How an Outsider Fell in Love With Harlem

The man made it halfway across Malcolm X Boulevard and tapped his white cane repeatedly on the edge of the median, bumping his legs, trying to find a safe way to cross the second half of the street. A woman crossed the street and ended up beside him. She offered her hand and asked, “Do you need help, sir?” They linked arms and she guided him to the spot he was looking for. She asked him how he was and if he was too warm in his jacket. He said he’s just trying his best. Finally, the cars stopped and they crossed, safely reaching the sidewalk.

Moments like that helped me understand the beauty and complexity of Harlem. I wasn’t a complete stranger to New York City when I stepped off the plane May 21, though I was nervous about participating in the New York Times Student Journalism Institute. I had been to the city twice before, once as a child on a family vacation and again as a teenager on a school trip. But I had never been to Harlem. When I visited my cousin the first time I was in New York, my parents were uneasy about how close his apartment was to the neighborhood. The Harlem in my head was a place to avoid. But after spending two weeks covering it as a reporter, I’ve erased that Harlem in my head and replaced it with a collection of moments that showed me a changing neighborhood struggling to hold onto its roots while still remaining vibrant.

Those glimpses into the spirit of Harlem will stay with me when I step back onto a plane headed for my hometown, Miami, on Sunday. The people who stopped to smile and say “Good morning” to me in an area surrounded by homeless shelters. The woman who walked down the sidewalk loudly singing as Beyoncé’s “Love Drought” flooded her headphones. The old Dominican man who sold T-shirts and underwear under a tent in Washington Heights and spoke in broken English. The rows of people holding their hands high in the air in a declaration of unity at the Apollo Theater’s amateur night.

I won’t pretend to understand the full scope of what’s taking place in Harlem with the effects of gentrification and the fight to preserve a neighborhood so deeply rooted in black culture. I just know what I saw: hip new restaurants, bars and bakeries with string lights around outside seating areas lined up against the historic brownstones on Malcolm X Boulevard, forming a striking intersection of past and present. I can only hope from 1,000 miles away that the fight will continue.