The following are excerpts from my field notes describing a recent site visit. The names have been changed to protect privacy.
I approached the counter where I saw two young Black men standing behind the food preparation station making fruit drinks and coffee. As I waited for one of the young men to take my order, I looked around the Cafe and saw pinned to the wall several Polaroid photos. In all of the photos appeared Father Tim posing with who I assumed were famous people that visited the Cafe conveniently located in the Brooklyn neighborhood made famous by its native son, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter. Just a few blocks north of the Cafe stood Marcy Projects, the once home of the now uber famous Brooklyn rapper.
As I stood there gazing at the photos, Juan, who accompanied me to the site visit, tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a giant framed photo of Jay Z sitting with his hands folded and looking off into the distance somewhere. I thought maybe the photographer caught Jay Z thinking about how far he’d come since Marcy. On the upper left hand side of the photo was Jay Z’s autograph scribbled in blue. The photo was a prominent fixture in the Cafe. It hung directly across from the young Black man preparing my coffee.
After our chat, Father Tim and I walked out of the Cafe to meet back up with Juan who was standing outside waiting for us. We talked outside for another hour. We chatted about the neighborhood and the serious social issues facing young Black and brown men. We laughed too.
“Is Harlem turning white like Brooklyn?” Father Tim asked.
He was aware not only of the economic issues facing his neighborhood but also of the racial demographics affecting the entire New York City metropolitan area. Here, I thought, was this Irish priest lamenting about white gentrification, and mincing no words.
He got it.
Three-thirty approached, and if I was ever going to make it back to Harlem by 5 o’clock, I had to prepare for my trek back uptown. We said our goodbyes and Juan and I headed for the G train.
I left the Cafe feeling like I made a new friend, and reassured that a community would have me.