Dear New York City,
I can’t imagine another city in the world I’d rather be. I’ve traveled all around the globe and I have never felt a city come alive, fill me with such an insatiable desire to dream, inspire me at every turn and make me feel so at home.
I, like many little Black girls who watched Black sitcoms in the ’80s and ’90s, always imagined I’d be a cosmopolitan professional living her best life in a beautiful brownstone. It was those images that got me through. It was that fascination and curiosity to live in a city as free as you appeared on my television screen that motivated me. Growing up in the Midwest, I used to have a big MTA subway map on my wall right next to all the Word Up! and Vibe magazine cutouts. I promised myself then, you’d be all mine.
When I arrived in New York City, I lived in a tiny little Brooklyn apartment on 5th Avenue—a rite of passage for many of us newbies. I had way too many mouse encounters and there weren’t nearly enough windows, but you were immaculate to me. I used to spend my summers at block parties. I used to be a regular at every First Saturdays at the Brooklyn Museum, dressed to kill, dancing and eating my way down Eastern Parkway. And when the R train wasn’t disappointing me on Sunday mornings, I would roam through farmers’ markets, pop into thrift stores, spend time picking up the flyest clothes at stoop sales, chowing down at the Crawfish Boil, hanging out on rooftops at Everyday People brunches and dancing in Bed-Stuy at the Michael Jackson tribute block party. We managed to raise a child in between all that. You, me, my husband. We raised her for sure, but the museums, the parks, the sidewalks raised her surely as much as we did and we’re better off for it.
Your ultimate gift to me was Harlem. I moved to Harlem when our jobs moved uptown. And although I always wanted to live in New York City, I realized very quickly I really always wanted to live in Harlem. As a lover of Black history, you breathed the Harlem Renaissance into me at every turn. I get to sit on the corners where Malcolm X delivered his most famous speeches. I get to dance where James Baldwin danced. I get to walk the steps of Ella Fitzgerald and Langston Hughes. I get to access the world-famous Schomburg with just a short walk. I get to picnic in Central Park for hours.
The thing about Harlem though is it is a feeling. It feels like all of our favorite food and most nurturing aunties came to visit at once. And the neighborhood isn’t for the shy; it keeps me up longer than I expect, every Saturday night. It will ask of me things I didn’t know I had to give. But it definitely fills me up. Some of my favorite moments in Harlem these days always seem to center around food. I’ve gotten to know and love you through the many incredible restaurants in Harlem. And recently, I’ve had to take in most of my favorites through takeout sitting on my stoop; I’ve loved it just the same.
They say you’re dying. But I’ve never seen a city dying so full of life. I’ve never seen a city so faithful to its creativity, to its art, to a way of life…die. You are far from dying—in so many ways, I see you come to life again and again every day. I’m looking forward to all the memories we will make together.
I found myself, all those years ago, in the people I met, the clothes I bought and the ways you have allowed me to escape the gaze of respectability. I count it as one of my greatest achievements—finding the agency to be with you. I owe you my happiness. I owe you my freedom. I owe you my ability see beyond what was offered to me. I’ve grown up since I arrived. I’ve found my passion. You have given me permission to be creative and produce in ways that make me happy. I wish this feeling, the feeling of New York City, on everyone.
Tenicka B. is a nonprofit executive working in social justice and also a digital content creator storytelling through style and travel. She lives in Harlem with her family.