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Love Letter to NYC: Felice León

Felice León
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To My Beloved New York City—

I’m unsure of when, exactly, I fell in love with you. But, my dear, please don’t think that this makes me love you any less. 

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Perhaps it’s that we never “fell” in love, because to say that we fell in love would imply there was the possibility of falling out of love—a time and space when love would not exist between the two of us. But this is not true. 

Our love is ever present—it just is. Ever evolving—maturing over time. I don’t think that there was ever a point that I didn’t love you. I love you at your best, and at your worst; after all, it is in the face of adversity when we find out, exactly, what true love is.  

As a born and raised New Yorker from Queens, we have grown together. My public school education taught me the “three R’s”; to make it in this city you must be both book and street smart. But the reality is that you’ve taught me so much more (about both you and me).   

New York, you have shared with me a bit of your sobering history. 

Like much of the country you, as a city, were built on slave labor. Enslaved Africans constructed the roads, the docks and most of the big-time buildings that would soon become New York City—from the first city hall to the first city prison. Wall Street earned its name because enslaved Africans built a wall in 1653 to protect Dutch settlers from raids. The wall ran from the East River to the Hudson. This particular story isn’t one of beauty per se, but it’s a story that needs to be told nonetheless. For there is beauty in truth. You acknowledge this part of your ugly past with the African Burial Ground, which honors the contributions of enslaved Africans to the city. And as New Yorkers we must reckon with this fraught history—it is a part of you. After all it was the great Harlemite James Baldwin who said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” And it is the same love that I share for you, my city.

You have also taught me about your spirit of resistance. 

In fact, it wasn’t until recently that I learned that the largest protest in civil rights history wasn’t the March on Washington. It was in New York City. In February 1964, nearly half a million students and teachers stayed out of school protesting the City’s lack of a desegregation plan. This was 10 years after Brown v. Board of Education said that separate was not equal, but this massive protest often doesn’t make it into the textbooks. Years later, your spirit continued on with the Stonewall Uprising, among other acts of resistance. Your spirit has sparked movements across the globe. You are a place where those who sit on the fringes of society—women, members of the LGBTQIA+ community and Black and Brown people—can speak up and speak out. 

New York, from you I have learned to persevere through devastation.

I will never forget when I first heard of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was in school, and the principal announced the news over the loudspeaker—I could hear the trepidation in his voice. My stomach sank. I felt a ball in my throat that made it difficult to speak. There was a silent uncertainty that filled the classroom. I remember a classmate guilelessly suggesting that a helicopter must have crashed into towers. Oh, how I wished this was true. The following day, I mostly stayed in bed, but at one point transitioned to my mother’s room. The TV was on and I nestled myself under her covers. We watched staticky footage of the Twin Towers falling again and again. It was horrific. Growing up I wondered how such a travesty could happen in my beloved city. But slowly and steadily you put together the tattered pieces. Nearly two decades later, in the face of a global pandemic, you remain equally as strong and resolute. Many have abandoned you, but you, New York, remain unbothered. I am in awe of your fortitude. 

Finally, you are a space for Black people to create culture.

Poetry, jazz and dance proliferated during the Harlem Renaissance of the early 1900s. You are the birthplace of Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts Movement and the home of hip-hop (BX, stand up!). You are an incubator where Black artists flourish but don’t sweat the technique. You invented swag—you’ve got the drip. From the Milly Rock to the Harlem Shake and every dance in between. You are the amalgamation of Black joy set to rhythm, capturing Blackness in all of its glory. 

New York, my love, you are an invaluable teacher in this school of hard knocks. You’ve made me the person who I am. You’ve raised me. I suppose that this is a love that only true New Yorkers can feel. Born-and-raised New Yorkers. To-the-grave New Yorkers. There’s something about your hustle that makes the blood in my veins flow. My beloved City. My home. My safe place. And though we are unwed, I offer to you a vow that I am committed to making you better. New York City isn’t for the faint of heart. And that’s totally OK—every city isn’t for everybody. But New York, you are for me. 

Always,

Felice

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Felice León is a video producer and host at The Root. There she leads an explainer series called Unpack That, which explores how racism plays out in the world around us.

The Black Experience

The Black Experience

This story is a part of our ongoing content series dedicated to showcasing Black culture, restaurants, businesses and more in New York City. Find more original stories like this by clicking the explore link below.

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