When the train tracks clink, I know that in about two minutes my train will come roaring into view—unless it’s the R train. The R comes when it wants to. To date, I have taken every train the MTA has to offer, many of its buses and even New Jersey Transit. One might guess that I love to travel. That would be an incorrect notion. I love the unseen. At times this has made me an outsider. However, I mean no harm.
New York is my home now, specifically Brooklyn. Without a doubt, the decision was rooted in my desire for upward mobility. After trying several neighborhoods, I found Bed-Stuy, a popular community in Brooklyn, at the end of 2011. Setting up my apartment was difficult. For the first time, I ordered furniture, only to discover that it would be delivered to my stoop, not my apartment door. (If you live on the fourth floor of a walk-up, you just have to figure it out.)
The question I answered most, after I moved in, was, “Is it safe?” From the moment I turned onto my block for the first time, I could see the telltale signs of “change.” Not the Obama kind of change, but the Bloomberg kind, which told me I would be OK living by myself. It was the perfect combination of bohemia and grit. I moved into my apartment on a weekday (while most people are at work), but it did not slip by anyone that there was “another one” in the neighborhood.
My cousin, who grew up in Hollis, Queens, calls my look “the new downtown Brooklyn.” It is a backhanded compliment. My blown-out Afro frames my lightly made-up features and sets the tone for an outfit that screams eclectic foreigner. (Badu references are shouted at me often.) While my blackness allows for a level of comfort on my block that may not be afforded my white counterparts, I also recognize that my newly acquired city-brunch habit may distance me from the community I have grown to admire and seek to serve. Who I am clashes with the bulletproof bodega Plexiglas, where members of the community stop in for their daily lotto tickets and snacks.
I’m self-conscious about being seen as one of “those educated Blacks,” most easily identified by somehow using “ratchet” and “prosciutto” in the same sentence. Claiming to be a part of Black culture, but not owning up to all of it in public. Playing the black respectability game with a custom game piece. Walking past the Marcy projects with a full bag of Trader Joe’s groceries. The truth is, though from the outside I look like I belong, the local community, like my cousin, knows that I am just visiting.
With my wine-and-cheese-pairing interests, conceivably, I am part of the problem. It is a tough pill to swallow because coming from the South, I, too, am just trying to get up out of a situation. Most days I focus on this, and I make sure I’m on top of local news. Voting has become something of a sacrament to me. I volunteered with a program that mentors young children in temporary housing, and I always keep my eyes open for neighborhood Black businesses to support.
I recently engaged in a debate over an article titled “Stop Moving to My City.” I pointed out to my friend that the author was mad at the wrong people. Not only was the author’s plea laughable, but she also genuinely felt that transplants were solely to blame. Every New Yorker has a right to feel upset, but it’s not about small-town people with ambition, it’s about big business. If members of the local community were protesting a new Bed-Stuy development deal, I would join them with a sign. Too often, though, people don’t complain until after the condos are built.
The truth is, it doesn’t really matter why I came to New York. (My story isn’t too different from a thousand others.) It doesn’t matter what I learn, what I will keep in my heart when I go, or why I have a love/hate relationship with a city that could never love anyone. What matters is for me to do the right thing while I’m here. I do not try to have my cake and eat it too. Rather, I work as hard as I can, while helping others, to get out of a system that would awkwardly pit me against my sister for survival. The small luxuries I may be able to afford will never blind me to the harsh realities of the collective.
Erin Parks is a storyteller living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has appeared at the Inspired Word with Mike Geffner, New Voices Reading Series and the Bodega Monthly. Having earned two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Georgia, in mass media arts and sociology, Parks hopes to increase cultural awareness through her writing. Read the latest work from Parks at herdiamondback.com.