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I took a wrong road last week and, seeing a particular corner I used to turn left at for 18 months 10 years ago, my heart hurt.
It was the street that once took me to a battered, crowded house whose tiny front yard was always bare dirt. Sometimes there was a bike lying in the dirt, usually broken. It was a small house filled with people who yelled at one another as normal behavior.
A house jammed with an ill grand-mother, a morbidly obese daughter and her live-in boyfriend, a nine-year-old boy and his 13-year-old sister — a girl who was, for a while, my “little sister”, paired with me through the Big Sister program. Her mother, ten years younger than I, had simply disappeared years earlier. She showed up, out of the blue, a month after her daughter and I were matched. But we rarely spoke. She was usually in the basement, playing video games and watching television.
I had never before encountered poverty, and such family dysfunction, in the U.S. so intimately; I had lived in Mexico and traveled to many developing nations, where huge income inequality remains endemic.
Here, a 15-minute drive across 287? That was a shock. No longer.
My “little sister” would now be 23 or 24. Is she alive? Healthy? Did she — as her grandmother kept asking her in front of me, poking at her belly — become a teenage mother instead? Dare I drive back to their house and knock on the door and ask to see her again?
Our relationship, initially warm and mutually enjoyable and something we both deeply valued, ended abruptly, with deception on her part and deep disappointment on mine. It was an instructive experience. I had brought to it absurdly idealistic notions of what was possible, of what she might achieve, of what I might be able to give to her to help even the score between her world and mine, to help her level a playing field so tilted it’s a wonder any one of us can get up each day and walk across it.
Growing up in Canada, where the very best university, my alma mater, University of Toronto, still only costs $5,000 a year, I could not conceive of a place where she was simply, very likely, to be left behind. Without an enormous boost — from whom? how often? from her family? — it would not be a reasonable hope, no matter how desireable, that she flee a chaotic life of junk food, all-night videos and tightly curbed notions of what is possible.
College, for my little sister — and we talked about it — was some gauzy fantasy, a glimmering, glittering theme park sort of like DisneyWorld, a place she’d heard of and wanted to go to. But had no idea how to get there. I doubt she ever did. I had tried to get her into a local private school, $25k a year, on a full scholarship. Schools like that love to add a few underprivileged kids to their mix of lawyers’ daughters.
She never showed up for her appointed day and that was our last contact. Yet I still think of her, often.
I live in Westchester County, north of Manhattan — a county of 1 million people that stretches from the Hudson River to Long Island Sound on its eastern edge. Within it lies a microcosm of the U.S. in 2010, with staggering, Third World-ish income disparities. It contains elegant, manicured towns like Bedford, Scarsdale, Chappaqua, Bronxville and Armonk, where a house easily costs $5m or more, up to $20 million. This is where wealthy and powerful people like Martha Stewart and the Clintons live, on enormous estates with wooden rails and paddocks and stables for their horses.
David Rockefeller, now 90, lives a 10-minute drive from my home — and every morning I am reminded of his wealth and power as his private helicopter clatters just above my top-floor balcony on his way to Manhattan. Our apartment building, constructed in 1960, was re-designed because — in its original tall, narrow form — it would have impeded his view; it is a wide, flat, six-story version instead.
I read in this month’s issue of Westchester magazine an interview with an SAT tutor who charges $175/hour, with most of her students coming twice a week. That’s a cool $1,400 a month, $16,800 a year, to prep your kid(s) for the Ivies. The nation’s most expensive college, Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, is now $54K a year; I have a book on my desk right now borrowed from their library through our county’s great inter-library loan program. I get to keep it for a month.
I have lived in this county since 1989, when I moved to New York and bought an apartment. I was, then, married to a doctor, and assumed we’d have a Westchester life — a house, maybe a bigger house, nice car(s.) Whatever. But the marriage was brief and he remarried; he and his wife now earn $500,000 between them, an amount so staggering I can’t even picture bringing in $30,000 a month. A man in my church wrote a personal check for $250,000, which bought a beautiful new organ.
I sometimes feel like I live in a foreign country. I don’t recognize a place where such wealth exists beside such struggle.
And, in this county, are poor and working-class towns — Mt. Vernon, Yonkers, Ossining, Port Chester — where affordable housing is a constant battle. Anyone earning even $40,000 would find it difficult to obtain safe, clean housing, let alone afford a reliable vehicle and its insurance. You don’t know how bad a bus can be until you need it; I tried to get to my church in Irvington, NY by bus once when our car was being repaired and I did not want to pay $12 cabfare to get there. There is no bus service there on Sundays.
What an invisibly effective way to keep poor(er) people out of our parish.
From an editorial in The New York Times:
When one thinks about segregation, the suburbs of New York’s Westchester County don’t immediately come to mind. Unless, of course, you’re a minority resident searching in vain for an affordable place to live.
Westchester County has now announced an agreement to spend more than $50 million to build or acquire 750 affordable housing units — 630 in towns and villages where the black population is 3 percent or less, and the Latino population is less than 7 percent.
The agreement, which needs to be ratified by the county Board of Legislators, settles a 3-year-old federal lawsuit, filed by the Anti-Discrimination Center, accusing the county of taking tens of millions of dollars in federal housing grants while falsely certifying that it was living up to its legal requirement to provide affordable housing without reinforcing racial segregation.
At the time, the county called those accusations “garbage,” and said it was powerless to force communities to integrate. But in February, Judge Denise L. Cote ruled that between 2000 and 2006 the county had, indeed, misrepresented its actions and had made little or no effort to place affordable homes in overwhelmingly white communities where residents objected.
Those objections have been fierce. And we fear the battles are far from over. In the 1980s, Yonkers nearly bankrupted itself trying to fight a federal judge’s order to integrate public housing. There are currently 120,000 acres of land in Westchester where integration is lagging, including in Bedford, Bronxville, Eastchester, Hastings-on-Hudson, Harrison, Larchmont, Mamaroneck, New Castle, Pelham Manor and Scarsdale.
Do you see this in your life? How does it make you feel?