covid diary

Harlem Is the Song of Summer

Sisters scoot past Renaissance Playground on West 144th Street. Photo: Mark Clennon

Summertime in Harlem is a carnival of sound. It’s the praise choruses of excited pigeons in the morning and the low ululations of cicadas at night. It’s parties and fights, church bake sales and tenant-association cookouts. It’s treble rising from children’s voices as they charge through playgrounds made of stone. It’s the delicate tones of bodega-counter flirts and the quick, sarcastic retorts of their regulars. It’s the unexpected fzzt and belated pop of unseen fireworks. It’s motorcycle and ATV engines bleating in the streets like electric sheep. It’s car horns blaring in the late-day Yankee Stadium gridlock. It’s cop-car sirens slicing through the air like knives. It’s music traveling on every gust of wind. It’s Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let Go.” It’s SWV’s “You’re the One.” It’s Oro Solido’s “Maria Se Fue.” It’s Burna Boy’s “Ye.” It’s Pop Smoke’s “Dior.”

In March, the noisy city went quiet. Under the combined threats of an illness with no cure and a possible economic depression, many residents who had the means simply skipped town. For those who couldn’t leave, the spring, when the virus hit its early peak, was harrowing.

April in Harlem was funereal. For days and days, the prevailing sounds of the street were wind, birds, and the white noise of distant car wheels zipping across asphalt interspersed with the shrill calls of emergency-vehicle sirens. The red and white lights painting your ceiling carried with them the question: Who do you know who might be sick or dying? A report from the city would confirm what many saw all around them: The virus kills our Black and Latin citizens at twice the rate of white ones. On one chilling night uptown, I watched an ambulance come by to check on an apocalyptically intoxicated woman holding on to the side of a building for support, who — upon seeing a stretcher and facing the prospect of visiting a hospital full of sick patients — abruptly sobered up enough to make her escape around the corner. Bad news piled up. The 114th Street church I attended as a child became the subject of an article in this magazine when it lost seven members to the coronavirus; last I heard, the death toll had reached 11, many of them people my family had known for years. A pandemic upsets gravity. It becomes the focal point of every day, the protagonist of every story. It burdens the healthy and the sick alike.

But something shook loose at the end of May, as the mayor and governor delivered promising news of the city’s success, for the time being, in bringing the spread of the virus under control, and despair over the news of the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department reanimated long-standing frustrations with the NYPD. Summer arrived in the nick of time as protests ignited in upper and lower Manhattan, Queens, and the South Bronx, in every corner of Brooklyn, and even on Staten Island’s South Shore. Cable news and politicians have fixated on the looting and rioting, but lost in the fray, in this city at least, is the fact that after two months of action in the streets, COVID-19 numbers remain steady. Protesters are wearing masks. The movement didn’t just challenge us to close the gap between the country America is and the country it promised to be. It showed us how it’s possible, if we’re careful, to make it through this crisis together.

The most adorable bit of summer activism uptown was Dyckman Basketball’s Dribble for Justice March at the end of June, which saw a detail of young basketball players dribble the four miles from Inwood to 125th Street, joined by parents holding signs honoring victims of police violence. (Typically, the police caravan accompanying the group along Eighth Avenue was larger than necessary.) On 155th Street, Rucker Park, the legendary street-ball court whose hoops Mayor de Blasio ordered to be removed in late March, is once again open for players. Across 145th, Jackie Robinson Park, with its Olympic-size swimming pool, is newly renovated for splashing kids.

The delicate business of getting back on track has necessitated quick, clever thinking. The church on 114th started broadcasting Sunday service via Zoom. Street vendors have added masks and gloves to their normal assortment of trinkets and accessories. Drinkers leery of crowded establishments have stoops and parks to work with, but bending the law comes with the risk of an unwanted run-in with police. New habits create space for the same old disparities.

Curbside dining has been a lifeline for bars and restaurants that lost revenue and furloughed employees during the spring shutdown. Restaurants uptown already equipped with alfresco seating — like Harlem Tavern, on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, or Lido, the Italian restaurant up the block — hit the ground running. Beloved soul-food spots like Sylvia’s and Melba’s are having to learn to adapt. It hasn’t all gone smoothly. Scores of bars have had their liquor licenses suspended for a battery of colorful violations, from infractions as light as neglecting to sell sandwiches to patrons ordering drinks to more flagrant offenses. One particularly juicy dispatch accused the Fordham-area bar Tequila Sunrise of hosting a crowd of 150 revelers smoking hookah and playing music outside after hours on a weeknight.

The hectic Fourth of July weekend emphasized the stress of outdoor socializing — and not only because pyrotechnics lit up the city for weeks in advance of Independence Day (a commotion that, at least in Harlem, was not far enough removed from the usual June-July ballistics to warrant the impassioned and abruptly abandoned theory that the noise was an NYPD psyop designed to tire out Black Lives Matter protesters). Sixty-four people were shot between July 3 and 5, and that week there were triple the amount of shootings as that period in 2019. Shootings along Lenox Avenue and in the vicinity of Morningside Park led the mayor to make a pledge to “take back our streets in Harlem” by increasing the police presence, a plan that worried uptown residents who clashed with the NYPD in June, when a peaceful protest in the South Bronx neighborhood of Mott Haven was met by police hitting people with bicycles and batons. In early August, the city reached a grisly milestone as it marked its thousandth shooting victim of the year, nearly doubling the number for the same stretch of 2019.

The threat of a second wave of viral infections, and of housing and financial crises, still looms. The more comfortable we get, the more we fall back into old habits, and the more we risk exacerbating the precarious peace we earned in sacrificing spring plans. Still, for a time, we’ve teased a cautious optimism from the pandemic’s deathly maw. The neighborhood abides, through tragic fires, through hurricanes and blizzards, blackouts and heat waves.

By and large, residents have taken to wearing masks, or at least to carrying one on their person as they traverse the city. The noise is back. Skateboard wheels rattle across the cracks in the pavement once more. The call of the man who totes a cart selling chilled bottled water in the warm months, quiet throughout the spring, has resumed loud as ever: “Iiiice cold!” A subwoofer on my street pumps new and old rap hits into the air through the night, powered by an extension cord run up to a second-floor window. Everyone is making up for lost time.

*This article appears in the August 17, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Harlem Is the Song of Summer