Virtual Voices

N.Y. Journal: Leaving our boroughs

Culture

A Vanity Fair blogger drew deserved mockery recently for admitting she'd never been to Brooklyn. Kate Ahlborn wrote a breathless account of leaving Manhattan and discovering a scary world of nude performance art in Williamsburg---actually the least scary part of Brooklyn---where hipsters in skinny aspire to art but end up being baristas.

I read Ahlborn's post the day I went to meet a friend who was staying at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. On the floor dedicated exclusively to $15 cocktails and $20 appetizers, we sat at a table next to the big windows overlooking Times Square's garish electronic billboards, while taxicabs and tourists---packed and wandering in herds---moved about below. I live in Brooklyn, but it's the scuffled part of it. I've been thinking of moving somewhere more comfortable and upscale. It's so tedious to have to take the subway to a decent restaurant, and I'd like to live somewhere my mom won't be afraid to visit.

Later that night, like Ahlborn, I got out of my own comfortable borough when I took a 45-minute subway ride up to the Bronx to visit the Infinity NY Church in the projects. All I knew of the projects I learned from watching The Wire. I wasn't even sure if it was "project" or "projects," so the first few times I said it I blurred the end of the word or left the sentence hanging.

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The pastor, Dimas Salaberrios, and his youth group were passing out fliers for their Easter service, so I tagged along. We took the elevator up to the 14th floor of two buildings and then walked down. In the first building, every floor was splattered in the Blood's graffiti: "In Blood We Trust . . . We Bust." We walked down stairways that smelled of urine. One stairway was blackened by fire. On one hallway the air was thick with weed. On another, some kind of human stench filled the hallway, and Salaberrios remembered that this was the hall where a "mentally ill" person lived and the smell from his apartment always filled the hall.

As we walked to the next building, Salaberrios pointed out a cement factory called Jenny, which he said was polluting the air along with the three highways that run close to the Bronx River Community and giving the kids asthma. He said their hope was to kick out Jenny and build a church in its place.

When I left, I stood on a deserted subway platform until a group of teenage guys climbed the subway stairs. We got on the subway together and they swapped jail stories until we almost got to Manhattan. One, who looked barely 15, had just come back from seven months in jail for graffiti.

When someone asked President Obama about AIG, he said those bankers should get out of New York and go see how real people live. Mark Meehan, a teacher, replied and said no---all those bankers needed to do was get out of their boroughs:

I wish the banker class would be allowed to keep their bonuses, but be required to spend one day in the south Bronx for every $1 million they keep. I can picture these guys, consumed by their own importance, the compass of their values skewed terribly toward the material, hanging out with my students and playing dodge ball with the hard charging kids from the streets. Would they loosen their ties and take off their jackets in church on Sunday morning at Promesa, a local AIDS clinic? There is something about worshipping with people who know they are dying. I wonder what would happen if the banker class had to engage the AIDS class. Pin stripes hanging with last rites. They could eat salty plantain chips together and listen to each other's stories.

Getting out of my borough meant discovering the rich, gutsy faith that's growing there. Maybe if Ahlborn had discovered that instead of nude art, she would have wanted to go back.

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