On Homes, Both New and Old
Clare in East Harlem, New York City
<em>I spent part of the summer of 2019 living and working in Oakland, California. Before leaving the East Coast, I reached out to a friend of mine for her recommendations: Clare now lives in East Harlem, but grew up in Oakland. She introduced me to the Lake Merritt neighborhood where her family lives, including my all-time favorite farmer’s market and the historic Grand Lake Theater.</em> <em>Many months later, Clare and I sat down at a bar in Upper Manhattan to have the conversation written out here. Clare had a lot to say about one word in particular: home. ‘Home,’ as a feeling, shows just how deeply physical space can be related to our inner lives. So powerful is the connection that we can describe somebody as ‘homesick’ - we can crave a familiar Place so much that we liken it to a physical ailment. Given the significance, I thought about what it meant for Clare to have shared her home, Oakland, with me that summer. Home is a Place, but it is also a deeply personal gut feeling, and therefore takes a level of trust and vulnerability to allow an outsider to experience it too. (Accordingly, I tried to treat Clare’s recommended spots with the deserved appreciation).</em> <em>As I look back over our conversation now, I find myself thinking also about how political the right to ‘home’ is. Clare works with migrant families (and did so in Austin as well before moving to NYC) - people who are separated from home by violence or economics, forces outside their control. Similarly, as newcomers to our respective neighborhoods, we chatted a lot about gentrification, trying always to remain conscious that these spaces have been somebody else’s home long before they became ours as well. It seems unjust that some, like Clare and I, are able to maintain claims to both new homes and old, while others don’t get that luxury, due to myriad factors like urban displacement and violence. The interview text picks up somewhere in that messy line of thought, trying to parse out how to care for both new homes and old:</em>
Living in East Harlem, I feel like I have this urge to be involved in my community in some way, if I’m going to be living there as someone who’s not from there. At Fordham [University], I had a desire to look for places to volunteer in the Bronx where I felt like I was participating in and giving back to a community that it felt like I was trespassing in at times. And in East Harlem, it feels like I haven’t really done that, I think in part because I’m already a little overwhelmed by my work emotionally and drained by it so I feel like I can’t do an outside volunteer thing. But I took salsa classes in East Harlem for like six or seven months and that felt so awesome. I was like, this feels like such a fun way to engage in this community. It doesn’t always have to be volunteering. I think that’s kind of a bad way to think about it, too. Like, oh, I need to volunteer in this community. I think that has certain bad savior connotations too, so it was cool to be taking a salsa class in the community I lived in, and meeting people who also walked a few blocks to the studio. That was so awesome.
So it seems like a lot of your ways of caring for a community seem to be in these activity-based ways, like working there or volunteering there, or going to a community meeting or town hall. Is that accurate?
Yeah, definitely. And it’s interesting you say going to a community meeting or going to a town hall. Like, I would never do that. That is just not a place that I would feel comfortable or would feel like my skills are being put to good use. And I would feel a little bit like, do I really belong here? Does my feedback really matter if I’m someone who is new to this place and not someone who has lived here for years and has more of a stake in this community? So my inclination is always to be like, well, what exists in this neighborhood already that I can help out with or participate in? And a lot of times it is an organization that I can volunteer with and help out with, because there are always so many awesome organizations that already exist in communities and in neighborhoods. So I think that participating in one of those, whether it is a volunteer thing or taking a class and giving business to an organization that’s existed in the community for a while. I feel like that’s always my first thought, because I for instance shop at the grocery store down the block instead of going to Trader Joe’s. I try to do things like that, where I’m conscious of where I’m spending my money. But I think that for me feels like not fully engaging - like I think that’s important, but I think it’s also important to like show up for things and help out with things and participate in things in a way that, yes, is your money, but is a little bit more than that, if that makes sense?
Yeah, that’s awesome.
Or like, one thing that’s really cool that I love about where we live, and this happens all over the city, but there’s a location close to us. The - what’s it called? - the New York City Green Markets. That organization. They have a market that’s every Wednesday at the Metro North station at 125th. They call it Uptown Grand Central, which I think is so cute. And then there’s also a compost collection on my corner every Wednesday. And I know that’s not, like, an organization that’s specific to our community, but I feel like even participating in the compost collection on my corner - that feels like I’m an active and engaged participant in my community. And like going to the Green Market that’s a couple blocks up - that too is an activity-type thing that’s important to participate in and show up for anyone that lives in that neighborhood.
What else do you like about East Harlem? What are some of your favorite things around there?
I love the Urban Garden Center. Have you been there?
That place is awesome.
Love that place. And they have a cafe that’s also part of them that’s called Urban Garden Cafe that’s right a block up and on the corner, and that’s also super cute and run by the same people. It’s a neighborhood fixture, and I’m like a 30 second walk from it. So I love being able to buy a plant as a gift or for myself or for the office. I like going there and choosing to do that. I really love - we’re only a ten minute walk from Central Park. And I really love the Uptown portion of Central Park. I feel like it’s often forgotten about and not visited, which almost is better. I like that there are not really any tourists up there and you only really see people from the neighborhood. But I love the Harlem Meer, I think it’s so beautiful and is such a nice part of the park. I really enjoy being able to go on runs around there - I like that aspect as well. I like that we’re also close to the East River pathway. I can just walk a couple blocks over to run up and down that whole pathway along the river. And Randall’s Island is right there too, like I can walk to Randall’s Island. And Randall’s Island is so cool. That’s a gem that I discovered this past year. They have all kinds of events and festival type things. They had a really cool event for Indiginous People’s Day. What else? Yeah, I like - there are so many organizations doing awesome work in Harlem in particular, but also in East Harlem there are so many. Like there’s this organization called Movement for Justice in El Barrio that’s right around the corner from my apartment, and they’re in this boxing studio that’s super tiny - they have their meetings there. And they’re a really great organization that advocates for more affordable housing and do a lot of things against gentrification in their neighborhood and just advocating for the rights of people in the neighborhood. That’s actually an organization I’ve been meaning to get involved with. But yeah, that’s so cool that that is right around the corner. The office for the councilwoman of the district that we’re in is right across the street from my apartment. So I feel like there are a lot of things that have offices and are doing things actively in the neighborhood that you see when you’re just walking around, which I feel like I really appreciate. I think it’s a cool aspect of East Harlem.
I’m curious to ask, why do you think love for space or love for physical space is important?
I mean, so many reasons. I feel like I always say - one of the things I’m most interested in and one of the many reasons why I’m really passionate about immigration work is because I think the concept of home is so fascinating to me. If I ever got a PhD, if I ever had to write a dissertation, I would write it on the concept of home. I think that is one of the most fascinating things that humans are drawn to. It’s so human, right? To want to have this place that’s a home or at least some place in the world that feels like home. So again, why I’m really interested in immigration work is there are so many people who are pushed out of their homes for various reasons and then have to go to another place where everything is new and different and you have to re-establish this idea of home and think about what that means for you. Maybe that’s a place that never feels like home or doesn’t want you to be there. So I feel like Place is so interesting to me because there is this idea of home that’s not physical, right? That home is a feeling within people, but I think it also has more to do with space and physical space than we realize. Like you were saying, you can go to a place and you feel all these feelings and yes, those are feelings of home but you feel those feelings because you’re in a Place, like a physical space. If that makes sense at all I don’t know. I feel really really lucky that I have a lot of Places that I feel like are home to me. But it’s interesting to think about, well what is it about each of those Places? Why do I feel like each of those places are home? For example, I think about Austin as a home, but I was there for two years. I spent eighteen years in Oakland, but I also think of that as a home. So what was it about my two years in Austin that made it feel like a home, but I spent eighteen years in Oakland and that also feels like just as much of a home to me, you know?
That makes sense, I know what you mean.
I do think it has so much to do with Place - like physical space. For example, you know Lake Merritt [in downtown Oakland]? When I’m home, like in Oakland home, I can start my run around Lake Merritt, and I’ve run around that lake so many times I can’t tell you. And it’s instantaneous - I feel so at home and at peace and sure about where I am and what I’m doing. I feel like everything’s going to be fine because I’m in that Place, right? So I think it’s interesting that based on experiences you’ve had in a physical place the feelings that that place can evoke for you. It’s so wild to think about for me.
I feel like there’s something spiritual about familiarity and connection.
Definitely. Even thinking about being in Austin, like nobody I know lives in Austin anymore really, maybe one or two people. But I could go back to Austin and bike my same commute to Posada, where I worked, and even though everybody who works at Posada is different and everybody who lives at Posada is different I could walk up to the cul de sac where Posada is and be like, this is it. This is the place. I know my way around. I feel like for me it is spiritual. I feel whole when I’m there, even though so many things are different, you know? I think it’s really cool, the feelings that physical place can evoke, even if it was just a short amount of time that you spent there, based on the experiences that you had.
In the space of one conversation, of course, Clare and I were not able to sort out what exactly makes home, home. And so I turn the prompt to you: what makes Home, for you? I challenge you to think here about the relationship between the physical and the emotional. How tied are those feelings of home to a certain location or space?
As always, feel free to send me an email with your thoughts: firstname.lastname@example.org.