Saturday, October 3, 2009

Harlem, Florida

I wrote elsewhere about my lunch at the Clewiston Inn while riding around the Everglades for to enjoy a hot day outside the Keys.It happened that I wanted to find an alternative to US Highway 27 back to Krome Avenue and Homestead. This trip was planned as an exploration of back roads and I wanted to leave Clewiston on County Road 833 and looking at my useless large scale map I thought I had to back track to a place called Harlem to find my way back south through the cane fields. Sugar cane is a terrible crop for the soil. It leaches all the goodness out of the rich black loam of south Florida and requires huge doses of fertilizer to grow and the fertilizer leaches into Florida Bay and helps cause algae blooms which kill fish and coral in the Florida Keys. The State of Florida has signed an agreement to buy up the cane fields and turn them back into Everglades Wilderness fifty years after developers got the Army Corps of Engineers to dry out the useless swamps. Besides which, I don't find citrus processing plants that architecturally attractive, as necessary as they may be:All of which considerations flew though my head as I turned south and landed in Harlem, Florida. It is worth remembering I suppose that in the past Haarlem, an offshoot of the Dutch colony of Nieuw Amsterdaam became the bright shining light of Negro culture in early 20th century America at a time when black America was separate and supposedly equal on the other side of the railroad tracks. According to the US Census 2700 people live here and 95% of them are African American. I assume the name of the town came from a desire to emulate the Harlem that shone it's light from distant New York City, however that cultural beacon fell somewhat short of this little community south of Clewiston.
Churches abound of course, wherever this life seems like an unequal struggle there is the promise of better to come. Housing seems rather below par, though of land there seems to be ample:
I spent about an hour cruising round Harlem looking for the road south and all I encountered were blank walls of green sugarcane fields and blank looks from residents who must have been wondering that this motorcycle was doing, buzzing back and forth through the neighborhoods like a blue bottle in a fly trap.
There were actually people in Harlem, and if there is a percentage of white people here they were either at work, on vacation or indoors.
One cannot help but get the feeling that economic opportunity has passed Harlem by, even in the boom years of the 1990s. I felt no desire whatsoever to get off the Triumph and have a chat with the group of diffident looking men clustered in front of the dilapidated grocery store. I didn't even want to flash my pocket camera for a picture, so I prudently kept riding, looking for w way out south, while hoping not to get a flat.
Eventually, having pushed my luck as far as i was able I gave up the hopeless search and headed east hoping to find at least Highway 27 on the far side of Clewiston.
In the distance US Sugar Corporation's plant loomed over the town, offering a promise of work and air pollution all in one. The weird part is that sugar cane cutting is such gruesome work that the sugar companies import labor from the Caribbean, where the economies are so devastated by agricultural quotas from the US and Europe that Jamaicans will gladly come to the US for moths at a time, far from their families, and wear armor in the blistering Florida heat and cut cane for hours like medieval squires in an endless battle with stalks of cane. To make the work even better the cane is burned before cutting to clear weeds and animals from the fields, thus covering the cutters in a choking cloud of ash. Unemployed? There's work to be had down here.
Harlem's cemetery, showing the usual healthy respect for those who have gone before us:
I found Harlem to be less than inspiring for the 54 minutes I was there, riding around. There are people who think that Key West's black neighborhood is a place to be avoided if you are white, a notion I have always found to be at best uninformed. Harlem had nothing for me and made me feel awkward and out of place. Perhaps I should have stopped at the grocery store and hailed everyone with a cheery grin and admitted to being lost. Who knows what wonders might have been revealed to me, and cast off the air of gloom I felt about the town. As it was I failed to do that and left, glad to be leaving feeling like a heel for not giving the place a chance.
This was my natural habitat for the day: the open road....
Curiously enough, as soon as I left Harlem I found my lost Highway and turned south. I suppose had I had a GPS I would have found it easily enough. Had I had a GPS I never would have explored Harlem and got another taste of how the other half lives. And I'm not talking about the occupant of the White House.