Why is a hometown or any city that one is familiar with always longed for? For good or bad, it offers, among other things, a place of comfort where one does not feel vulnerable to much physical dangers because one believes one has mastered its nuances no matter how much in reality it has changed. You do not get lost in a place like this and fear is generally not an emotion you feel walking the streets of such a city or neighborhood. I am inviting you to visit with me an old neighborhood of mine – it matters little that I resided there for a brief three months thirty-one years ago – but it is a place that I will always remember.
I landed on the East Coast of the United States exactly thirty-one years ago this month although I had lived in the Deep South, and the first thing that struck me was the number of Nigerians – mostly graduate students back then – in this part of Washington, D.C. suburb. In those days, most Nigerians in the D.C. area were students and many seemed to have congregated in enclaves as often happens with immigrants everywhere. Langley Park, nearby Manchester Place, dubbed ‘Mushin’ [as in Lagos] because of the way Nigerians live there, Chillum and other low-rent areas of Hyattsville, Maryland received hundreds of Nigerian students those long ago days. Now, tagging Manchester Place in Silver Spring ‘Mushin’ did not mean Langley Park was a fancy area; the rent was as low as the other areas but ‘Mushin’ dwellers just seemed to find it more difficult to break away from their past. For a princely sum of a hundred and twenty dollars a month – we had been paying twenty-nine dollars at a university-furnished housing in Florida – we inherited the lease of a couple that was going back to Nigeria. Not only that, T and K threw in their old Peugeot which soon made us best friends with attendants at the Langley Park gas station, barely two hundred yards from the apartment.
Langley Park, then as now, centers on a busy crossroads, a sort of downtown/high street: the major New Hampshire Avenue, a north-south arterial road that starts from Washington at the famous Watergate Complex. By the time it reaches Langley Park, it had meandered several miles through upscale Foggy Bottom (where the Watergate is) and Dupont Circle and skidrow U Street corridor (now gradually undergoing gentrification) and part of Takoma Park. Bisecting this major road is University Boulevard (Route 193), an east-west major artery that can take you on its western course from Langley to Wheaton and beyond, and on its eastern course, a walking distance, first to the University of Maryland at College Park (from which it derives its name) to Bowie and beyond. As it is common at major crossroads, there are strip malls (shopping centers where all stores have street entrances facing the parking lots) at all corners. Behind these strip malls are the cheap rental apartments that have, these past three decades to the best of my knowledge, been occupied by mostly, no, only immigrants.
In my college days, it was mostly African students, Indian students and traders and a mish-mash of other foreigners. The Washington area seems to have an irresistible pull for me. After living in D.C. (generally places in or near Washington, D.C.) for college, we were promptly back in Nigeria like most Nigerian students of that era but we checked out with the mythical Nigerian Andrew back in the 80s and still found D.C. welcoming. The call of the West even to a non-frontier person, though, was too attractive and so, to Vegas we went. After many years, D.C. seems attractive enough to be a final American place and rightly so because it, as well as my favorite Nigerian city, Ibadan, AND my native home in Ondo State remain the places where I always feel most at home. But it is to lowly Langley Park that my attention turned this past holiday season.
Even though I no longer reside there when I’m in the States, I am never far from the crossroads not only because there is a Nigerian grocery store there – Oyingbo, another grocery store and a Cameroonian store are much nearer to me – but for two important reasons; the less important first: there are some ethnic and Asian stores that I patronize but more important is my need to always see sights from my past and this could see me staying on the long and traffic light-filled University Boulevard for as long as possible, detouring only to the freeway at a point where I must, to get to Dulles Airport.
About a decade ago, I noticed that the African students who used to populate Langley Park seemed to have long departed although a recent “Lagosian” arrival sold me a gallon of palm oil on a side road! A new set of immigrants, Latin Americans – kokoye to Nigerians – seem to be moving in. It was why I decided to do more than just drive through or go straight to the stores I had in mind three months ago. We parked at the biggest of the strip malls which just happened to be nearest my old haunt. Nearby was the gas station where, almost any morning when the temperature went below freezing point in early ‘73, our pass-down Peugeot would need to be jump-started by the attendant for two dollars! The battery was at its dying stage and buying a new one was way beyond us although I’m sure we eventually spent more than the cost of a new battery but it was in installments.
Back to the new sights and sounds of Langley Park where a Taco Bell (a Mexican fast food chain) and the requisite abogado (lawyer) offices now abound. Lawyers make brisk businesses in such communities through aliens trying to regularize their residencies. I walked up to a group of six (or so) Latino men standing right at the traffic light closest to me. There were strangely several men standing at each corner of the crossroads as well as minor roads from the various strip malls, waiting. In fact, you started noticing the groups of congregating men – no women – from two blocks before the crossroads and as I approached, they all seemed to have noticed me and a couple of them walked towards me. I could not believe that what I had been told was really true: that these were men looking for day labor and they came out daily to wait for those who may need their services. “Hi!” I said cheerfully. “How many people you need?” their spokesman said in response to my greeting. “I’m a journalist,” I said “but not from America” I quickly added so that they would not think I worked for Immigration (there is also a Nigerian name for that!) and take to their heels.
In an area that is two or three hundred yards by less than that measurement in width, there were over a hundred men standing around, doing nothing, a sight that would be noticeable even in Mushin or other urban jungles of the Third World where unemployment and underemployment reign supreme. In the West, thirty or so minutes from the heart of the most industrialized country in the world, at high noon, it was a sight that would be intimidating and downright scary to a white American. There was none for acres in sight!
“Where you from?” the spokesman asked in street jargon. Since he spoke English – MOST do not – I decided to ask some questions even though I had already achieved my purpose of finding out why scores of men were always at those points any hour of the day.
Me: Used to live at Kanawha Street.
He: (His eyes lit up). Really? I live at Kanawha.
Me: You do? I lived at 1405; cannot remember the apartment number; but upstairs, second floor,
left side apartment.
He called three men who had moved nearer to us as we talked. “My brothers. We live at 1403.
Me: You come here everyday?
Me: How much pay?
He: Yard work is five dollars. We can do construction. I am carpenter and him (he pointed to one brother … [i.e. Five dollars an hour.]
I thanked him and cut a question I felt tempted to ask: “are you legal?”
Several years ago, when I first saw the crowds at the crossroads, I could not have approached the men the
I did. You will agree that even in Nigeria where crowds gather at the drop of a pin, it would be an
unusual sight at Oju Elegba, Lagos or Berger Junction at Abuja to have scores of men million round,
waiting to be picked up for work. That first time – there were also many Latin men, women and children
walking – I was scared because I thought there was a riot or something. “Langley Park ma ti d’ adugbo
kokoye” (Langley Park is now a Latino area) was the way a friend who had had no reason to “check out”
because she had not checked back to Nigeria since the 70s, put it.
The USA will never become Third World but many enclaves are coming up that will be peopled by
immigrants who will be left behind by the train of First World development. Of course these people will
have access to the same television programs, fast food outlets, etcetera, but they will not be inhabiting Main
Street,U.S.A. but will live in their own Mushins, even when computer search engines can only locate
The Comet on Sunday, February 2004