Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Tale of Two New Yorks

It is a truly Dickensian tale.

This fall, I spent the semester negotiating both cities. Most mornings, I'd wake up on the well-to-do Upper West Side, grab a coffee on the corner, walk past the Gap and Banana Republic to the train.

A half hour later I'd emerge in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, where 45 percent of residents live below the poverty line (which is $13,167 per year for a family of 2), and 97 percent or residents are black or hispanic, according to the New York City Department of City Planning, roll up my sleeves, and start reporting for my classes.

I'm a student at the Columbia School of Journalism, where students are assigned a neighborhood in New York City that they report on all semester.

I wrote stories on hunger, crime, welfare, community health, the schools, and many other subjects, and what I found shocked me, not because I hadn't read about communities like Mott Haven, but because seeing and reading are two different things.

A few telling facts that I ferreted out:

  • The principal of IS-162, Maryann Manzolillo, budgets money for graph paper, because there's no where to buy it in the community. She also opens the school library to parents, because there are few, if any bookstores in the community (I never saw one).

  • Asthma rates are among the highest in the city and have been connected to the intense pollution and poverty of the area. As a result, the neighborhood's rate of asthma hospitalization -- meaning a person's asthma is so out of control that they might die -- is more than three times the rate for all of New York City, with 123.6 hospitalizations per 10,000 people. In contrast, New York City as a whole has only 35 hospitalizations per 10,000 people.

  • I met a man, Anthony Ormas, who lived in a dilapidated apartment. In his bathroom, there is no light, and there hasn’t been for several years. “We live by candlelight,” Ormas said. Water drips continuously from a pipe in the wall where a bathtub faucet should be. The floor is rotted in places where steam from the pipes that feed the rusty old radiators has leaked out and risen up from beneath the floorboards. Many of the windows do not close at all, close poorly, or fit to the window frame a kilter, leaving gaps for cold air to come inside. Drug addicts and prostitutes gather on the stairwell inside his apartment, and on the roof.

  • Sometimes, food stamps are not enough. The junior warden of Saint Ann's explained that $135.50 per week in food stamps goes fast for a family of four with growing children, and that parents often make choices between nutrition and quantity – unhealthy food like soda and white bread is cheaper than fresh produce. Ironically, one in four Mott Haven residents are obese, compared to one in five in New York City as a whole, and 17 percent have diabetes, compared to 9 percent of New York City residents, according to 2006 New York City Department of Health statistics, and 36 percent receive food stamps.

  • On Labor Day, 2005, Naiesha Pearson, 10, was playing outside at a Labor Day picnic for children, when she got caught by a gunshot and bled to death in her mother's arms. During the murderer's trial, her mother said, "I ran to her and I called out, all she did was say mommy and stumbled to me. She stumbled to me and said mommy and fell into my arms." As bled to death, someone stole her new bike.

There is some light in the neighborhood -- there are numerous community groups, including churches, that are working toward positive change.

In reporting, the scope of the area's problems surprised me -- the area's issues are complex and interlocking, so that poverty, for example, often means that residents can't afford healthy food, which ups rates of obesity and type II diabetes, which can't be treated well because residents can't afford blood testing strips...

This is America at its most hideous.

We can afford to build new stadiums for the Yankees, but not to give families of four more than $135/week in food stamps, which is, of course, a gross-oversimplification of the situation.

So I'll say it -- shame on America for ignoring communities like this. It's inhumane, it's real, and it needs to change.

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