black utopia on a new york dance floor

April 18, 2019
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Sometimes I believe that Utopia exists periodically, and has no permanent residence. Sadly, I missed her last stay in New York in the ’70s and ’80s because I wasn’t born yet. I often think about what that New York was like — understanding that the connection between the city I grew up in and the one before my time is very much like the relationship between the birds and the dinosaurs. That is to say, New York remains cool, though nowhere near as iconic, but if you squint hard enough, you can still spot the connection to the ancestors.

The glorified nostalgia associated with the old New York is often misguided, but completely unavoidable. The two are intertwined. New York was creative, cheap and full of freedom. It was also dark and dangerous, so much so that too many ’70s and ’80s youth did not live long enough to give firsthand accounts. Many of the innovators who created “New York” — and gave us a utopia that forever changed the world, and ideals for art and society — paid a devastating price. We lost an entire generation to AIDS and multiple drug epidemics, proving utopias never last forever.

Model and musician Grace Jones performs at Studio 54 New Year’s Eve Party, New York, New York, January 1, 1978. (Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images)

While New York as it once was is over, its utopian remnants are everywhere. Unfortunately, Apple has yet to unveil a FaceTime that defies the spacetime continuum so I can’t ask those we lost what it was like. And no matter how hard I huff and puff I haven’t collected enough wind power to blow away intruders who disrupt our neighborhoods and culture. What I can do is follow in the steps of the dreamers who left behind art to remind us to use the power of our imaginations. Cause ya can’t gentrify that.

I can’t tell you what that utopian New York was like (cue boos, tears, uproar), so I’ll tell you what the one in my head is like (cue roaring applause).

In utopian New York my name is still Awa but I no longer have to introduce myself as, “Hi, I’m Awa, A-W-A, Ahhhh-waaaah.” No one looks at me with hungry eyes because it might be cool to have a friend named Awa, and no one looks at me confused and guilty for initially not registering my name as a name.

Utopian New York is full of New Yorkers. People don’t look at you funny when you meet them at a bar. When they ask you where you’re from and you say “here” they don’t call you a unicorn or tell you there’s no way a kid could grow up here. I am drinking a tequila soda, and it doesn’t cost $15. (Though it’s cheap, I got it for free because people give each other free drinks in my utopian New York. Naturally.)

In utopian New York, strangers mind their business but are kind. They are not rude because they do not operate from a notion of what they think a New Yorker is like, or from confused media portrayals made by non-New Yorkers. Utopian New Yorkers are efficient, speedy and warm, not selfish, slow and cold.

In utopian New York, we welcome the newcomers because they come for the city. We still complain — cause it’s fun to bitch sometimes — but we don’t mind that they are here because they do not take over. They do not push Black and Brown people out of everything we’ve known onto the outskirts of the city, but live among us.

Jean Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Fred Braithwaite (Fab Five Freddy). (Photo by Patrick McMullan/Getty Images)

In utopian New York, my friends and I all live in apartments in the Lower East Side. When we want to shoot a movie or curate an art gallery, we do not have to work endlessly to afford rentals we just do it in the spaces all around us. At night, we go out.

We see original SAMO© graffitied on the streets as we walk towards a night of dancing. We walk in groups because the streets are a bit suspect, but we are always okay. We walk for miles, our version of the gym. Sometime we walk to King Street, sometimes all the way to West 54th.

Outside the club, we are met by a giant crowd. Journalists yell at the walls knowing Diana Ross and Grace Jones are inside having a dance battle with the Jaggers or Fab Five Freddy. People haggle with the bouncer to get inside, reciting their resumes. The bouncer doesn’t care, – he decides with feelings.

Inside the club, the inner haven of utopian New York, I bump into someone. He apologizes profusely, compliments my shoes, and decides he needs to show me his works of art — apparently, I have forever changed the way he see’s the world. I fix his stray hair as he tells me his name, Jean-Michel. A white boy who says his name is Keith overhears, gets jealous and says he wants to show me his. I don’t complain.

Singer Diana Ross, who first became popular as a member of the Supremes, makes a limbo-like move on a New York dance floor while in town for an engagement.

I am holding onto my friends in utopian New York, as we make our way to the dance floor. The purples, blues, and pinks of the lights feel incredibly warm, a lavish mess. Though people smoke inside you can not smell it. Everyone and everything looks fabulously disheveled. Accountants dance with stars, and stars dance with the wait-staff. The music is interrupted every so often with live duets from Ms. Ross and Ms. Jones.

We are happy and healthy in utopian New York. We are all the shades of Black and Brown. We do what we want and we look out for each other. We know there is no time or room for judgement in utopian New York.