BY John Paul Infante
How does one begin?
Francis Mateo’s El Alto is having a release party at Word Up Bookstore on August 11th at 3PM.
Or should I begin…
Francis Mateo’s El Alto had a release party at Word Up Bookstore last Saturday.
Or what if you’re reading this on Saturday around 3PM?
Francis Mateo’s El Alto is currently being celebrated at Word Up right now.
I’m not sure.
I’m writing this before the event at Word UP, so I’ll write about it as if it hasn’t happened.
Francis Mateo will be joined by poet, Annabelle Gonzalez, and music journalist Max “Drlacxos” Cueto. The event, organized by the Dominican Writer’s Association, like the book itself is about a neighborhood that was and a neighborhood that is still becoming. That’s the shit that hurts. Contrary to what many of us living in El Alto felt or thought, El Alto has never stopped and will never stop changing. Considering the City Council’s recent passing a rezoning plan in Inwood, Mateo’s El Alto, based on the Youtube series of the same name, is in many ways now a historical document.
After the passing of this rezoning proposal the significance of “El Alto’s” has changed. August 11 at Word Up is now not only a celebration of the neighborhood, but a commemoration of the neighborhood so many in the community have been protesting to preserve. Representative Adriano Espaillat has said he plans to join any lawsuit that might stop the rezoning from taking place.
Ydanis Rodriguez, the council member who represents Inwood, argues that this proposal is not about pushing tenants out, but about an investment that will ultimately serve said tenants. His website lists many accomplishments he’s been part of that have served the neighborhoods he represents. A description of Ydanis on his website says, “There is literally no other greater champion for our community, our voice.”
The truth is that we do not know exactly what will result from this rezoning act. What we do know is that the last city council member, Miguel Martinez, resigned before admitting to stealing over $ 100,000 that was supposed to be used in the community he served. There’s also the hiring of Ydanis’ wife in 2014 by the Department of Design and Construction Commissioner as a special assistant, which led DDC employees to reach out to De Blasio for what they believed to be cronyism. So does one go with Ydanis’ long lists of victories he’s led for his community or the reputation his seat holds and controversies he’s associated with?
As much as I want to trust Ydanis, it’s difficult not to see how the changes in Harlem and Williamsburg have affected the powerless. Personally for me, it makes me think about the kind of neighborhood my daughter will not get to experience if I move. She will not experience the neighborhood I grew up in. Ten years from now my daughter won’t regularly eat in the same restaurant as Raquel Cepeda. She won’t pass by Lin Manuel and his father by Indian Road Cafe and give a casual nod. She won’t bump into Led Black and his family. She won’t see Tony Peralta talking with Jose Morales outside of Bodega Pizza. She won’t catch Dister on some ladder adding detail to some dope mural. She won’t take the 1 Train and bump into Sandra Betancourt. She won’t get coffee in the same cafe as Victor LaValle. My daughter will most likely have to cross the George Washington Bridge to see the Dyckman basketball games. Word Up Bookstore will be a lot further than two stops away.
If this rezoning plan turns out to in the end displace thousands, is it an act of violence? Of course, this isn’t an unarmed Kiko Garcia being shot by police in 92. However when one thinks of the difficulties those already here, recently arrived and soon to arrive will endure with the changes that’s to come, one can’t help but consider this a form of violence.
It has been reported that Ydanis has received death threats as if the fear of what will happen to families is a form of aggression so great that it must be retaliated against in a violent way. Ydanis understands the threat and the potential for violence because he hasn’t been seen or heard from recently. Or maybe he’s waiting for things to calm before reappearing. Or better yet, he’s laying low waiting to make it up until a few years from now, he does a “I told you so” speech, where he announces his run for higher office.
To end this, I’ll take us back to the beginning, well, my beginning, which happened to be Kiko Garcia’s ending in 92.
I don’t know where we were coming from, but the hood was on fire. I was 8 and had been in Washington Heights for a couple of years after spending my childhood in the Dominican Republic. My uncle, a dark skin man, probably in his mid 20s was walking me home while St. Nicholas Avenue burned in anger over Kiko Garcia’s murder. Police cars raced, NYPD helicopters hovered above like UFO’s lighting up side streets, threatening abductions and men who looked and talked like Kiko Garcia destroyed property the way the NYPD destroyed Kiko Garcia.
A huge police officer– who looked Irish and looked more like a fire fighter than a cop asked my uncle, “What the fuck are you doing out here?” I can’t remember my uncle’s response. The giant officer then said, “Get him out of here.” We were on the corner of 186 and St. Nicholas Avenue right where the Rite Aid is now, across the street from All Star Barbershop. There used to be mom and pop video rental store, which no longer exists.
While I’m a pacifist– not because of some Ghandi or MLK principal but because I’m a coward– there was something necessary and even beautiful about that violence. In the way it was proportional to the violence that incited it. Kiko Garcia’s life was worth whatever the riot cost the city and business owners. Even if he was a drug dealer. Even if he was a criminal. Even if it was an honest “mistake.” Even.
That was then, and on August 11 at Word Up Bookstore is now. What about Francis Mateo’s El Alto, depicting Washington Heights and Inwood? It is about back then or about a neighborhood that will always be?
The question now becomes, for so many of us in this neighborhood, how does one begin, again?
Experiencing El Alto, first as Youtube series and now the book, makes me reminisce about my own beginning over two decades ago in Washington Heights. Unfortunately, the ending of Junot Diaz’ “The Sun, the Stars and the Moon” comes to mind. The narrator, Yunior, reflecting on his failing relationship concludes, “And that’s when I know it’s over. As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it’s the end.”
John Paul Infante is an award winning writer and educator who has taught creative writing at Lehman College of the City University of New York and at the high school level in New York City. His poetry has been published in The Poetry Poetry Project and fiction in the Kweli Journal. His nonfiction won DTM magazine’s “Latino Identity in the US” essay contest. He lives in Washington Heights with his partner and daughter and spends too much time on Instagram. He hopes you will follow him. @infanteJP