Hamilton The Musical once told me that New York was “the greatest city in the world.” But after spending two weeks living in Brooklyn and visiting four of the five boroughs, I realized the New York we picture in our minds stands as a facade in front the reality of New York City.
Let me start from the beginning…
I arrived at JFK in NYC on Sunday, August 27th and this was my first view of New York.
I immediately felt overwhelmed by the size of New York: the buildings, traffic, people, and highways. The city swallowed me whole. Luckily, I didn’t face NYC alone.
After arriving at a community center in Brooklyn, I met the other 19 students in my program, the program director, NY coordinating staff, my fellow, Loveleen, and the traveling faculty, Juan and Carmen. My program, International Honors Program (IHP): Cities in the 21st Century investigates cities and how to make them more just. We study Culture and Society, Urban Planning and Sustainable Environments, Politics and Development, and an independent study project of our choosing.
The first couple days consisted of orientation. We visited the Queens Museum (where I had the best Mexican food), walked by the U.S. Open stadium, saw an accurately scaled diorama, called the panorama, of NYC, and took a walking tour of Lower Manhattan (See Pictures Below).
Here is the Panorama, pay close attention to the photo with the Twin Towers. This section of the diorama will never be updated.
While taking the walking tour of Lower Manhattan we learned about history, important sites, zoning, and saw famous places like Wall Street, the Stock Exchange (notice the Texas flag? To show solidarity with the victims of the hurricane), China Town, the new World Trade Center, Trinity Church (HAMILTON NERD!), and amazing architecture of sky scrapers.
As we learned about the history of Manhattan, and the greater New York City, I saw places, like the World Trade Center, that have been built over the history of NYC. New York also has hidden history that most people do not know. Wall Street is called Wall Street because it used to be a wall that separated the White Colonists from the agrarian area primarily populated by Black Slaves. Additionally, not all people had their history and experience appropriately remembered in NYC. Under colonial rule of the Dutch, Trinity Church cemetery served as the cemetery for all people in the area, until the British took control from the Dutch. Then, the bodies of African Slaves were exhumed and moved away from the center of the city, basically disposed of in mass graves with no marker. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that the bones of those individuals were found during a U.S. Government building project. Now they have a humble monument on a very small portion of the land that used to be used for their burial.
The theme of New York being more than meets the eye, especially by means of injustice, continued as my group examined housing and labor in NYC (to be discussed in my next post). Juan Arbona, one of our traveling faculty, stated:
“The city is a material expression of its historic, economic and political processes”
Juan’s quote has stuck with me as I’ve investigated NYC, especially in Hunts Point, Bronx.
A group of five students visited Hunts Point, Bronx to meet with Omar, the founder of Green Workers’ Cooperative, an organization that works to promote entrepreneurship in the neighborhood through the co-op structure. Omar provided insight about Hunts Point and it became obvious that this neighborhood’s residents had been ignored by the NYC municipalities and private developers since the 1960’s. In the 1970’s, people would say “the bronx is burning” because it was literally on fire. Areas were red-lined, which meant people couldn’t buy homes and renters couldn’t afford rent, so landlords burned their buildings to collect the insurance money (which surpassed what they collected in rent each month). The city built massive highways through the middle of Hunts Point for commerce, against the wishes of the residents. Today, Hunts Point has the highest rate of asthma in the country, because 10,000 semi-trucks drive through the area a day to sustain the largest meat market in the U.S. (which was moved out of Manhattan to hunts Point because it was unsanitary and required so much traffic).
The area also houses a waste-water treatment plant and, until 3 years ago, a transfer waste sludge factory, which closed after protests of neighborhood residents. Omar told our group that the city government has to place these facilities somewhere, so they look for areas in which they will face the least political resistance, i.e. a primarily lower-class, immigrant neighborhood composed of People of Color. As a result of their ignored voices, the people of Hunts Point coined “the Bronx is not for sale” and actively resist the government and developers that ignore their voices. Omar said “we need to create our own alternatives” because no one else will do it for them, hence his co-op model. I was moved by the active participation of Omar, his team, and the numerous co-ops they help to create a better existence for themselves and their neighborhood against the oppression of the louder forces working in Hunts Point and the greater Bronx area.
In the above photo: Genna (my roommate), Sebastian, Omar, Me, Autumn, Sukhan.
Omar was only the first of many people to tear away my idealized version of New York as a place only of Broadway, Wall Street, sky scrapers, and picturesque Manhattan.
Note: See the Gallery for more photos of my time in NYC and stay tuned for the next installment of NYC!