Silencing the Drums

My husband and I were in the midst of one of those lazy breakfasts listening to the radio when a story caught my attention. The story, "Drumming Up a Protest in Harlem," reported by Margot Adler on National Public Radio’s Sunday Edition recounted the furor over a drumming circle that meets every Saturday in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park and the newly planted residents who want to see the musicians banished.
 
 The drumming circle, a fluctuating hodgepodge of musicians from Africa, Cuba, Trinidad and Eastern Europe, has been gathering off and on at the same spot in the park for a good thirty years, and has been in residence at the same spot for the past ten years. Ms. Adler reported that the circle now faces a not so accommodating audience of new residents who have moved into some of the freshly available luxury apartments and renovated brownstones; these new Harlemites are bristling about the noise of the all day Saturday drumming fest.The situation over the drumming circle came to a head earlier in the summer when residents of an apartment building near the park made noise complaints to the police. Finally, it was decided that the drumming circle would move further into the park. Turns out that the elderly and infirmed couldn’t travel to the new location to hear the drumming and so the musicians moved back to their original location.

Sid Miller, owner of a brownstone in the midst of renovation, said of the drumming circle, "I wish they weren’t there. It’s annoying. It’s very annoying. I don’t like it."

Baba Kunley, a long time supporter and spiritual elder of the drumming circle, shot back saying, "People, white people, move into the area and they just want to change everything, and we not having that. This is our church. So, if they don’t like our church then they got to go back in the suburbs."

But it was Mr. Miller’s final assessment summed up the issue for me when he stated, "Gentrification is taking place. You can’t stop it. The people that have been here for a long time have to understand that it’s changing. We live in the United States of America, under a capitalistic system and if you have the money and you want to do something with the money you’re allowed to do it. That’s the bottom line."

First, I would hope that Mr. Miller is wrong. The attitude that you have the money and you want to do what you want to do with it really covers a good deal of dangerous ground in my book. Swinging around a wallet load of cash doesn’t give you carte blanche in this country. I know a number of people who would like to think so, but it just doesn’t. This is the kind of argument used by corporations who ship jobs overseas, by robber barons in the past who used their wealth to have employees killed and by snotty Yuppies who think that it is their right to do as they please and the poor be damned.

Second, I can’t understand why a Sid Miller would bother to move to Harlem in the first place. I understand these upper middle class professionals are looking for cheaper housing, having been banished from the more trendy neighborhoods in New York by richer folks than themselves, but why move into a neighborhood if you plan on being such a crappy neighbor?

I can answer that question though. The Sid Millers out there in the world think that they can change the ethnic and cultural face of a neighborhood by sheer will and it all comes down to money. The idea here is that you take a ramshackle building, fix it up, elevate property values and you can move out the riffraff, the undesirable and the dark people. All it takes is a little time. 

To the Sid Millers, they’re convinced in the end they will have their way. They know they’ll eventually get their their upscale grocery, their overpriced cafe and their exclusively private, French inspired daycare center because they have the money. They know that they will be able to conveniently make over their neighborhood to suit themselves by ridding the place of any vestiges of the neighborhood’s former self and suck in more Sid Millers.

I don’t want to be unfair to Mr. Miller and his kindred spirits, though I’m sure I already have. Sid might be a good guy; he probably doesn’t kick dogs and pays his taxes, but Sid is a cultural killer. He wants to end a community-inspired cultural event that has been there long before he ever dreamed of moving to Harlem. He’s dismissing the elderly folks who have a weekly event to attend and enjoy and participate in. He wants to deny the young people of Harlem an opportunity to absorb their musical heritage and learn.

Glum, petulant Sid just wishes "they weren’t there," and he might just get his way if the condo’s board, neighbors and the leaders of the drumming circle don’t come up with a compromise. Seems like the only thing the Sid Millers of Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park neighborhood are committed to is being lousy neighbors. Maybe Sid should consider a fixer-upper in Afghanistan or Pakistan, you know, one of the nice, quiet neighborhoods where the local imam has forbidden music altogether.

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