Hometown Glory

Well, I’ve moved again. I seem incapable of staying put anywhere for more than six months at a time; this probably says something profound about my character, but could also just perfectly illustrate the fact that I have always had, and probably will always have, incredibly itchy feet. So, as of this weekend, I am now delighted to call Harlem home.  I love it! It reminds me, in many ways, of the mean streets of South London, where I was born and raised. I feel a bit like I’ve come home, despite the brownstones, baseball pitches, fire escapes and people who seem to spend all day sitting outside talking/yelling, which aren’t very much like London at all (apart from maybe the talking and yelling). What reminds me of home are the variety of multicultural shops, the general dilapidation mixed with regeneration, the ethnic variety of the residents, the vibrancy of the neighbourhood, and the juxtaposition of the huge tower blocks that make up the projects and the streets of old Victorian rowhouses. It’s not pretty, and it’s not glamorous; it’s certainly not the New York most tourists see. But I like that, because it’s real.

People yell at each other in the street; proper rows with hand gestures and everything. People still use payphones, usually to have arguments with their significant others, who are invariably not where they should be, and need to be told exactly why they’re a complete waste of space – in far stronger language than I can write (!). Groups of kids stay out on street corners into the night, hanging out. Music blares out of apartment windows into the wee small hours. Shopkeepers actually talk to you, rather than just wishing you a nice day with an eyeless smile. I feel like I’m part of a community here, just like I did back at home. I’ve already got my routine; my place to get my morning bagel on the way to the subway, the deli where I get my essentials, the fruit cart where I pick up an apple or orange or whatever I fancy to eat that day, the thrift store I like to browse for bargains in, the route I like to take to walk across to Central Park. I see the same people at the same places every day. It’s a joy. I can’t wait to explore more of this amazing, historically and culturally rich part of Manhattan. A lot of people think it’s the ghetto up here; I can promise you, it’s not. There are amazing museums (such as the Museum of the City of New York and The Hispanic Society of America), fantastic architecture (like St John the Divine), lovely parks, and great restaurants reflecting the multi ethnic make up of the community here, such as Patsy’s famous pizzeria, and Sylvia’s Soul Food, which have been feeding Harlemites for over fifty years and counting.

What does the title of the post mean? Well, it’s the name of one of my favourite songs, by Adele, an amazing British singer who I adore – I’m going to see her at Madison Square Gardens in May (I can’t wait!) – and it’s all about South London, because that’s where Adele is from too. If you haven’t heard her songs before, go and listen to them. What I like best about her is that she sounds like me! Not her singing voice, obviously, but her real voice. Yes, sorry – if you have been harbouring fantasies that I’m a wonderfully well spoken English Rose, then now’s the time I have to disappoint you – I’m from South East London, and I have the awful accent to match. But I’m proud of it. Just like I’m proud of living in Harlem. I am going to sign up for a walking tour of the neighbourhood soon and I can’t wait to tell you more about my new hometown!



  1. And I bet you’re paying a lot less rent too, and maybe not having to have three roommates! I ride through Harlem on the bus on my way to visit my mother (who lives in the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale) and it’s nothing like the Harlem of my youth, which was really very dangerous and off limits. It’s more just like any ethnic neighborhood of my youth, which is a lot more “real” in some ways (as you point out) than the artificial ritziness of Manhattan. I’m thinking you’ll enjoy your time up there! Incidentally that’s where I went to university, CCNY, at 137th and Convent Avenue. You mustn’t give locations, of course, on the internet, but do you mind giving a very approximate indication of how far north you are, and on East Side or West?

    1. You’d be surprised Diana! Rent up here isn’t as cheap as you might think! I do have a very nice newly renovated apartment though, in an old tenement building – the beautiful wrought iron fire escape runs in front of my bedroom window and I love it – I shall sit out there and read in the summer! I am on the East side and in Spanish Harlem so not very far up – well below 125th street. It works great for me as I get the metro north train to work and so instead of having to come over from Jersey and go up to Grand Central I can just get on the subway and go up to 125th street to catch my train, which saves me 45 minutes every morning!

  2. We all have preconceptions and your comment made me realise that prejudices creep in where you are least expecting them. I read your slightly formal English (no bad thing) imagining a neutral or public school accent. I’ll have to adjust my inner voice when reading! Also until I listened to a recent Excess Baggage (R4) podcast about Harlem I imagined a no-go area. But outside looking in is always a skewed perspective (as I have discovered from living as an expat in the Middle East). Really enjoyed reading this piece. Good luck in your new home.

    1. Ha! I am not as bad as some people from South London – my parents – who are South Londoners themselves – tried to make sure we grew up sounding our t’s and aitches but the twang is still there, especially on my vowels! I like that my writing style gives a different impression though…and I can put on a neutral accent if I have to – mainly in work situations!

      Well some parts of Harlem are still dodgy and I certainly wouldn’t walk around alone at night, but that’s just taking sensible precautions. However the majority of Harlem is lovely – especially on the West Side as that’s where Columbia University is and as such it has become more gentrified than the East Side (where I live) – and it has such a rich history as well. That’s interesting what you say about perspectives being skewed – I know I have a lot of prejudices/believe a lot of stereotypes about the Middle East as I’ve never been, and I’m sure you could tell a much different story. Thank you very much – glad you enjoyed reading!

  3. This is exciting! I must admit, when I read where you’d moved to, my first thought was, ‘Oh, Rachel! Be careful!’ Diana’s comment reassured me, though. 🙂 Phew! 🙂

    I’m looking forward to more stories and pictures about Harlem and am thinking I’d better get back to ‘New York’ (Edward Rutherfurd) which I’m reading in dribs and drabs, interspersed with other books. I saw a guide to New York in a secondhand bookshop in Edinburgh last week and DIDN’T BUY IT!!! 😦 Why on earth not??? It was £3!!! It must have been a mental aberration. I hope it’s still there when I next visit…

    Anyway, have a wonderful time in Harlem. And still be careful!

    1. Don’t worry Penny! It’s perfectly safe and I am very streetwise so I know not to walk at night by myself and to never have my ipod in or show off my phone. 🙂 Sensible precautions!

      Oooh I must read that book. You will definitely be getting lots of photos and stories from me…Harlem has so much to offer! Hopefully there will be a section on Harlem in that guide you’re going to go back and buy!!

    1. I will be sobbing for New York, I am sure! But London does have its own charms. And it will always be first in my heart, anyway, because it’s home. 🙂

  4. Congratulations on your move. But what I most wanted to say was, You’re going to see Adele?!! I’m so jealous! I’ve been playing her two albums on shuffle pretty much constantly Her album “21” is great, innit? I thought I’d throw in a bit of your own accent there 🙂

    1. Thanks Laura! I KNOW! How exciting is that?! I’m so glad you’re a big fan too – I’m so pleased for her that she’s cracked the American market. She always comes across as such a lovely and down to earth person and her voice is beyond belief – have you seen the video of her singing Someone Like You at the Brits? You have to check it out on youtube if you haven’t!

      Hahaha! I love that! Take a bus ride in my neck of the woods and that’s all you’ll hear! Innit is the South London version of ‘like’!

      1. I haven’t seen that video, Rachel, but I’ll go look for it. I recently saw a clip of “Someone Like You” in a concert on VH1. My daughter and I are both in love with that song. She’s learned it on piano and we both enjoy belting it out in the car 🙂

      2. Laura, you’re going to cry! It’s incredible.

        I love that! I’ve got my mum onto Adele as well – she came and visited a couple of weeks ago and I sent her home with my copy of ’21’! She listens to it when she’s ironing!

  5. Good for you, Rachel. I love you spirit of adventure and interest in so many things and will be eager to hear about the places you explore while in Harlem. From churches to soul food, you will find all sorts of adventures in Harlem.

    Growing up in a multi-generational home where two languages were spoken, I was aghast when I went away to college in central Illinois and greeted with “oh, you’re from Chicago”. Evidently, students could tell by my “cheecaago” accent whilst I always thought it was my Greek grandmother who had an accent.

    1. Thank you Penny, you are so lovely! I will of course share all of my experiences with you – I am going to go along to the Cathedral for the service on Sunday and perhaps I’ll drop by for some soul food on my way home!

      Ha! Isn’t it funny how we never think we have an accent? I didn’t realise I had one until I went away to university and everyone said ‘Oh, you must be from South London’. I was shocked that people could tell! Though saying that, my sister’s husband, who has been around since I was 11 (my sister is 7 years older than me) and is originally from Devon, is always mocking us for our accent – though we mock him right back for his farmer boy speech! It’s quite funny as my sister is very London, he is very Devon, and my nephews have a hybrid accent of both – I love how they say some of their words, with a distinct ‘farmer’ twang, and others like they’re from deepest darkest Sarf East Landan!!

  6. I remember having candied yams and collard greens at Sylvia’s one Sunday lunchtime… don’t know that I’d want them again, but it was an experience!
    PS Feel I should reassure all of Rachel’s readers that she has a perfectly pleasant voice!

    1. I don’t know whether I’ll like the food at Sylvia’s but I want to try it – I want to sample fried chicken and biscuits especially. I don’t get the idea of eating chicken with a scone but everyone does it here so I must be missing something!

      Oh Mary! Thanks! I was probably poshing myself up for you!

      1. I was fascinated by grits until I saw man at the counter eating them with processed cheese on top!
        But I think he wanted to be left in peace to eat, not forced into conversation with mad English woman, accent or no accent!

      2. Yes grits look pretty disgusting if you ask me!

        Hehehe – less people are impressed by my accent here than I was led to believe, I have to say!

  7. Fabulous new home you have there, Rachel! I can just picture you sitting on the fire escape with your book. Bill Clinton has an office in Harlem, at least he did, so you just may have him as a neighbour. And I can’t wait to hear all about Adele, lucky you! Let someone know she has a ‘sarf Landan’ sister in the crowd and you might get backstage.

    Accents are wonderful things. I was alone and lost in London one night and it was too dark to read my map so I hailed a black cab. The cabbie said he could have talked to me all night because he loved MY accent! I told him I didn’t have an accent and he replied “Love, over ‘ere you do”.

    1. Thanks Darlene! I’m going to have to be surgically removed from that fire escape this summer – I have images of me dangling my feet, drinking lemon ice tea and reading something intelligent like John Steinbeck while the sun beats down on me. Bliss! Oooh really? I wonder if I’ll see Bill wandering around!

      I should, shouldn’t I? I bet we could be friends! I wish!

      Oh London cabbies are the best! Though some of them used to refuse to take me home – ‘don’t go Sarf ‘a the rivah dahlin’, not this late’ – though they do always see you into your front door if they do take you home in the first place. They are a good lot, our cabbies!

  8. *laughs* Rachel, you cannot tell me that a girl from London is impressed by American cussing! Y’all are the masters of the go-on-forever, can’t-believe-anyone-knows-that-many-dirty-words curse string! (Not you personally, I am sure. But Brits in general – Holy God, can y’all cuss!) Be safe in Harlem – it sounds most enlivening!

    1. Hehehe – oh I can ‘cuss’ with the best of them (I love the word cuss!) but I am a classy girl and never swear unless in extreme circumstances, in which case I resemble Hugh Grant in the first scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral – usually when stubbing my toe! It always makes me laugh whenever I watch Eastenders, because they’re not allowed to swear as it’s shown before 9pm, and the stuff they say instead of actual swear words is hilarious – if they used realistic language every other word would be a swear word!

      1. Oh, and grits…properly made, which means cooking for about two hours…mmm, delicious with scrambled eggs and bacon. And that’s a former Yankee talking.

  9. Happy new home! I visited Harlem a long time ago so I’m sure it’s changed somewhat since then. Thought for a minute you must have a fantastic singing voice when I read the bit about Adele sounding just like you. Are you sure you don’t?

  10. I’m originally from East Ham; my mother was born and raised in Finsbury Park, then moved to Islington, later (post-WWII) to Dagenham; my father is from Barking. And you want to talk about how “bad” your accent is–ha-ha!!

    Anyway, one thing I’ve always loved about America is that an accent that at one time would get you thrown out of Harrods (or not permitted to read the lesson in Church, which actually happened to one of my cousins) is considered “cute” or “wonderful” or “cultured” (!) here.

    God bless America–and Americans!

    1. Oh I bet you had a real houseful of LANDAN, Deb! That’s terrible about your cousin! True though about Americans – they can’t tell where I’m from! Though a lot of people think I’m Australian, which is interesting…

  11. How exciting! Your new neighborhood sounds a lot like mine, in DC. I love it, I love that it hasn’t been sanitized beyond belief, I love its beauty and diversity. And I LOVE Adele! 21 is amazing, and Someone Like You makes me cry and cry each time I hear it, and I don’t think it’s hormones.

    1. Yes exactly – I think that gentrifying places just removes the sense of community and history and diversity that makes these neighbourhoods so interesting in the first place. Glad you are another Adele fan! The first time I saw her singing that song – I cried. At my desk at work! You have to watch the live version from the Brits on youtube…it’s truly amazing!

  12. Oh, you’re in a good location, then, Rachel – how convenient is that! And if the rent’s not dead cheap, then it’s because you’re so close to the Upper East Side and a few other people have figured out that it’s a good place to live. I was gobsmacked by Deb’s two examples, that a “bad” accent used to get you thrown out of Harrods – seriously? – and not let you do the church reading. Seems incredible, but class prejudice against those who are “not like us” must go all through human nature everywhere. I remember when I was in seventh grade at Hunter, homeroom classes were organized according to what borough you lived in, presumably so the girls could travel to school together and make friends who lived near them. Well, the Bronx girls had what we Manhattan girls considered really thick and uncouth accents, and didn’t we look down at them, and didn’t they think we were “snobs!” Come to think of it, even two of our cats are snobbish toward the third…pictures of the darlings here…

    1. Yes it’s a great location – I’m about five streets up from the official end of the UES so I’m right on the cusp and I love that I am within walking distance to the Met and lots of great bars and restaurants, but then in the opposite direction I am in the middle of the projects and all these great old tenements and gospel churches and multicultural restaurants. It’s fantastic!

      Ha! I can just imagine that! I love your cats – gorgeous!

    2. The Harrods example was a little joke on my part–and I say “little” because, even if it couldn’t get you literally thrown out, a working-class accent would get you shunned or ignored in an upscale place in Knightsbridge. In other words, you could go to Harrods, but you might not get a salesperson to wait on you. This was in the dark days of BBC-received-standard speech–it might be better today. As my mother always says, “When Maggie Thatcher was growing up over her father’s green-grocers do you think she had that lovely accent?”

      The Church story is absolutely, 100% true. My cousin (another Dagenham-ite) was told she could not read the lesson because of her accent. When she pointed out that the Archbishop of Canterbury was from an area not far from Dagenham, she was told, “Yes, but he doesn’t sound like it.”

      1. I should add that said cousin was eventually ordained (one of the first group of women ordained in the CofE–cf. Dawn French in “The Vicar of Dibley”–and now runs a prison ministry. I assume she gets to read the lesson these days–ha-ha!

      2. Oh I bet Harrods sales staff would have been less than impressed with the working classes daring to step inside their store! Most designer shops are still like that. Every time I go into one and people look at me up and down I just imagine I’m Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman! Though here, with my English accent, I tend to get a bit more respect – if only they knew how poor I was! Ha!

        Your cousin was obviously in the wrong church – how nasty! Glad she came through and got ordained anyway – good for her! Prison ministry is very exciting and I bet very rewarding!

  13. I look forward to reading about your uptown adventures – I went to Columbia for college, so I was on the other side of town from where you are – and I somehow never made it to Sylvia’s, but I do have fond memories of the Cathedral of St John the Divine and the ice rink in the park at 110th and the Hungarian Pastry Shop etc.

    Also, this post made me think about how I can’t really distinguish among different sorts of British accents – and I work at a company with an office in England/I have three-times-a-week (at least) video or phone meetings with colleagues in that office! There’s one guy who I’m reasonably sure is Scottish, but beyond that I just notice that some people say certain words differently, but couldn’t begin to hazard any guesses about where that means they’re from. Of course, it may also be that most people I work with have neutral-ish accents in the workplace, but I’m sure there are still nuances I’m missing.

    1. Oooh lucky you – I wish I’d gone to college in New York, I would have had such a good time! Hungarian pastry shop? Tell me more!

      A lot of people don’t realise England has very pronounced regional accents as it’s such a small country, but people living in towns just a hundred miles or so apart will have a distinctively different accent – to those of us who can recognise them, of course! The main difference is between those from the ‘North’ (anywhere North of London, in reality) and those from the ‘South’, though not the South West, as they have a different accent entirely (a ‘farmer’ accent – the South West is mainly rural). Northerners, and South Westerners, flatten their vowels, whereas Southerners elongate them. So if someone says ‘bath’ like there is an ‘r’ in it, they’re from the South. If they say bath with a short ‘ah’ sound on the a, then they’re from the North, or possibly from the South West, though people from the South West of the country would probably draw the ‘aaa’ sound out a bit more than those from the North. That’s an easy quick way for you! Ask someone to say bath and then you’ll know! I say barth!

      Obviously within those broad regional divides you will have different accents as well – a Geordie from Newcastle will sound totally different to a Liverpudlian or a Mancunian…same as someone from North London will have a different accent to someone from South London!

      1. The Hungarian Pastry Shop is a coffeeshop at Amsterdam and 111th, basically across from the Cathedral of St John the Divine, and is (or at least, was, when I was in college) a popular hangout for Columbia and Barnard students. The coffee is nothing to write home about, and it gets crowded, but the pastries are good (or: were good when I last ate there, which was probably in 2004, but yeah).

  14. I like to watch BBC America so I’ve started noticing the differences between some of the accents — I loved the Welsh accents in Gavin & Stacey! I was watching Graham Norton a couple of weeks ago and one of the guests was a comedian from Liverpool who had a very heavy accent. It’s amazing to me that there are so many different accents from such a small country! And I’ve noticed sometimes British people add an R sound to a word that ends in A — i.e., Dianer instead of Diana. Have you noticed that or is it just my imagination?

    1. Oh the Welsh accent is terrific, Karen! Gavin and Stacey is beyond hilarious as well, I adore it! And yes, Liverpudlian is a very distinguishable, and not very nice (to my ears!) accent! Oh yes – the -er on the end would be added by a Northerner I think…possibly also someone from East Anglia.

  15. I actually haven’t noticed Dianer in the UK instead of Diana, Karen (and you’d think I would). But I’ve had misunderstandings due to the opposite thing. Years ago I took a Geordie friend all over Los Angeles looking for a Fenda. This was a Fender guitar for his son!

  16. Glad you’re doing well and are living in a fantastic place, Rachel.

    (I sent you an email a few weeks ago, did you have enough prizes for everyone from Virago week? I just wanted to make sure!)

  17. You know, I never thought about you having an accent. I don’t know why. I love to hear the different way people speak the same language. Penny (lifeonthecuttoff) did have a Cheeecago accent. I was in college with her. Tee he. When my husband and I traveled south, they thought I had a northern accent and he didn’t. He speaks fluent “good old boy”. He says “ain’t” and “them” when he should say they. I don’t, so I guess I had and accent.

    Your new residence sounds wonderful for you. I’m pretty sure it would not be my cup of tea, but I would like to visit. I find that I miss my quiet wide open spaces. The noises I hear from my neighbors are their cows mooing in the morning, and the roosters. I love to hear the owls and coyotes at night. The city would not be for me, but I am so glad you enjoy it and I enjoy reading your thoughts.

    1. Accents are strange things. I never really think about them either – I always assume everyone will sound the same as me! I love that – fluent old boy! How adorable!

      Thank you so much! Yes big city life isn’t for everyone and I must say I do often long for the peace, quiet and fresh air of the countryside. But I couldn’t do without the hustle and bustle either!

  18. I suppose that when we read blogs we tend to read them to ourselves in our own accent.
    However, I always know I’ve got YOU right as I’m from the very same part of London myself (as you know). I left when I was in my late teens but people still identify my Londonness from some vague something that’s left. I am rather pleased about this although I can’t hear it myself. An American friend I met up with in Paris last week actually recorded me telling some stories about myself (didn’t I enjoy that!) because she loved my English accent. Very flattering all round.
    I hope you and your accent will remain the same, Rachel. It’s part of who you are.
    Oh – and be very happy in your new home. Envy you that staircase, so reminiscent of N Y films!

    1. Chrissy I bet we sound the same! Though I should think I’m slightly more broad than you as you’ve been away for so long! I think that London twang never really goes away!

      How lovely! I’m so glad you had such fun with yout American in Paris!

      I can’t see my accent changing Chrissy, don’t worry – I can posh it up for work purposes but the twang will always be there! Thank you so much – I love my staircase and it makes me smile every morning when I wake up and see it there right next to me!

  19. It sounds lovely! Apart from, I must say, the rows on the street. I hate listening to people yelling, my mirror neurons fire up and I get all tense and shaky. But I can’t wait to come visit you!!

  20. Another typical nice R post.

    “I’m from South East London, and I have the awful accent to match. But I’m proud of it.”

    Saaarf London? Sweet! Aawight dahlin? Its Bop, innit. Aaas it goin’, babe?

    There you go. No need to feel home sick R.

  21. So it’s taken me a few days to actually post a comment. Just to say that I thought this was a brilliant brilliant post, gave me a feel for the place and specifically for what it means for you to live there.

    I’m from one of the more interesting bits of Manchester – so I too have views on places that have an unfairly uniform rough reputation. And I’ve only ever been to the States once but am gagging (and saving) for another trip and a proper stay in NYC.

    1. Hi Rose! Thank you so much, how kind! Glad you enjoyed it so much!

      I’ve never been to Manchester but I’ve heard a lot about it – it’s not nice to hear all negative things about where you live by people who have no idea what it’s like to live there, is it?!

      Oooh you must come to New York. Once it’s actually more than 2 degrees though – I spend all day every day freezing at the moment!

  22. Aw, why would anyone say bad things about Manchester, I’ve been there a couple of times and thought it was great. You can visit Styal, the fabulous old cotton mill, and it’s a handsome city, with great Chinese food – and the Lake District and the Peak District are so nearby, you could go for a glorious mountain walk every few days! Seems ideal to me.

  23. As one who is lucky enough to have heard your voice, I can attest that you do have an English Rose accent!! I think you have a lovely voice, and I need to hear it again soon! P.S. when are you coming to visit? 🙂 Don’t think I’ve forgotten!

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