EAST HARLEM — When I found a B&B in East Harlem for my daughter and I to stay in while visiting the city this past week, I was excited. It was the kind of old home that I love with wrought iron fencing, green old wooden shutters, interior brick walls and a kitchenette in the room.
I had my daughter cancel the more posh hotel Lucerne reservations in the Upper West Side.
My daughter, Rebecca, and I arrived in New York's Penn Station at the exact same time, me from Albany and she from Charlottesville, VA.
But finding each other proved harder than either could have imagined.
“Can you see the Amtrak waiting area?” “I think I need to go up a level.” “No stay put, I’ll find you.” “Here are some pictures of what I see, do you see that?” “No.” “OK I’m walking toward the 7th Street exit.” “I don’t see that.” “Ask a cop how to get to the Amtrak waiting.”
A woman eavesdropping on our inability to connect, even offered a few suggestions.
“This goes around in a circle,” she said. “Maybe she’s on the other side.”
Finally after about an hour, we were together and after loads of hugs, we decided to try the several subway ride to East Harlem.
Leave Penn Station at the 8th Avenue Exit, take the E train Uptown towards Queens, at Lexington exit the E and go upstairs to get the No. 6 towards the Bronx and get off at 103rd St. station.
Before our subway ride north, two women came up to us and gave us their unlimited subway tickets because they were heading back to LA.
“Just pass it on sometime,” they said, while a man waiting for the subway remarked about how much money that was worth.
I later checked and it was $66.
And so started three days of generosity and kindness from everyone we encountered from the two men who were our hosts at the B&B, Jonathan and Clement, to the woman who served our thick syrupy espresso in Brooklyn and the taxi driver who actually stopped his meter ahead of time so we could pay and get out when he got back to Penn Station because my daughter’s return train was leaving in 20 minutes and we were still caught in traffic.
The high crime reports about East Harlem, also known as El Barrio or Spanish Harlem, were not evident to us, even when we walked nearly eight miles the first night there.
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East Harlem is a neighborhood with a luscious blend of cultures, the exotic, the offbeat and the artistic. It is a place of fabulous Thai food, loads of dogs and people who love dogs, and grocery stores with prices that rival any grocery sale here.
We walked from Lexington and 102 Street, up to 96th and left away from Central Park, passing fruit and flower vendors and big and small dogs all in sweaters because it was raining. We picked up Thai Red and Green Curry with tofu and a brothy vegetable and tofu soup.
We stopped in a corner market for morning yogurt, fruit and nuts. I already brought the coffee to make sure we had and we made pot after pot in the European pot in our room.
On day two we took full advantage of our free subway rides, picking up about four trains to Brooklyn and the Bushwick Collective, a several block area off Flushing and starting at Wyckoff and Starr.
Much like the warnings about the 103rd Street Subway Station om East Harlem being one of the most dangerous, Bushwick is listed online as one of the most dangerous parts of Brooklyn.
We didn’t have that experience.
After “oowing” and “ahhing” at all the street art, we had lunch in a tortilla factory, Tortilleria Mexicana, Los Hermanos. With a huge Our Lady of Guadalupe on the back wall, they made the tortillas while we watched and they even had vegetarian tacos, picadas, tostidos and more for barely a few dollars.
Visiting the collective was an incredible experience and getting to share the artist’s use of color and inventive creations along all buildings throughout the neighborhood with my daughter was a exactly how I wanted to share time together.
We left Bushwick, took all the trains back to our hideaway in East Harlem to get ready for my daughter’s dream, a night at the Metropolitan Opera House. Although I admit, I was exhausted after nearly 15 miles of walking and fell asleep in the opera. Oh well, we were still together.
The thing is, over the years my daughters and I have traveled to many parts of the world that well-meaning friends and family warned us about.
"Oh, no, three women can't travel there alone."
We have lived in rough and sketchy neighborhoods in a variety of cities. And sure, I've been robbed a few times, actually many times. I broght one of my old film cameras with me to New York, hoping to go back to analog photography, but it would not work. And I already had in my head, if someone is going to rob me, I'm giving them the camera. It's a nice, non-working Minolta.
But things like that are not a deterrent. We have always loved the diversity of multi-cultural communities.
And for our three days in East Harlem, we felt the love that comes from learning from people unlike us. We both agreed, the next time we venture into the city, we’ll stay there again.
So my daughter made her train and we even had time for hugs and tears before we each left, going in opposite directions.