Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Great Divide

You can go home again. It just won't be the same. So it was discovered as we roamed our old neighborhood, the now "notorious" upper west side of Manhattan. In the day the neighborhood's notoriety came from being sketchy, slummy, and home to a disproportionate number of half-way houses. Columbia hadn't expanded beyond its gates and classic prewar 6 room apartments were divided and sub-divided into "affordable" housing for smaller families.

Notorious now for being described as a bastion of knee jerk liberalism by jerky journalists looking for an easy way to malign the city, the facts on the street are far more complex and interesting. Carrie and I chose Columbus Ave. for a northward stroll from 79th street. The avenue contains all of the trendy and smart shops and restaurants indicative of gentrification, with a particular emphasis on child related toys, clothes, and services. The numbered streets contain the mix of tenants that have been there forever with new families gaining a foothold. As we gazed further up the avenue it was shocking to see new towers standing in what had been the worst of the old hood. The store fronts of this project starting at 97th street contain a block long Whole Foods.

If you turn west on 100th street you enter the great divide. The block contains the 24th police precinct, a library, health center, church playground, and social service center. On the corner of Amsterdam Ave. is a new see thru condo project (apartments start at 1.5 million).

Behind the precinct, to the north, stands the Fredrick Douglass housing project. The original portion of the complex consists of 17 buildings — 5, 9, 12, 17, 18, and 20-stories tall — completed on May 31, 1958 on a 21.76-acre (88,100 m2) site. The development includes 2,054 apartments housing some 4,588 residents. The Frederick Douglass Addition, completed on June 30, 1965, is a 16-story building with 306 residents on .55-acre (2,200 m2) on Amsterdam Avenue between West 102nd and West 103rd Streets.[1]

I don't think there is anyplace where the economic conditions change as fast as they do in NYC. Standing in the middle of this class divide two officers in plain clothes from the 24th are shooting the breeze on the ramp leading into the precinct house. As we approach them with the intent of having one or two questions asked and answered, Dave starts profiling us to his friend. He's funny and clever. He tags us as: "coulda been rich but gave it up for causes, getting along well together, been married forever, probably once lived here and want to find out what's up". All of this is conveyed with a big warm smile, cracking up his friend, a community liaison officer named Phil. I am speechless, a rare condition. "Am I right, Am I right? Gottcha didn't I? And you are way left, liberal, well Ok, not too far left but left right?" I'm looking for pins or some other clues. We are both wearing slacks and light sweaters. "Me I'm in the center. Don't vote. Gave up on them. They're all crooks."

"Hi, I'm Will and this is Carrie, and we did want to get a scope of what has happened and figured you could name it. But what's with this won't vote thing?"

"So you voted, and now you are happy with Obama? Let me guess, Not so." I just got there sooner than you did."

A very special NY minute turns into over an hour of what's happened in the neighborhood, the city, the country. We meet the morning shift as they arrive for work Dave hauls them over to make a point or emphasize one of his. These guys, (the only woman we meet is in fact the captain of the precinct and she can't stay) are sharp, tough, and getting it done (the one murder in the precinct has them all crazy with why. There used to 38 a year on average). Suddenly there is a subject shift. Dave points down to Carrie's sneakers and asks her what she paid for them? Before she can answer he asks me and points down to his own year old no name tennis shoes. He turns us around to point out the woman walking down the street and sotto voce' suggests that her shoes cost hundreds. The small group mumbles their affirmations. We are in the shit now and Will rises to it.

I'll spare you the obvious opening salvos of class war and get to the quick of it. "Once again you guys have missed the target. You are going to lay the blame for the deterioration of this country on a poor black woman's back. That might play in Iowa, but here every day you have visible reminders of who's zoomin who and I don't see any perp walks. One, One of those bankers not 2 miles from here rips off more of your money than every so-called welfare queen in these projects, combined, and you don't raise your voice or cry for justice." Eddie joins the fray: "We have to enter the project for an investigation, enter one of their apartments, there it is, 47 inch TV, cell phone, boy friend with a beemer. Don't tell me they aren't ripping off the system."

"Ok Eddie, lets add it up. Let's take every one of the 5000 residents of these projects, give them all you said, what's it add up to? How about 100 thousand per person. That's 500 million dollars. One guy, one, former Lehman boss Dick Fuld, was paid $485m in salary, bonuses and options between 2000 and 2007. And he destroyed the company. And we are bailing him and his pals out. "

"Don't give me this "but, and" argument, what are you going to do to solve this problem?"

"Here's the problem. If these two parts of the city get any further apart, if the rich keep getting richer leaving these people in despair, and they act out, where are you going to be. History tells me that if the rich man tells you to suppress the poor you're gonna do it. You can't imagine that you have more in common with that poor woman then the guy in Wall Street. You have bought the myth that these poor, lazy, shiftless people are tearing you down. But let me point out the fact that millions of new poor, who thought they had it made, have joined their ranks this time, and they look like you. Are you going to put them down?"

I think we made a tiny inroad. As we left they were less a chorus and more a discussion.


  1. Great post. You also could have also pointed out to the police officer that the reasons that a person who lives in government subsidized housing can afford a 47 inch TV, etc are the same reasons that guys like Dick Fuld are able to collect giant bonuses--Usury and inflation, which are ultimately crimes against us all.

    I hear the same type of comments from a lot of the staff in the ER, usually w/regards to the uninsured ED visit, as if plugging an IV into a homeless alcoholic is really what's bankrupting the health care system.
    None of see OUR OWN part in the crisis--ie, the fact that we all make huge salaries doing this ("this" = overselling health care to the American public). We fail to recognize that in a world in which health care was properly utilized, both by providers and patients, many of us, if not most, would be out of jobs.

  2. Also--Was the cop right re Will loves Obama?

  3. Let's say we are disappointed. He has a moment. He must seize it.

  4. Curious to hear your take on health care reform...