I grew up in Washington Heights, where the street toughs chanted, ” If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” But of course, being street toughs, they “played and paid.”
That doesn’t mean that the advice is bad. It’s just that the ones chanting it as a mantra on the corner took it as another free verse cant that you used on the street in the evening; just another way of saying ” Yo Momma!” So in later years, I avoided going back to avoid the sad mantra of who was working, on the street, doing well, or just sadly in prison.
Thanks to my father’s quick realization, we moved before I had an opportunity to learn more about my peers’ street smarts. But the new neighborhood was a challenge. In Washington Heights, if you weren’t a street tough, you worked after school for your money. Us Supers kids ( our dads were superintendents of large buildings) knew the routine. Come home from school, change, sweep and mop the lobby, clean up the mail area, help our fathers do repairs, and carefully defer all negotiations with tenants to our parents. If you were going to the movies, hopping on the train to go downtown, or just going to the candy store, you were doing it on the money you had earned.
In the new neighborhood, it wasn’t that way. My peers received money weekly by the grace of being dutiful children of beloved parents. They were privileged. They never understood that I had to work or hustle to get enough money together to go out on a Saturday.
Date expectations were also different. By sixteen, most of my peers in the old neighborhood were aware of the joys and consequences of sex. That does not mean they were experienced, just that the knowledge was there. In the new neighborhood, they were dangerously naive. Negotiating what was acceptable on a date followed different rules as different things were expected or allowed. Being lazy about the rules in either locale could lead to long periods of painful repentance. Although in Washington Heights, the payback might have been getting chased by older brothers intent on protecting their sister. In the new, it was giggles in the library and no further dates. Parents were a fierce moral force in the Heights, but in the new neighborhood, only my Jewish friends seemed to have parents actively involved in what their kids were getting up to.
By the time I was expelled from high school, I had learned to navigate both styles of social code with no more thought than helping my mother sort laundry into different loads for the washer. Then, at age sixteen, my friend Bart introduced me to Greenwich Village, and life changed again. The Village was tremulant. It had a tempo and rhythm lacking where I had lived. Other areas in the city seem passive and accepting of whatever the status quo offers. In the Village, it was customary to question the social order – you might not be able to change it, but it was expected that you would ask that perpetually annoying question, “Why?”
Looking back at all this, as an anthropologist, I tend to want to start examining my field notes, photos, and recordings. But, of course, I was a teen, and they don’t exist.
The time involved was not multiple decades; it was a bit less than a single decade, with journeys that crossed class, cultural venues, various ethnicities, religions, and languages. Moreover, you could physically transit between them in an hour’s ride on the IRT subway.
Curiously this whole Hodge Podge held together as we all considered ourselves New Yorkers. I now know this is not unique to New York City but is a characteristic of complex cities worldwide.
So to switch tempo – how does this upbringing prepare you for life in a small community? It may not be as much of a reach as many may think. In macro terms, you are living in a great multi-community. But you reside in a small section of it. Unless your local community is a complete bedroom to you, it has a pace, institutions, calendar, and history. Perhaps it has a well-known border: the tracks, the highway, or the bridge. People living adjacent seem to think they are better than those living in your area. They have a post office, and your does not. Their area has a name, but your has a nicer one.
Little community, or big community, we always find ways to differentiate ourselves. Division is easy for humans. It’s the ability to find common ground that’s the real trick.
Like us, New Yorkers. Despite uptown/ downtown, Upper East Side/ Lower Eastside, and so on, we know that we are better than those across the Hudson in Jersey.