The 84-block trip south to Times Square is surprisingly speedy. But when I transfer to the 7 for the journey to Flushing–Main Street, its final stop, time slows. The train becomes elevated after entering Queens, rattling over a low-rise sprawl of dirt lots, gas stations, big-box stores, and midrise mid-century apartment blocks, and mile after mile of graffitied rooftops. It’s an interminable yet hypnotic transit the passengers endure with a very un–New York–like stoicism.
Two hours later, revivified by a pair of conga players’ exuberant performance on the 2 train, I hustle out at the corner of Third Avenue and East 149th in the South Bronx, once an international symbol of urban blight. A man hands me a postage-stamp-size pamphlet titled “Messiah Is the Prince of Peace”; another, buying a bag of roasted nuts, offers directions to the Brook in a gregarious voice, looking pleased.
Like many white people of a certain age, I first visited Harlem by mistake. I took the wrong subway and barely got out of the station: First one guy, then another, tried to shove me down the stairs. Thirty-two years later, walking past the gourmet markets, wine shops, and chain drugstores that are the sine qua non of change, I am struck by the Asians and Caucasians on their way to work, none scurrying with the head-down haste of the unwelcome. Harlem may still be the global capital of the African Diaspora, yet no court could have integrated it as efficiently as the lure of affordable Manhattan real estate. Nowadays, everyone takes the A train.
Twenty-nine years after Robert Moses’s death, the mixed legacy of New York’s über–urban planner remains inescapable. I feel it acutely when, after a long ride on the F that loops me into Brooklyn and a stroll past the magisterial 40-foot-deep front lawns of Carroll Gardens, I cross a footbridge over the six-lane trench of Moses’s notorious Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—which, in addition to bringing noise and pollution, cast Red Hook, on the expressway’s other side, into isolation. Indeed, when I descend from the bridge, the milieu changes markedly: There are houses interspersed with weedy lots and light industry, signs warning of rat poison.