New York, I Love You But You've Changed

A podcast about NYC featuring the New Yorkers who know it best

Alexis Says Goodbye to New York, I Love You But You've Changed

Note: You can here this letter read in audio form under the episodes tab.

Hey! Welcome to the prelude to the very last episode of New York I Love You, But You’ve Changed which will air tomorrow. In this episode you will meet Gary Lum, the steward, guardian and shopkeeper of Wing on Wo & Co- the oldest, continuously running business in Chinatown.

Gary’s wife Lorraine’s grandfather Walter Eng, opened Wing on Wo as a general store in 1890 at its first location at 13 Mott Street. In 1925, Mr. Eng bought the building at 26 Mott Street where the store still resides- though its specialty turned over from meats and herbs to carefully selected porcelain wares when ownership of the store was passed to Walter’s daughter Nancy in 1970 after Walter’s passing.  Gary has witnessed and shaped the evolution of the store for decades, first under the management of Nancy and her husband Shuck and since 2016 under the management of his daughter, Mei- who you will hear from in part two of this episode.

This interview was recorded inside Wing on Wo & Co, which is one of the most special places I’ve visited in my ten years in New York City- and when you listen to my interviews with Mei and Gary, you will see why.

The Lum’s story of tenacity, legacy and loyalty is New York City at its very best. And I can’t imagine a more fitting interview to close this series with.

I know, I know- you’re probably like but Alexis, we just started getting to know all these really awesome New Yorkers! There is so much of the city left to see!!!

You’re right. And Sometimes I feel that way too. And other times I feel like I’ve been producing this show for literally ever.

I feel that way for two reasons.

One, when I started this project  6 months ago I knew it would be time consuming but I  definitely did not understand how much emotional labor goes into making a podcast like this.

Spoiler alert- it’s a lot.

At times it was really lonely and really scary and really hard, and sometimes the audio didn’t sound as good as I wanted it to  and sometimes I felt like I missed an opportunity to ask a great question and sometimes people stopped answering my emails and sometimes someone reacted to my work in a way that made  me question why I ever even sat down in front of a microphone in the first place.

But it also has been so so worth it.

That leads me to the second reason why I feel like I have been doing this forever- because it just kinda feels right.

I started this podcast within days of quitting my full time job in education because I thought I needed evidence of a completed project to get X, Y or Z job that I thought would lead me to some vague goal of starting a career in “media.”

Over the past few years I’ve shot at least 200 copies of my resume accompanied by cover letters I spent WAY too much time on and writing samples that I was really proud of but were probably never read  into the job search cloud, and not a lot of people bit. Of those who did bite, they reeled me in for a few interviews but eventually cut me loose. They didn’t seem to believe that the soft and hard skills I racked up as an educator translated, or maybe they knew I had no idea what I wanted or maybe they just didn’t like me- all of the above are possible.

Each of these rejections hurt upon receipt but looking back now I thank GOD (aka Robyn Rihanna Fenty) that they rejected me. Each of those rejections lit and rekindled a fire under my ass that fueled the creation of this series which in turn got me into a fellowship that is giving me the space and accountability to work on a whole new project which is the reason I am no longer producing this podcast.

Now just to be clear, I am nowhere near where I want to be with my career or my personal life and I know I have a lot of work left to do to get to a place where I am satisfied in both departments. And I am sure there will continue to be a lot of imperfect audio and missed opportunities and unanswered emails and lukewarm (or even super cold) reactions- but I now fully 

But there is one thing I hadn’t thought about until the very end of my interview with Gary. I didn’t consider  how the person sitting in the chair across from me, answering my questions, felt about sitting in that chair and answering those questions. I was just and still am so grateful to Tommy, Ruth, Nick, Mairys, Emma, Jonah, Kya, Joe, Mei and Gary for giving me their time and their perspective that I just saw their contributions as taking a chance on some independent podcast producer who didn’t, and still doesn’t, really have any idea what she’s doing as a favor to lend me a sliver of legitimacy.  And while what i just said may be very true, I didn’t even consider that they might be grateful to me and my show for giving them an opportunity to be heard. As I was thanking Gary for sharing his story he said this:

"Thank you for wanting to know it and listen to it and my wish for you is to be awakened and inspired. And you are because you are awakening and inspiring things that I put in sleepy corners of myself and it's been very healing to share them give voice to them. We all we all want to tell a story. Just feeling a sense of safety and comfort to do it."

His words validated the necessity of every late night I spent teaching myself audio programs and sending emails that made me want to throw up and writing questions I was afraid were too forward or too boring and feeling sure I would fail.

Not to mention the number of times I cried while walking aimlessly around Brooklyn in the middle of the day listening to some depressing mix of Sampha, The XX, Lorde, and SZA when I felt really uninspired to do anything related to this podcast- or really anything at all, or in a yoga class when I was really feeling the stress of having no financial safety net- crying spells that almost always followed me onto the subway home afterwards (shout out to Eastern Parkway, Laughing Lotus Yoga center and the 4,5 and Q trains for providing me places to shed lots of tears in front of lots of strangers over the past six months).

Gary’s words were validating because no matter what this podcast contributes to my career, he assured me that the show is living out its original mission- it is holding space for those New Yorkers whose voices are increasingly marginalized within the popular narrative of our city. And no matter what happens within that narrative, these recordings will always exist.

This is a really emotional interview. It took me a few days to feel ready to return to the recording of it to start editing because Gary shares things about his family and his past that echo truths that I often don’t want to confront about my own family and my own past.  As Gary says we are all taught:

"Yeah don't tell the secret. Yeah it will be capitalized on you know. So the secret the secret is not a secret because we share. We share these type of things. All of us have these type these type of dark corners and closets and crates and it takes a lot of work to confront them and then also share them with someone else in a vulnerable way. But it's so liberating to do it."

And he’s right- it is a lot of work.  It is really hard to confront what is in these crates- especially when their contents remind you that the people who raised you didn’t give you everything you knew you needed. But confronting these contents is so empowering, and while we don’t want to dig up and share these secrets, we should.

When we crack open and sort through the contents of these long sealed crates we realize it is in within our power to shape our lives into what we actually want them to  be- not what our dark corners and crates dictate for us.

And I’ll leave you with this… over the last several years I”ve done a lot of digging through my own dark corners. And here’s one thing I’ve found, since the moment I was able to put myself on a Metro North train at the age of 15 and exit a world I knew I didn’t want to be a part of,  this city and its faces and its places have been the most stable force in my life. It has been here for me during the times when I felt like no one else was. It has always had my back, even when it hasn’t had its own.

And if the same is true for you and the people you love, I really hope these interviews inspired you to think about who really lives in New York City and what they value. Remember, we are all in this together.

Enjoy these interviews, and enjoy your summer. I think this is when NYC is at her very best. I’ll see you guys in a few months.  

And to New York, I just want to tell you this, I know you’ve changed… but  I still fucking love you.

An Open Letter to Fellow White People Who Live in Gentrifying Neighborhoods

Dear fellow white residents of gentrifying neighborhoods of New York City:

I’ve been in love with New York City for almost my entire life- and I like to believe it loves me too. However, our relationship faces one very real struggle. I can’t accept how our city treats those who don’t neatly fit into the narrative of what many of its  more privileged residents (some new, some old) want New York City to be.

It blows my mind how little New Yorkers of means know about the lives of New Yorkers without them. Part of that is due to a general absence of media coverage, but a lot of it is lack of legwork.

It isn’t “sexy” to sit down and read a long form New Yorker article about a child welfare system that holds the city’s poor parents to very different standards than its rich ones. It’s “sad” to watch documentaries about Kalief Browder and the broken criminal justice system that falsely accused and then ultimately failed him to the point that he took his own life. It’s “stressful” to read articles about a school system that is the most segregated in the country where 83% of its white high school students graduate while only 70% of its black students, 68% of its Hispanic students and 32% of its English Language Learners do. It’s “time consuming” to read about, volunteer in, travel to and support neighborhoods those in the Melrose-Morrisania section of the Bronx where, according to the 2011 census data the average annual income is $8,694 a year. It’s “depressing” to know that cadets in the NYPD’s police academy were not offered training in how to speak to victims of sexual assault (a gap in education that led to many incomplete victim testimonials that the DA office, especially the one that Cyrus Vance currently leads, then used to discredit victims and dismiss cases including ones against both Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein), until Special Victims Division commissioner Michael Osgood made this type of training mandatory for all SVD investigators in 2016.

Understanding the city in its entirety requires time, energy, and intellectual/emotional investment and it often triggers self-reflection, sadness, and sometimes guilt- all things that most of us (and people in general) aren’t comfortable confronting. But remember, if the act of research and self-education feels sad or stressful or time consuming or depressing to you, imagine how it feels for the people who are actually living it.

While I do not think it is healthy or productive to drown ourselves in subject matter that is exclusively challenging, we must recognize that the consequence of willfully ignoring those whose existence seems inconvenient is that people who also call this city their home are suffering- and in some cases dying- with very little power or agency to change their circumstances.

Remember that silence indicates complicity that empowers injustice.

Last week, a man named Saheed Vassell lost his life because he lived in a city that does not prioritize the mental health of its citizens and trains its police to disregard the humanity of men who look like him. And he also lost his life because his presence in the neighborhood he lived most of his life in made people who look like us feel unsafe.

Just to be incredibly clear, we are very new to our neighborhoods, residents like Saheed are not. But length of residency means less than nothing. We could have moved in yesterday, but increased police presence, new construction, overpriced organic markets, artisanal cocktail bars and additional bike lanes are all indications that our lives are the priority. Failing schools, lack of affordable fresh produce, increased police presence, shifting demographics, upticks in “quality of life” complaints are all indications that lives like Saheed’s are not.

Nothing in the paragraph above is meant to imply that we can’t live in neighborhoods like Crown Heights or Bushwick or Harlem. These and so many neighborhoods provide incredible living experiences, but they should provide incredible living experiences for everyone who lives in them. So while I’m not implying that we can’t live there, I AM implying that if we are unwilling to accept the responsibility of holistically understanding and respecting our neighborhoods, as well as our role in them, and then working to celebrate and elevate them, we shouldn’t.

Who am I to be giving you this advice? Depends on who you ask. I have spent most of the last ten years living, working, and teaching in communities of color. In this time I have learned SO much about myself and the world we live in. I’ve listened to my students tell stories about how one negative interaction with a white person continues to affect their self-perception years later. I’ve had to tell my students that they must wear their full uniforms on a walking tour in D.C. in the 90 degree heat so that they would appear “professional” (read: not threatening), and even then still heard a group of white teenagers call them a slew of racial epithets on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (in response to which, their chaperones shrugged it off as a “kids will be kids” moment). And I’ve also watched as their kindness, intelligence and humor dismantled many people’s ignorant assumptions about them.

Along the way, I’ve made mistakes and said and done things that I shouldn’t have, and I have worked really hard to understand why those words and actions were wrong so that I never do or say them again. I also live my life with the philosophy that the only way to preserve my own humanity is to respect, understand and love the humanity of others. I think the only way to do that is to understand who our friends, neighbors, partners and family members are in their totality- and because of our country’s history and the systems it has produced, that requires us to understand how a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation and a number of different indicators affect their reality.

Everything in the list below WILL make you feel uncomfortable. You will be confused, angry, sad, and maybe, even feel kinda guilty. And you will think and feel some things that scare you. You will say things that may seem tone deaf or ignorant. (And if and when you do say something tone deaf or ignorant, for the love of whatever you believe in take responsibility for it and DO NOT ask Black people in your life to excuse your mistake- like Lena Dunham did in her interview with Gabrielle Union for Lenny Letter or David Letterman did in his recent interviews with both Barack Obama and Jay-Z). You will definitely alienate a few of your white friends and family members who will never be willing to consider these things about themselves.

But I encourage you, don’t give up on the work. And understand that there is no defined end point. As long as you choose to consciously confront your role as a white person in your gentrifying neighborhood- and in America in general, you will have to consider a lot of things about yourself and your environment. But I promise that you will also grow, strengthen your relationships with people you love, maybe make some new friends and cut out a lot of toxicity in the process.

Oh, and keep some things on deck that will pick you up for when you feel overwhelmed. I think this is what we call “self-care.” My “self-care” package includes episodes of New Girl, Drake (not like Marvin’s Room Drake, but like Nice For What Drake- Timely!), music video marathons, my gal pals, a little wine and a lotta exercise.

Here is a list of 8 Suggestions for how to live responsibly as a white person in a gentrifying neighborhood:

ONE: UNDERSTAND THE TRUE ROLE OF THE POLICE: You may see them as a symbol of safety, but that symbol is selectively applied. Police forces at large are trained to kill, not to disarm or de-escelate. Know that while the sight of a NYPD cruiser might fill you with relief, it will fill other people with terror. You may have already seen the Facebook post by Mel Flannery, a white woman who lived in Crown Heights from 2008-2012 that I am about to read, if you haven’t listen carefully. If you have, still listen very carefully. 

 

Thanks to Melanie Flannery for allowing me to share her words in this post.

Thanks to Melanie Flannery for allowing me to share her words in this post.

I will add, If you feel like a situation requires the intervention of the police, be VERY sure and VERY specific about what you describe in your 911 call. Do not say that someone has a weapon unless you are 129,000% sure that is actually a weapon that they intend to use to harm you or someone else. If you know that calling the police will always be your go to move when you feel unsafe- DO NOT LIVE HERE.

TWO: BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF.  If you are someone who feels tense or uncomfortable when you are around people who are not white, don’t compartmentalize or bury this fact. Consult it, acknowledge it and wrestle with it. No one is born with preconceived notions about things that are unfamiliar to them but these notions certainly develop over time, many have been internalized passively. Whether or not we are responsible for their existence doesn’t matter, as adult people we are responsible for doing the work to dismantle them and for accepting responsibility when those notions end up harming someone else. Think about whether or not your discomfort is based off of a lived experience (if it is, the work is now to separate specific sources of trauma from whole groups of people) or more likely based off of images depicted in the news, the media or through stories and jokes told by your family and friends. If you’re old enough to move to New York City and make a choice about the neighborhood you are going to live in, the excuse of “this is just how I was raised” is no longer valid- if it ever was. If the discomfort is constant, or this work feels too hard, DO NOT LIVE HERE.

THREE: RESEARCH NEIGHBORHOODS YOU ARE CONSIDERING LIVING IN, OR THE ONE YOU ALREADY LIVE IN. Know its demographics, its average income levels, its history, its traditions, its culture, its struggles and its celebrations. And know that our presence in these neighborhoods contributes to the ever-growing income inequality that exists in this city. For example, Fort Greene- the pinnacle of Brooklyn’s gentrification. In 2011, Fort Greene was the second poorest census tract in the city- with an average annual income of $9,001. In 2014, 86% of its children lived in poverty. The average monthly rent for a one bedroom apartment in Fort Greene currently sits at $3,071.

FOUR: IF SOMEONE LOSES THEIR LIFE TO GUN VIOLENCE IN ANY CAPACITY, ESPECIALLY IF THAT GUN WAS HELD BY SOMEONE PAID TO PROTECT THEM, DON’T GO MIA. Also, defend, support and stand with your neighbors when new establishments or residents make irresponsible choices- and refuse to patronize those establishments. For example, white woman named Becca Brennan she opened a bar named  Summerhill on Nostrand Avenue in 2017- an opening that included a press release promoting “instagrammable” fake bullet holes and what appeared to be 40s of Rose served in brown paper bags. When local residents demanded she issue an apology and cover the holes she responded by saying “I’m sorry you feel that way" and that "I have a sense of humor.” This establishment is still open. The presence of our white bodies should not be only in the bars and coffee shops built for us, it should also be used to show our unhappiness with a system that only serves selectively. This can include showing up at protests, voting in all local elections, posting on your social media channels, calling representatives or following organizations like Save Our Streets and Brooklyn Movement. Our voices carry a lot of weight, but so does our silence. If you are unwilling to support your community when it is in pain- don’t live here.

FIVE: IF YOU ARE SOLELY CONSIDERING MOVING TO A NEIGHBORHOOD BECAUSE IT IS “CHEAP” AND HAS THE BARE MINIMUM OF YOUR REQUIRED AMENITIES-LOOK ELSEWHERE. Cheap is very,very subjective. Every time you arrive and agree to pay a rent that is above the reach of the average resident, you make that neighborhood less livable for those who make less money than you. And I’m not saying cost shouldn’t be a consideration when signing a lease- we live in a very expensive city. But, again, if it is your primary consideration- look elsewhere. At this point, neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, the Northern and Eastern corridors of the UES and the Financial District have cheaper rents than those in Crown Heights. These neighborhoods may have less of a modicum of “cool” but they might fit more neatly into your misguided idea of what New York City should be and your presence will not have a negative effect on the residents.

SIX: MAKE YOURSELF PART OF THE COMMUNITY THAT ALREADY EXISTS, RATHER THAN EXPECTING THAT COMMUNITY TO CHANGE FOR YOU. If you do end up moving to a predominantly minority neighborhood or if you already live in one- talk to and introduce yourself to your neighbors and the people who work in your bodegas and laundry mats and other community spaces you frequent. This is our responsibility, not that of anyone I just listed. They may want to be friendly or be your friend, and they may not- a choice every person has the right to make. Respect that there are establishments within our neighborhoods that we aren’t welcome in. This is fine. It is not discrimination, so please never call it that. Don’t clutch your purse every time a man of color walks by you. Don’t avert your eyes when someone attempts to smile or say good morning- say it back. Frequent local, privately owned, longstanding business- they’re longstanding for a reason. If you are not ready to embrace, respectfully participate in or at the very least acknowledge any of the above- DO NOT LIVE HERE

SEVEN: HOLD YOUR WHITE FRIENDS ACCOUNTABLE: Even if you are willing and able to do this sort of work, don’t invite your white friends over who will say things like “wow there are a lot of black people here” or who chuckle and say “Once we hit Barclays, I was the only white person on the subway” or who call our neighborhood “dirty”. Even if they are just here for a few hours, their casual racism will have a negative impact. Shut down comments from your white friends that imply our neighborhood is less than, or that we will move when we start to make more money. If what they are saying about you is true, see number 5. If you have white friends who already live in gentrifying neighborhoods who are unwilling to do anything on this list- help them download the Street Easy app and find an apartment they’d be more comfortable living in.

EIGHT: MOST OF ALL, KNOW THAT ALL OF OUR NEIGHBORS ARE HUMAN BEINGS. They are adults and children who are capable of feeling the same range of emotions we are. They love and laugh and work and struggle and raise families and hope and dream. These are things we all do, even if the circumstances under which we do them differ. All of our neighbors are other people who deserve our respect and our kindness. If you see your neighbors as props on a set of what you imagined Brooklyn to be- don’t live here. They are not there to conform to your standards of civility or to up your cool factor or to allow you to label yourself as “woke” (basically never call yourself that). They are living their lives in their home. Their existence is not for us.

I call these eight things suggestions, but I hope you think of them as mandates if you choose to live in a gentrifying neighborhood or one where most of its residents are not white. The consequence of not considering these and a slew of other considerations that  come with being a white person in America is that people who don’t look like us are being uprooted, oppressed, and in the cases of Stephon Clark, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Amadou Diallo and entirely too many others- people are dying.

People who identify with the groups who have been historically oppressed should not have to seek justice alone. We MUST show our support if we want to live in a more just world- especially if we choose to insert ourselves into neighborhoods like the ones we live in.

In the end, I hope that you love, contribute to and become a part of the community in which you live- no matter its demographics. Crown Heights has been my home for going on four years, and I can only hope I’ll be lucky enough to live here for many more. It is my refuge in a city that can feel overwhelming and impersonal. It shouldn’t  have to change for me or other white people who live here, but I know it will, and I know that these changes will benefit me.

I will proudly and vocally stand with Saheed’s family and friends in demanding justice for his death- and if you are a white person who lives in Crown Heights too I sure as hell hope you’ll do the same.

See you around the city, 

Alexis

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Additional citations from the episode:

Corrections: If any new information or incorrect delivery comes to my attention, I will correct it here. Love you, mean it.

  • At some point in the recording, I said last Wednesday was April 6th. It was the 4th. The way my life is set up right now, I never know what day of the month it is-unless it is when my rent is due or a day someone is supposed to pay me money for something OR if it is the birthday of someone I love very much.

Ansel, we are truly sorry.

In Episode 0, Erin egregiously misidentifies Ansel Elgort, the adorable star of Baby Driver, as Ansel Adams, the deceased photographer. Alexis then egregiously mischaracterizes Adams as a painter of calendars, which is an actual bastardization of the man's prolific career. We apologize for our gross misunderstanding of Ansel history. It was, in fact, Ansel Elgort who was sitting in Knicks Celebrity Row at MSG on January 17th, 2018. Ansel Adams passed away in 1982, so his presence at any sporting event would be highly unlikely and would require some sort of seance similar to the one performed in the classic feminist film Now and Then. 

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Oh and here is a screenshot of the Spotify email Alexis likes to pretend she is embarrassed about but that she actually leads with in almost every social situation.

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