Harlem: Red, White and New

From Sylvia's to Starbucks, Election Night on 125th street.

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It isn't often that you get to choose where to watch history in the making, but Election Night was that rare event that you could pick your perch.

I chose Harlem as my perch. I don't live there, but I work there once a week, tending to the cheese program at a wine bar—yes, a cheese program at a wine bar. You see, Harlem 2008 is different from the Harlem of the Renaissance and Harlem as the locus of black nationalism in the early '70s. My life wouldn't be the same without those Harlems. I read the Renaissance writers, and my first Gil Scott-Heron album contained the poem, "Small Talk at 125th and Lenox," which made me go there 30 years ago in my first week as a New York City resident.

Postmillennial Harlem is a new and intriguing dynamic; it's perhaps the most comfortably integrated urban neighborhood in America. Not only has the demographic changed to what feels like 30 percent white, but it has done so with minimal fears of a takeover. Most Harlem residents are protected by very tenant-friendly rent regulation laws, and the neighborhood's vibe has assimilated the newcomers. It's the closest thing in New York to Hyde Park, the Chicago neighborhood of President-elect Barack Obama.

And while Harlem was a whole lot whiter than it was in Countee Cullen's day, for Election Night I knew I had to get away from all my downtown New York friends of a certain hue who feared an upset. C'mon people, this isn't John Kerry or Al Gore…or Michael Dukakis. I needed to get to Harlem.

When I got to East 125th Street after 8 p.m., I felt like I was early to the party. People were rushing around trying to finish their Tuesday. A few folks were gathered around TVs in barbershops and cell phone outlets, but there was no immediately palpable sense of anticipation. Then I heard a celebration bursting forth from a place called Renaissance Cigar Lounge—the kind of celebration you could hear from a block away. Pennsylvania had just been called for Obama, and the gleeful, mostly black coed crowd of cigar aficionados was cheering.

The party was starting.

Crossing 125th Street and Fifth Avenue, where Langston Hughes once lived, another cheer went up. This one came from inside Mobay, the Caribbean restaurant, where a party was already going strong. Ohio's first returns had come in, and the results were very positive. From there—as one state after another was projected into the Obama column—it was hard not to think of Parliament's underrated classic, Chocolate City.

I began to wonder what Aretha is going to sing at the inauguration.

My Aretha dream was broken by a horde of teenagers happily running down 125th yelling "new MF'ing day, y'all." They were followed closely by a couple glumly wondering "how long till they assassinate him."

Outside of Sylvia's famed restaurant on Lenox, an artist was creating an ice sculpture of Obama's name, and I began to notice a heavier police presence but with a difference. The officers were laughing it up with an increasingly giddy crowd. Some of the officers were wearing Obama buttons. Maybe we are on the brink of a new day.