Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Saturday, November 27, 2010
1. Can you describe your experience moving from coast to coast i.e. what brought you to the east coast and what areas of New York did you reside in?
I actually left LA when I was 17 to attend college at Howard University in Washington DC. I always thought the world was bigger than Los Angeles and knew that by the time I went to college, it would be out of state. I’d visited Hawaii with my mom in the 8th grade and was convinced that I was going to attend the University of Hawaii! But being a kid of the 80s and 90s, I grew up with A Different World as the standard, and since I’d had other family members and friends of the family attend Howard, I decided I would go to an HBCU (Historically Black College or University). In 11th grade, my parents sent me on an HBCU college tour where I saw a number of colleges including the AUC, Tuskegee, FAMU, Southern, Xavier, Dillard, Hampton, Virginia Union, and Morgan State, but I ended up visiting Howard on the first day of school in 1995 and the vibe was so electric that I decided THIS is where I wanted to be. So, I ended up in Washington, DC before I ever knew I’d come to reside in NYC, and really enjoyed my time. I loved that the cities and states on the east coast are in such close proximity to one another and within hours you could be in Atlanta or North Carolina. I actually thought I was going to relocate to Atlanta once I graduated in 2000, but circumstances prevented that from happening; then I had plans to leave for the Peace Corps in 2001 until the September 11th attacks, but once that happened, all plans changed again! In re-evaluating my plans, I’d been interested in doing an MFA in creative writing, and after some research decided on Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY. As it turned out, that opportunity wound up being the on-ramp to my life here in New York City!
Originally, I moved to Harlem World, living in a beautiful area on the west side called Hamilton Heights, just two or three blocks north of City College, on 144th and Hamilton Terrace. It was a quaint block that I still love to this day, but a year later I got the opportunity to move to Stuyvesant Heights Brooklyn onto Stuyvesant Avenue where I very well may stay for the next thirty years! (Of course assuming I get the cash to buy a brownstone on this block before it's all said and done!)
2. How did you feel NY was different from LA in terms of the Black presence and culture?
In Los Angeles, there is an area not far from my parents’ home, between Crenshaw and Degnan called Lemiert Park, which is celebrated as the district of Black culture. Here you have a weekly Sunday drum circle, African shops and vendors, Black-owned and operated establishments like Eso Won Books, The World Stage Jazz Club, and Marla Gibb’s Vision Theatre. Every year, this is where the Kwanzaa Parade and festivities take place. Aside from a few of the museums designated for the celebration of Black history and culture, this is it in terms of concentrated presence and culture as it relates to ethnic history. Although, I do appreciate driving through certain neighborhoods and seeing wall murals that reflect Black presence and culture. But, it feels more filtered in Los Angeles than in New York. In LA, there are plenty of Black people, especially those who are in middle class and affluent Black areas, OR those who are in the working class and impoverished areas, and they represent a different kind of Black presence and culture than you will find in NYC. Perhaps, as I think about it, the differences in Black people in LA have more to do with economic differences than ethnic and cultural differences that you’ll find here in NYC. I believe you have a more concentrated area of Black artists and musicians in New York than you have in LA as well, which changes some of the cultural dynamics in NYC. I really believe that when Black people from LA move to New York, they are certain to encounter a bit of culture shock, even if they’ve been around Black people in LA their entire lives!
3. What were the differences you noticed between Blacks in LA and Blacks in New York?
It’s a common misperception that people in New York are a lot more “real” or grounded than people in Los Angeles, with the support coming from the fact that Hollywood is in LA which is where you’ll find a good majority of shallow individuals. I don’t entirely ascribe to that train of thought. I actually believe both New York and Los Angeles has its fair share of shallow, self-centered poseurs as well as warm, grounded and sincere people; having said that, there are measureable differences between east coasters and west coasters. I smile a lot and generally speak to or, in some way, acknowledge any person who makes eye contact with me, regardless of where I am. Apparently, “I’m from LA” tends to explain that part of my personality as it’s widely believed that many women from New York don’t entirely offer warm smiling greetings to people they don’t know. My brother just moved to New York eight months ago, and he’s still trying to get acclimated to the differences between New York and LA women, especially when it comes to the simple interaction of meeting someone out in public. However, I will say that New York people, Black or otherwise, as more direct and cut to the chase than west coasters, and I’m getting to cut my teeth in that sensibility! A girlfriend came to visit once, and someone was encroaching on her personal space demanding that she speak with him and she didn’t exactly know how to take command of the situation. Being here for some years though, I was very comfortable in telling him to back up and leave her/us alone. I don’t think I would’ve done that in the manner in which I did if I were still living in LA. There are other times when I’ve seen myself be more confrontational than I ever would have been in the past. However, I definitely know when to turn it on and turn it off!
Another difference tends to be in style and hair choices. Whereas in LA you do have a large contingency of africentric individuals who wear natural styles, I still think it’s more prevalent in New York. I knew in 11th and 12th grade that I wanted to grow locs, but it wasn’t until I moved to DC and went to Howard in 1996 that I figured out it was actually an option. Yet, my mother has always had a sophisticated africentric style of dress and has worn hairstyles ranging from a natural to fingerwaves! So, again, it’s never been an issue of feeling that I couldn’t express myself culturally. However, when I look at some of the African American teenagers coming up in LA right now, I don’t know how much they value styles and choices that are centered in African tradition like perhaps a lot of the youth in New York do. I’ll attribute that, though to the fact that the Black population in New York City is significantly more diverse than the Black population in LA. In New York, you are the minority if you are African American; when I meet people, their first question to me is which African country or part of the Caribbean am I from? I firmly believe that every person of color God has ever created from every part of the world is represented and accounted for here in New York City! I can’t say that of Los Angeles. So, because there is a greater degree of cultural diversity, and because much of that diversity comes from immigrants from the African continent, you will see a lot more representation of that culture among the general population of Blacks, as opposed to an “I’m Black and I’m proud” sensibility born of the Civil Rights era for those whose parents and grandparents were born in the US on the west coast.
One last, and perhaps major, difference is the attention Black women receive from brothers on the east coast/NYC and on the west. I don’t want to and will not feed into any preconceived or media-heightened ideas that Black men aren’t interested in Black women, because I don’t believe that at all! However, I will say the way I am approached by Black men here on the east coast is all together of a different intensity, fervency, if you will, than brothas on the west coast! I remember when I lived in LA, I would be interested in guys, but there seemed to be a discrepancy between my feelings for guys, their feelings for me, and actually going out on dates! I had plenty of guy FRIENDS though, but I can’t say that I had a lot of dates! But I moved to New York, and the guys were coming around with a whole ‘nother mode of operation! I remember I was at a club the first year I lived here, and I’d garnered the attention of a guy (probably just my smiling and acknowledging him!) but I was standing talking to another guy. Yet, within minutes, the second guy came over, excused me from the first brotha, and spun me into his arms to start dancing with him! It was very arrogant of him, of course, but sooo smooth! So I’ll say it seems that I get more attention from guys on this coast than in my hometown, but I’m not mad! A close friend move to New York the same year I did, and she and I have so many tales of random good times we’ve had with various guys we’ve met out here, yet she moved back to Los Angeles a couple of years ago and is always remarking that her social life as it pertains to meeting men is not what it was in NYC. I’m not saying the LA brothas don’t like black (darker skinned) women at all! That’s NOT what I’m saying because my parents and aunts and many of my cousins have Black significant others…. but, I just know what my experience is within both coasts!
4. Which city felt more diverse to you? Which city was more conducive to you feeling inspired?
During one concert here at Central Park’s Summerstage, Cassandra Wilson made a comment that I thought was so applicable to the City’s diversity; she said, “California has landscape, New York has PEOPLEscape!” Though I’ve been in New York for close to seven years, I’m still enchanted by the variation of people of color I encounter here. And not only people of color from around the world, but diversity as it pertains to being able to deviate from whatever general ideas people think you should be doing as a Black person. I love people watching as I ride the subway because I can observe people who are confident in their own crazy, weird, different, eccentric, celebrated existences and, for the most part, are not being questioned by others about why they are different. The same, perhaps, may be said of LA, but I think it may be questioned there a bit more instead of just understood to be the way it is. I definitely believe New York has Los Angeles beat when it comes to diversity, but as far as acceptance, it probably has more to do with the circle of influence you come out of (the specific family, community).
I am most certainly more inspired in New York, but that is because I wasn’t born and raised here. Even though I’ve been here for a few years, I am still very much enchanted with learning the beat and rhythm of New York City. The energies are very different. There’s a kinetic energy here that keeps everything moving; New York’s pulse will propel you forward whether you’re ready or not. Los Angeles is slower paced and often mellow. The sunlight and palm trees can be very calming! Sometimes stagnant. By comparison, you get car horns and an earful of someone getting cursed out on any given day in NYC! But even in that, New York inspires me to find the adventure of the day; if I’m leaving my house to get on the train and walk around the City taking care of my business, I’m sure to encounter adventure. In Los Angeles, things are so insular at times, especially when you leave your house, get in a car, drive to your destination for your scheduled activity, and drive back home. No real adventure there! But LA is comfortable because it’s home. It’s where my parents, childhood friends, and extended family are. I know LA like the back of my hand; comfortable, yes, inspiring, not in the way that propels my life forward.
5. Which city or coast fits your career aspirations better in terms of resources and access?
I often reflect on this fact: In New York, I am currently living a version of my life that I only dreamed of living when I was in Los Angeles. What I mean is that there are things I get to do here professionally that I hadn’t exactly figured out how to do or gotten the nerve to do while living in LA. Granted, I’ve cultivated more of my adult years in New York, but when I was in LA, my ideas about what I would do professionally were more traditional (well, aside from wanting to go to the Peace Corps). My parents have always supported me in whatever I wanted to do, so it wasn’t an issue of what I was supposed to be doing over something else, but had I stayed in LA I just wouldn’t be fashioning the life there that I live here. For starters, I spent time working in, both, education as well as marketing and advertising before I got my Masters and for some time afterward. However, I never felt like I was on the right career path while working in marketing or working in the department of education. I’ve always been a writer, I’ve always enjoyed entertainment, I’ve always hated nine-to-fives! So, in 2008, two years after completing my Masters, I decided that THAT was as good a time as any to quit my job and take on jobs as a freelance ghostwriter and editor. Unfortunately, I made that decision just as the economy was taking its downturn! So, I ended up finding gainful employment as an adjunct professor with the City University of New York where I currently teach courses ranging from remedial writing to African American Literature. I didn’t mind joining academia in this capacity either because I’d been contemplating working on my doctorate degree. I still haven’t decided that I’m going to do that, but I was reflecting to my father last night that I really am enjoying my life as it is unfolding right now; I make my own teaching schedule and appreciate that every day on the campus is different. I’m also left with enough time for freelance writing assignments, to sing with a band (which is probably the most surprising life change since moving to New York), and get to travel at whim! I’ll take that kind of professional freedom any day, and I really think that being in New York and seeing people living and thriving outside of conventional standards has really benefitted my personal and professional trajectory in ways that would not have been realized had I remained in Los Angeles.
6. Finally, please include more information about yourself. How long you've lived in NY and what you're up to now.
I moved to Harlem, NYC in the summer of 2004, and to Brooklyn, which I now consider home, a year later. I’ve been an adjunct professor with two of the campuses of CUNY (College of Staten Island and Kingsborough) for two years and counting, which I consider my “day gig” (which most New Yorkers have!). In addition to helping my students become better writers, I also write and edit for clients, and finally incorporated my business, Mai:Content, LLC, this year! I work with a wide range of people from non-profit directors, to grant writers, doctoral candidates completing dissertations, PR & marketing execs, basically any person or organization that has need for a writer, ghostwriter or editor. I also work on my own artistic writing ventures with projects that I intend to publish soon. When I’m not in the classroom or in front of my laptop, I sing with a local band in New York City and consider it a privilege that we’ve performed at some of the City’s most renowned venues. I love that I’m performing on a more regular basis as well because there really is room and opportunity to thrive on any of the stages here in New York City. For me, the best part of living here is that on any given day, you get to decide what you want to do, and really figure out how to make it happen because there are so many people here who are willing to give you a chance and work with you. I’m learning that if you have a desire to do something, anything here in New York City, there is really a way to get it done. That’s not to say it will be simple, easy or just provided for you to take at whim, however, you learn that connections make the world go round, develop the relationships with the right people, learn from your mistakes, as they will be made, and stay on top the City’s energy, because moving forward is inevitable.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
NOVEMBER 23, 2010 10:27 AM
by R. Asmerom
Mai Perkins remembers attending a concert at Central Park SummerStage with Cassanda Wilson, partly because of an observation the jazz singer made about Perkins’ new city. “She made a comment that I thought was so applicable to the city’s diversity. She said, ‘California has landscape, New York has people-scape!’” It was a sentiment that the native Angeleno could relate to.
Perkins is no different from the millions who migrate across the country for school or for a new job. She moved to Washington DC over ten years ago to attend Howard University and ended up in New York City to pursue her career as a writer.
So what makes New York a more complementary fit for her than her hometown? Maybe that has something to do with the creative economy, a concept much discussed by “urban expert” Richard Florida in his book “Who’s Your City: How the Creative Economy is Making the Place Where You Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life,” which explored an interesting pattern of how one’s city environment influences productivity and creativity.
“I really think that being in New York and seeing people living and thriving outside of conventional standards has really benefitted my personal and professional trajectory in ways that would not have been realized had I remained in Los Angeles,” said Perkins. The Brooklyn resident and adjunct professor at City University New York believes that the high level of diversity in New York fosters creativity and comfort with one’s personal identity.
When applied to the Black experience, will analyzing the creative economies explain why cities like Brooklyn or Philadelphia produce so many musical artists or why Atlanta has such a high percentage of Black entrepreneurs? According to the social theory, location is critical whether you know it or not. It’s not only about infrastructure and city government but also about the atmosphere created by people themselves. For many Blacks, just having a presence within a city is a major element.
“A majority of Blacks have a strong racial identity. If a person has a strong racial identity, it matters whether they live in a city that has a sizable percentage of that racial group,” said Rashawn Ray, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. “Cities that have a thriving Black middle class, Black political representation or politicians clearly invested in issues that affect African-Americans, stable housing prices in black neighborhoods, public spaces conducive to physical activity, and an educational system that has a track record for graduating Black youth and assisting with college attendance are positive places for Blacks to live.”
And what about the impact of living in a city where there’s not much Black representation? Growing up in either Atlanta or Brooklyn/Harlem is a far different experience than living in a California city where Blacks only represent 6.6 percent of the state population according to the 2010 US Census Bureau Results. Although cities like Los Angeles have a Black population of nearly 12 percent (2000 Census), New York’s black population exceeds 26.6 percent (2000 Census) and Atlanta boasts a large 61.4 percent Black population (2000 Census).
Perkins, who appreciated her Los Angeles upbringing, admits that the East coast seems to be more conducive to various self-expressions. “I knew in 11th and 12th grade that I wanted to grow locks, but it wasn’t until I moved to DC and went to Howard that I figured out it was actually an option,” she said. “My mother has always had a sophisticated Afrocentric style of dress and had worn hairstyles ranging from naturals to fingerwaves. [It was] never an issue of feeling that I couldn’t express myself culturally. However, when I look at some of the African American teenagers coming up in LA right now, I don’t know how much they value styles and choices that are centered in African tradition like perhaps a lot of the youth in New York do,” she said, adding that the composition of New York cannot be ignored when discussing its impact on individuality. “The Black population in New York City is significantly more diverse than the Black population in LA. In New York, you are the minority if you are African American; when I meet people here, their first question to me is which African country or part of the Caribbean am I from.”
As Harlem, Brooklyn and Washington DC represent Black meccas of the East Coast, Atlanta is the Southern mecca, representing upward mobility, prosperity and of course, the Buppy culture.
Akiim DeShay of BlackDemographics.com, who is a native of Rochester New York, said that Atlanta made a positive impression on him after having lived there for a short time in high school. He witnessed the stable and middle class life of Atlanta that encapsulates the city’s image as a destination for many looking to start a family, take part in the burgeoning Black Hollywood, or just live in a stable African-American community. Maybe it’s unintentional but Atlanta has definitely reaped the rewards of being branded as the place to be for successful African-Americans.
“Atlanta has its problems but it also has a reputation of opportunity and prosperity,” said DeShay, who now resides outside of Dallas. “So even those who are living in poverty, high crime areas, and segregation continue to hear from others or the media about how booming the city is. They see folks from all over the country who broke their neck to move there with horror stories of places they escaped from.”
Despite the fact that Atlanta has its negatives like any other big city, much of its leverage and reputation comes from the fact that African-Americans can see themselves reflected as engines of everyday business.
“Go to any of Atlanta’s business centers and it is normal to see African Americans working in all sectors of the economy at all levels,” said DeShay. “Ask for a supervisor, manager, or even the CEO, and don’t be surprised if a Black man or woman appears. Majority Black middle class neighborhoods surround the city’s southern half. In an environment like this, how could anyone fail? Well of course it happens but don’t tell that to any of the thousands of African Americans who move there every month.” The attraction is evident; the Atlanta area gained 445,000 African Americans between 2000 and 2008 which is by far the largest Black population gain of any metropolitan area in the United States.
While the city has long been a destination for Southerners, California only began to experience Black migration in large numbers in 1940. Many Black residents of Oakland and Los Angeles will tell you that their parents or they themselves moved to California from various locations in the South for job opportunities in the aftermath of World War II. The period between 1940 and 1970 is known as the Second Great Migration, in which the state of California absorbed about 5 million blacks.
The longer history of Blacks on the East coast has dictated the dominant nature of East coast culture in music and history. Don’t we often wonder why certain cities over-represent when it comes to producing notables? “Cities such as New York and Philadelphia have historically been large markets for the culture and the arts. After all, the Harlem Renaissance and Du Bois’ classic Philadelphia Negrooccurred in these cities,” said Dr. Ray. “The legacy of these triumphs still lives on. These cities have also historically had a thriving Black middle class and Black political representation. These dynamics set the tone for allowing equitable opportunities for Blacks to be productive, creative, and upwardly mobile.”