Saturday, 11 May 2013

A City Divided

This week I'm writing from (intermittently) sunny New York, where I've been sampling the restaurants, seeing the sights, and getting all three stars on every level of Angry Birds (how's that for productivity?).

My friends know that I have somewhat mixed feelings about this city - I enjoy hanging out with my friends and family who live here, but there are also a lot of things that bother me about the place, from the insularity - it may not be as bad as Los Angeles, but it's there - to the fact that so much of Manhattan, let alone the other boroughs, is so run-down. I remember being a little annoyed when some neighbors in London said the US felt like the past to them, while Shanghai felt like the future, but walking around New York again I begin to see what they mean.

However, the thing that's been bothering me most on this visit is the class segregation. I've been reading a lot of articles recently on how unequal New York is in terms of income, but I feel like few of these pieces have said much about the racial divide. I'm staying in Harlem, about a hundred blocks north of Times Square, but I've ventured downtown every day since landing, and the change is pretty stark.

Walking around up here, most of the white faces you see are what my sister refers to as "gentrifiers" (this is how she refers to herself, btw) - people who live here because they can't afford to live downtown. On the other hand, walking down Park Avenue at rush hour the other day most of the people I saw were in business attire or business casual, and mostly white or Asian. Most of the black or Latino people I saw were blue collar workers.

Obviously, I'm not saying anything new here. America has always been this way, and New York is, in many ways, America in microcosm (except office workers here still don't seem to have a handle on Mexican food). Blacks have always lived in Harlem, Italians in Bensonhurst, etc etc. But in some ways I feel that this situation is getting worse. And ironically, the gentrification of neighborhoods like Harlem hasn't led to more mixing between ethnic groups - just the opposite, in fact.

Even when I lived here, back in 2005-6, there were concerns in the community about Columbia buying up real estate in Harlem to expand its campus. Looking around here, listening to how some people talk about the neighborhood, it's easy to see how right the skeptics were - there are a lot of good restaurants up here now, and nice bars, but they don't seem to cater to the long-term residents so much as the white gentrifiers from downtown.

At the same time, sitting in my sister's living room I can hear a constant stream of either salsa music or religious programming. It's great that nice restaurants are opening up in Harlem, but if my sister's neighbors don't work, how can they benefit?

Now, just to clarify, I'm not suggesting that everybody up here is on welfare, or even that being on welfare is in and of itself a bad thing. But people want to work, and they want access to a better life, however they define it. Between Michael Bloomberg's war on the poor, including regulating what they eat, and longer-standing problems like racial profiling, I don't see how the boom for corporate America - and it's clear that corporate profits are doing extremely well - is benefiting the people who need the most help getting out of poverty.