By Andre Powe (United States)
On October 17, 2013, I was among ATD Fourth World’s delegation at the United Nations in New York, where we took part in ceremonies marking the International Day of Overcoming Poverty. It being sunny, I walked north afterward, joined by another member of the group, a younger African American gentleman from Boston. At the beginning of our journey I gave him a simple assignment: point out any black male dressed similarly as we were in a suit and tie, or at least attired somewhat professionally on that weekday afternoon. We left the United Nations and ambled, zigzagging from East 47 Street and First Avenue to West 55 Street and Fifth Avenue. During this half hour walk through Manhattan’s central business district, although we did see two janitors in uniform, by journey’s end we had seen only one single black male in a dress shirt and dress slacks. When I worked in midtown, I was a face lost in the crowd, and I wasn’t almost the only black male to be seen. Things have changed.
Contemplating history is about more than the distant past; life is a continuous road, and a look at history is a look behind, weighing our experiences and judging which fork in the road ahead to choose, or how to negotiate the next turn. Sometimes we linger at roadside and look back, but onward we continue. The road was traveled before and one’s own journey begins where those before us fell behind or by the wayside. Nonetheless the road is the same, so there will be familiar icons along the way, and sometimes the same roadblocks. History is as much present and future as it is the past.
Such was the case on our walk through midtown Manhattan. Today, almost two years later, that zone of disappearance of black men continues to widen to Brooklyn and New York’s outer boroughs. On the bus in Brooklyn, I am often the only one on a bus with 20 or more other black women. The black community that was once here in New York is gone, and those remaining are also quickly departing. The lack of recognition of the issue may have to do with mass media. There is a disconnect between reality and television when it comes to New York. It used to be that what actually occurred on the streets of New York was exported to Hollywood as viable content. But then shows like “Sex in the City” and “Friends” marked a change. They did not reflect the diversity and urban feel of the city that still existed when they were on the air. And now, the lack of diversity in those television shows has become the new normal in New York City. I have lived here for forty years, and there are many of us who feel we no longer live in a diverse city.
What kind of major US metropolis can NYC be without a black population present, especially in a city where Harlem was at one time the world’s largest black community? We know what happened to Native American communities: long since rounded up and deported to reservations. Is this change similar? How is the demise of the black community being explained? Why are cities no longer those quirky places of diversity once treasured?
For agents of change like members of ATD Fourth World, another challenge is raised: how does one with limited resources reach communities in need that are more and more widely dispersed? In New York, ATD previously worked on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, then when that area changed, moving to Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn. Presently it is reaching out to Queens, even as active members of ATD leave for other states. ATD’s flexibility helps it to quickly recognize when there are more people trying to help poor people than there are people living in poverty.
Gentrification powered by globalization has essentially unleashed an insatiable appetite for New York real estate, and the speed of displacement and disappearance has increased. Black people in New York becoming homeless are coming in great part from majority black areas which are quickly being gentrified and turning white — to the extent that anyone lives in these newly-purchased homes. Many such properties are used not as homes but as financial investments. The new owners may be foreign nationals, holding only tourist visas to enter the US, but their investment is viable when they rent it to savvy travelers through sites like Airbnb. The cost of their new investment is the homelessness of the displaced, and also a culturally diminished New York.
New York’s black community has long been a major source of cultural production, elevating the city to the crown jewel of the world’s three major urban centers in the 20th century: New York, London, and Paris. This community’s disappearance diminishes the standing of New York as the world’s cultural capital, and the traditional hub of the African diaspora. In the 21st century, what makes a city rich, and what makes it poor? Should absentee landlords and empty apartments be the norm? These changes are going on all over the world, but in New York the process is on steroids. In the Brooklyn neighborhood I just vacated, the subsidized studio apartments that are supposedly affordable rent for $1,750 monthly. With minimum wage jobs paying $8.75 an hour, it’s a delusion to believe working people, much less poor people, can even come near paying that rent. The community that I knew is gone. What kind of city is being left behind?
I pay homage to the black community in New York. From the Harlem Renaissance at the onset of the 20th century, to rap and hip hop at the close, this community once defined New York as the world’s cultural capital. History is being re-staged before our very eyes as a community is destroyed. New people arriving will not replace what was lost. Only by looking back at history, with a view from the present, can we envision a future.