself if you were a kid under age 7, which I was. Fresh fruit everywhere, all the family was alive, things were dusty, old, worn-out, dirty and you didn’t care.
I remember going to deliver the elderly their plates of food with my great-grandfather Sonny Lewis. He always took us with him when I was 6, 7 years of age.
I remember my grandmother Hazel making sure I got on the bus on my first day of school. Interestingly, she also walked my cousin (who is now 66 years of age) to school on HIS first day of school, along the exact same path, 35 years previously.
I remember going over to my grandmother Kathryn’s and always have her leave me with some adage that managed to stick with me all these years — and they were many.
I remember life being just much more fulfilling and REAL, the dirtier things were; whether that was in NC, NJ or anywhere in NYC that I happened to be over the years. I remember when you could only come to one part of the Heights if you were legit and the other side was for those who were in “the game”, unless you were with a group of people and going to a house party, which we did on occasion.
Most of all…
I MISS THE OLD HARLEM. AND THIS TIME, WE’RE NOT GOING TO EVER GET IT BACK.
Previous crack houses are now million dollar “townhomes” with faux chandeliers and red carpets and we are “fancy” now, huh?
Little did we know it, but while we like to blame Bloomberg, 9/11 was as unofficial an end to those days as Labor Day is to the end of summer.