Tuesday, December 15, 2009

“’The moral question about poverty in American- How can a country like this allow it? –has an easy answer: we can’t,’ he said”- Whatever It Takes

Originally, I was planning on traveling to neighborhoods both in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, but I ended up downsizing my project. I did not necessarily want to, but I felt it was the only way I could devote a good amount of time to the neighborhoods themselves. I chose to travel to the UWS because in my mind, the UWS is wealthy, but it’s a more obtainable wealth. The Upper East Side is filled with old old money and the amount of money there is ridiculous. The UWS, though filled with money as well, just is not the UES in terms of money and where the money came from. the UWS is a model for most of America, white America. El Barrio is a model of the inner-city, where blight, poverty, and a lack of mobility is painfully visible.

My decision to contrast the UWS with el Barrio was based on the fact that a grave difference lies between the two. There is a difference in resources. During my walk around el Barrio, I saw two grocery stores. There were lots of Bodegas, Liquor stores, McDonalds, but where's the fresh fruit, veggies, etc? Where are the doctors offices that the UWS has on the first floor of their buildings? What must life be like for people living in one of the twenty-some buildings that make up the Spanish Harlem projects? While people on the Upper West Side bask in the glory of Central Park, with their Barnes and Noble, Lowe's Theatre, and Starbucks, the people in el Barrio are drowning.

Paul Tough wrote an amazing book on the Harlem Children's Zone and its founder Geoffrey Canada. Published in 2008, Whatever It Takes shows the quest of an organization to close the education gap between the haves and the have nots. Two quotes from Tough's book can some up the problems I found during my observations:

“’For me,’ Canada said, ‘the big question in America is: Are we going to try to make this country a true meritocracy? Or will we forever have a class of people in America who essentially won’t be able to compete, because the game is fixed against them?’ Canada’s voice sounded raspy and solemn. ‘There’s just no way that in good conscience we can allow poverty to remain the dividing line between success and failure in this country, where if you’re born poor in a community like this one, you stay poor. We have to even that out. We ought to give these kids a chance.’” (page 18)

“’What's most overwhelming about urban poverty is that it's so difficult to escape,’ Obama said. 'It's isolating and it's everywhere. If you are an African-American child unlucky enough to be born into one of these neighborhoods, you are most likely to start life hungry or malnourished. You are less likely to start with a father in your household, and if he is there, there's a fifty-fifty chance that he never finished high school and the same chance he doesn't have a job. Your school isn't likely to have the right books or the best teachers. You're more likely to encounter gang-activities than after-school activities…Opportunity is scarce, role models are few, and there is little contact with the normalcy of life outside those streets.’” (page 273)

I wonder when we will stop isolating the poor and unfornate. And when we will give them the opportunity to live above the poverty line, to move out of the projects, to live how white America lives, and stop consigning people with tans of some sort or another to death.

Photos from El Barrio and Upper West Side

Here are other photos I took during my travels:

El Barrio

Located right outside the subway station. You know you're in the inner-city when...

Projects on 104th

El Museo del Barrio

Upper West Side

Monday, December 14, 2009


My trip to the Upper West Side was what I expected. I took the 1 to 86th Street and Broadway and intended to walk uptown to 90th, but after relying on my internal New Yorker navigational system, found myself at 82nd Street… My entire stroll was a short one, from 86th to 82nd on Broadway. I stopped at Barnes and Nobles on the Corner, and then took 82nd all the way to Central Park West. I sat on the end of the Park for a while, and then walked to 81st street BD Subway Station. All in all it was much shorter than my walk in el Barrio. Partially because I walked in the wrong direction… and partially because I was bored. Everything was the same. Nannies were walking the children they are surrogate mothers for. Old ladies were slowly walking, talking about all the hottest gossip (“Did you know that my daughter is getting her 10 year old a cell phone? Kids these days…”). Buildings are tall, some with doorman, others just with well lit lobbies, including both Christmas Trees and Menorahs.

Though I really enjoyed my time in el Barrio, the UWS made me see more of the things el Barrio lacks. As I realized I was walking South (instead of my intended Northern route), I saw a HUGE Barnes and Noble Bookstore on the corner. I love book stores. They are fantastic like libraries- you can go, sit, and read or be read to. It’s just a fantastic resource, especially for children. Reading and literacy are so incredibly important, and there, front and center, was a huge bookstore. Major points Upper West Side.

As I walked down 82nd, looking at all the nice building and holiday garb, I noticed a trend- lots of these buildings have doctor’s offices on the first floors. Talk about access to health care!!

On top of that, right across the street was a police precinct.

Then of course Central Park. Complete with park benches, playground, and grassiness.

Followed by the Natural History Museum.

Between all those things, and all the shops, grocery stores, restaurants, etc located on Broadway, I can see the appeal of the Upper West Side. It’s very family oriented. Everything you need is right there! You have options! Competition keeps prices lower. You have bookstores, movie theatre, other places to entertain yourself. Though I could never picture myself as a resident of the Upper West Side, I get it.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Notes on El Barrio

On a cold, brisk day, I left my cozy little apartment in SoHo, hopped on the 6 train, and traveled up to Spanish Harlem, known as El Barrio to its residents, and "SpaHa" to yuppies and others people who consider themselves "trendy" (in the name SpaHa itself you can see gentrification working...).

My trip started by traveling to the infamous Museo del Barrio, on 5th Ave. There is a HUGE difference between 5th Ave Spanish Harlem and the rest of the neighborhood. For the six blocks on 5th Ave I walked, I felt as if I was just on the Upper East Side. It's right on the Park, the buildings look the same, the street signs say "Museum Mile." Everything was very plain, crisp, and stark, in true Upper East Side style. Current debates about el Museo del Barrio are about the fact that the residents of El Barrio feel as if the el Museo is abandoning them, and no longer reflects the neighborhood. Just walking by el Museo, you can see and feel what they mean.

The rest of El Barrio is scattered with projects, Bodegas, liquor stores, small family run restaurants, and walk-ups. The number of projects within such a small area that I walked around was amazing. Everywhere. They were just everywhere. And then surrounding them is nothing-ness. No grocery stories. No libraries. No shops. No doctors offices. Just more projects. All I could think of was isolation.

Even with that though, El Barrio has a fantastic feel about it. Everywhere you look, there are Puerto Rician or American flags. And not just one, numerous. Hanging from the same window or banister. Pride on display. Families were out buying Christmas trees. People were sitting out of the street or on their stoops, playing music and socializing with each other. Even though they have been isolated from the rest of Manhattan, the residents seem unscathed. I can only imagine how much harder life must be up on 103rd, but morale is clearly up and not going anywhere. My favorite thing I found was a mural on a wall on 117th with the words "La esperanza es comolas galletas de animalitos... no sirve de nada si no se lleva dentro..." ("Hope is like animal crackers... It doesn't do any good if you don't carry it inside of you"). Even with all the projects, the lack of resources or access to resources, the residents have hope. And good taste in cookies.

Monday, November 30, 2009


Yesterday, my roommate and I went to Spanish Harlem (SpaHa) to grab some lunch. We'd been meaning to go to this place, Mesa Mexicana, all semester. Where can you find amazing $2 tacos at a sit-down place? Needless to say it was everything she had built it up to be.

What amazes me about places like SpaHa, Harlem, Chinatown, etc is that they are these enclaves in the middle of New York City, where culture still exists. English got us no where in SpaHa. The waitress spoke no English, and living in SpaHa, she really doesn't have to. She can function, exist, live a full life in SpaHa without any English. It's amazing. In these enclaves, life goes on, almost exclusively from the rest of America.

I love that places like this is the city exist. You walk down a street in Harlem or Spanish Harlem, and there's music. Such a simple thing. Music in the streets. People are sitting out on the street in lawn chairs, chatting, dancing, laughing, and living. It's such a different feel than touristy Midtown or stuffy shopping SoHo. It's real life, with real working people, who spend all week working 9-5, and then get a little time on a Sunday to sit out on their stoop and enjoy the view, the sounds, the feel of their neighborhood. I am immensly jealous.

As far as my travel plans go, I plan to first start on the Upper West Side, then move to Spanish Harlem, and end my trip in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Hopefully I will make it up to UWS before the weekend. Gotta get rolling.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Here We Are

The purpose of this blog is to perform a study of wealth, poverty, race, and urban living, specifically in New York City.New York has so many neighborhoods that are incredibly racially exclusive. I believe that everyone in New York knows the neighborhoods where they are welcomed, based solely on their race or racial performance. The neighborhoods that are considered upscale and “safe” are primarily white, and the rundown, “unsafe” neighborhoods consist primarily of ethnic minorities. People in some neighborhoods are able to do, buy, be involved in whatever they want, while people in other neighborhoods are very much stuck in the condition they are presently in.

As a person who has called both the Mid-West and Manhattan home, I've witnessed a lot of discrepancies in living conditions, education systems, resource allocation, and overall quality of life consigned to different groups of people. Over the next few weeks, I plan on visiting some of New York's famous neighborhoods, searching for signs of these things. I want to see what type of things are offered in different neighborhoods? Are there libraries? Museums? Other cultural opportunities? Are there parks for children to go to after school or better yet community centers or other places where children can go? Is the neighborhood "family oriented" or are there liquor shops on every corner? Even simple things like the cleanliness of a street can say numerous things about the conditions in which the residents live in. Most importantly- What does the inclusion or exclusion of all these different items and more mean for the residents of these neighborhoods?

It will never cease to amaze me how so much difference is alive and kicking in such a small space like New York City. You can go through years of living in the City and never see anything you don't want to. I know many people who have not set foot in any Borough besides Manhattan because they have no need to. But it's all the intricacies of the City that attracted me. Within a small island, boarded by two rivers, you can find some of the nations wealthiest living a mere mile from extreme poverty. Sometimes in the least likely place, you'll find the most amazing park, shop, museum, or restaurant. The City is amazing, its people resilient, and its lessons forever with us. I hope that over the next few weeks as I travel between Spanish Harlem, the Upper West Side, and Bed-Stuy, investigating the physical impact of money and government attention versus poverty and state neglect, I can find both the answers I'm looking for along with some that I'm not, which will all (hopefully) help me further my understand of the City I reside in and its place as a case-study of what is going on all over America.