An Enigma In Harlem

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:26

    Actually, the displaced suburban house isn't in a rubble field at all, but in a parking lot, which is maybe stranger. It's on the north side of the lot that services the New York College of Podiatric Medicine and Foot Clinics of New York. There it is: a little abode for Mom and Dad and Junior and Fido the Family Dog smack in the middle of Harlem, USA. It faces northward across the street the abandoned prewar apartment hulks that line 125th St.

    I got off the Metro-North train the other day and finally descended into the cold to check the house out. Road salt blew around in the freezing wind, and the guys who sell videotapes down the sidewalk looked miserable. To the south, midtown buildings rose over the city as if over tundra.

    I stood in front of the house on 125th St. and came to terms with the dislocation the house offered. The house exists on its half acre behind something like 10 feet of chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The gate was padlocked. Citizens loped around me, ignoring the white guy who stood up against the fence, casing the little house for some reason. I stuck my face up against the chainlink and got a load of it.

    Behind the fence: a bit of garden hemmed in by poor-white railroad ties, some knee-high hedge. The snow back there was still clean in its fenced-off privilege. A geographical gag, this house was as nuttily out of place as Old Glory unfurled on the moon in those Apollo mission photographs. Through the front window you see the habitation's bland guts. There's a plush wall-to-wall carpeted floor and an Ikea-style office chair, and a television on a console. A glass patio door slides open onto the back side so that children can chase their errant toys out into the blight.

    It seemed possible that the house was a wiseacre art installation.

    "What's up with this house?" I asked a guy who'd pulled up beside me. He and his girlfriend had stopped to look, too.

    His girlfriend laughed.

    "I don't know," he said, laughing also and shaking his head.

    "It's been here for years," the woman said merrily, her face obscured by a scarf.

    I shuffled down Park Ave. and knocked on the door of the guard booth at the parking lot. The door swung open with a blast of heat, and skeptical eyes peered out at me.

    "What's the story with that house?" I asked, wearing a dopey smile and pointing. As if I had to. As if I meant some other house.

    In Harlem I always feel as culturally unwashed as I did around the hardcore elite WASPs I met when I was in Palm Beach once. It's their country, and I was barely even born here. And here I was asking about a surreal house, no less, a cyclone dropping.

    The male guard shook his head, lowered his eyes and sucked in his lips as people do when they're about to deny you.

    "Can't give you no information on that house. No. Nuh-uh."


    "Who's the owner?"

    "Can't give you no information."

    "Can I call the owner?"

    "No. You can't call him."

    "You gotta call the college, talk to the operator," a uniformed young woman broke in, all business, her pretty hair pulled back in a bun. She was chewing gum, and it was obvious she didn't want to be bothered.

    I walked across 124th St. A man with a hospital tag pinned to his shirt stood against a wall, smoking a cigarette. Medication hooded his eyes.

    "Hi, I'm Andrey."

    "Chris," he said, or whatever.

    "You know what the story is with that house there?"

    We considered it together from 124th St., two men in the middle of the tundra. Wind moaned through the interstices of the elevated. We stroked our chins. The guy's shirt was open to his chest. He smoked and considered some more.

    "Hm. No. I dunno," he said softly.

    "Looks funny there, is all. A little house in the middle of?"

    "Hm. Yeah," he mused, agreeing, as if what I told him had never occurred to him.

    A promotions hustle is what it turned out to be: call the phone number on the billboard on the house's eastern flank and buy a cheap starter home just like this one in godforsaken Middletown, NY, way upstate, not far from fun places (I looked on the map) like Wurtsboro and Kerhonkson. Except now the phone number you're supposed to call is painted over, the developer's no doubt insolvent and the house just sits there. Apparently you used to be able to take a tour of the thing, and dream the American Dream. You can imagine some shark of a developer running this scheme: trying to peddle shoddy houses that probably shudder in wind to people who wanted out of the inner city.

    But then the tide of crime and poverty turned somewhat and Harlem didn't finally die, and by the year 2000 the shabby display hut just sat there, to the indifference of locals who wouldn't be suckered and for whom, you figure, there was now a brighter future, maybe, to stay put in the city for.

    The point's in the juxtaposition. I climbed the Metro-North platform, which runs along Park Ave., and gazed southwest from its height and looked around. If you've ridden the Metro-North trains any, you'll be familiar with the grand burned-out ocean liner of an apartment building that occupies the northwest corner of Park and 125th, across the street from where the display house stands. It's one of the most magnificent abandoned apartment hulks I've ever seen?red brick with Roman arches gracefully bearing immense weight. It must have been a glorious building in its prime. It still could be a glorious building if somebody fixed it up: prewar New York apartment buildings like that don't lose their structural integrity easily. You need an atomic bomb. I've been looking from Metro-North trains into those burned-out windows for years, always thinking that if the structure stood 50 blocks downtown it would be inhabited, and a landmark like the Dakota.

    But like I said, the point's in the juxtaposition of these two buildings that face each other across 125th St., and in the counterpoint between them. On the one hand, there's this noble, rotting Harlem hulk with everything it evokes about prewar Harlem life in the neighborhood's glory days: displaced blacks' Southern accents on freezing Northern days like this one; ash cans and coal smoke; the black diaspora; great American migrations of people. All the nobility and dignity of that. And given the economy and the housing shortage, you figure better days await the wreck. I don't know much about real estate or the economics of it, but how could someone not purchase that wonderful wreck and redeem and populate it? God knows I'm no expert on Harlem, but maybe the neighborhood's best days are ahead of it.

    Meanwhile, across the street, a false future in the cut-rate raw Nowhere of Middletown, NY, freezes to death, discarded, dressed in its cheap vinyl siding.