A little over two years ago, I found myself breaking into a home that wasn’t mine.
I was living in an unfamiliar city, and I’d locked myself out of my rental apartment. As I was trying to crawl through the second story window — don’t ask how — a neighbor called down to see if I needed some help. Despite the fact that we’d never met, she let me in the front door to retrieve my keys.
I was renting a one-bedroom walk-up near the corner of 117th and Malcolm X in New York City. My apartment was a few blocks from Marcus Garvey Park and an easy walk down Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. to the famous Apollo Theater on 125th.
I was the only white man living on my street.
Despite the fact I was clearly a stranger, nobody called the police to report a suspicious man trying to break into an apartment. Instead, my neighbor asked if I needed help and provided it. This, despite the neighborhood having one of highest reported crime rates in the city, just below Times Square.
Given the amount of crime I witnessed, consisting of one white guy from Utah breaking into an apartment, I have to wonder how such statistics are gathered.
I was there to work with NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, and I rented this apartment because it was just north of Central Park and close to Columbia University, where NASA GISS is located. During several other trips to New York, I’d stayed in the hotels near Times Square, and I wanted to experience living in one of the residential areas of the city.
“Are you familiar with the neighborhoods here in New York, honey?” asked June, the woman renting the apartment, as soon as she learned I was from Utah. When I got off the subway on 125th Street, I knew why she asked. I was accustomed to crowds, having spent a lot of time in midtown, but I was not accustomed to being one of the very few white people.
And nobody seemed to care.
I grew up in Colorado and went to a high school with precisely three African American students in my graduating class. I was raised in a neighborhood where I rarely met people who weren’t white. Living in Harlem, I learned a lot about people who are not “like me.” I became acquainted with some of the boisterous young men hanging out by the local takeout joint. I found out that the older gentleman sitting on his stoop playing jazz music from his iPhone was only one of the several neighborhood DJs who, on a regimented schedule, entertained the block for a couple of hours every weeknight. I learned that folks in this part of New York were early risers, even on Sundays, when hundreds of families would triple park on the next street over to attend services at the Canaan Baptist Church (Motto: “Everyone Welcome”).
They were just people living life in their neighborhood, people who welcomed a white guy from Utah and didn’t seem predisposed to calling the cops when they caught me breaking into what was, until recently, somebody else’s apartment.
Living and working in Harlem is, to date, one of the best experiences of my life. And while working at NASA was the professional highlight, one of my favorite experiences was attending a screening of “Black Panther” at the outdoor theater in Garvey Park. For those of you who aren’t up on the Marvel franchise, “Black Panther” tells the origin story of a super hero from the fictional African country of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced nation in the world.
As the film started, the crowd began to chant, “Harlem is Wakanda! Harlem is Wakanda!”
In addition to a screening of the film, the organizers put on a Wakanda Fashion Show, where area artists showcased their talents by creating runway collections inspired by the film. The local colleges also ran a “Makers Lab” where students demonstrated projects in engineering and robotics. Through all of this, I was exposed to ideas in art and science I don’t normally see back home in Ogden.
But despite the talents on display in Garvey Park, not many people from Harlem are students at Columbia University, and an even smaller fraction are faculty there, a mere six blocks away.
It’s 2020. We have a lot of crises facing our nation, and to solve them, we don’t need just people like me. We need everyone.