In Search of the Underclass: Gove Me Your Poorest
September 1, 1987
On a recent Saturday afternoon I took a walk northeast from City Hall in search of fish in a barrel: a poor black family in a housing predicament. In particular one crowded into an apartment with another family. The Times pegged the nomadic or the doubling-up the “couch people,” rightly citing their travails as an invisible and fluid homelessness. The stories of these women living on the Lower East Side suggests that these sojourns, housing compromises, are part of the everyday. Doubling-up has several faces, each as familiar as a next-door neighbor’s, or the one in the mirror.
There is that pioneer trap where you have a landmark in mind, head out for it, don’t find it, and are flung into being lost. After many blocks I look it. There’s a youngish black woman coming toward me on Henry Street with a child on a trike. Approaching her is like asking someone to dance — no matter how innocent the exchange there’s a subtext. I want her to be in dire straits yet be able to speak about it at length.
“Excuse me, do you know where the community centers are around here?”
“Not any that are open. What are you looking for?”
It all comes out. The entreaty, the embarrassed distancing words that sound like lying: Do you know any people that are doubling up — sharing apartments too small, in danger of being found out? My it’s-hard-to-get-people-in-that-kind-of-situation-to-talk spiel. She looks up as she helps her son pull his trike up the curb. “Everyone’s doubled up … Me and him, we live with my mother.” And thus our time in the park begins.
Slowly — her son has decided to unlearn the peddling motion — we walk over to a small playground. On the way we chat about his mint trike, his new Nikes. “He wears out a pair every few weeks.”
Todd is two and a half and about that tall; his head’s pretty much shaven, with a filament part. He’s big-eyed and comprehending. We sit down on a bench. He comes within inches of her. “Swings,” he says, squinting a little in the sun.
“I’m going to talk to this lady. We’ll play on the swings when I’m finished.” He goes off, but he does not get on the swings.
“There’s nearly nothing else you could do unless you move out of New York. I went to school. After I came back I moved in with my mom … for financial reasons. It’s hard to find an apartment, and even if you do, they tell you you make too much for Section 8 housing or it’s a co-op. The place I’m at now has a waiting list of 10 years.”
Even though she’s not the perfect subject of abjection, she tells me a little of how her living situation works. Her mother pays the rent, and Michelle buys groceries, pays the phone. ”He [meaning Todd] costs a lot,” she says. “My mother, we get along well, but not everyone gets along with their mother.
“I went to Skidmore. I was in HEOP. So I didn’t have to put out any money. I got a degree in government.” The more efficiently she answers the clearer it is she’s not the person I’m looking for. All that self-reflective speech betrays what Michelle calls “her peace of mind,” her confidence — admittedly sometimes wavering — that at 26 she is waiting out a difficult period.
“I’d say 90 per cent of the people you see out here are living with their parents. If they’re 18 and have a child, the chances of getting out are nil.” She comes dangerously close to describing what sounds like her situation — young, black, with a child.
“Education is the bottom line where black people getting ahead is concerned.” She’s a legal assistant, working for the city, reading leases, telling landlords to correct code violations in day-care centers. Before that she worked at Xerox.
Occasionally she lapses into silence. She looks thoughtfully toward Todd, who is playing some 20 yards away, and then away toward Water Street. Pensively: “The neighborhood’s changing over. Buildings on Grand are becoming Section 8 housing, the people who live there now but don’t qualify, their rents are raised sky high.” She points down a walkway to a gutted building where plywood boards block out the windows. “That’s going to be a co-op, I think some Chinese people bought it. Now they double up, to save and buy.”
Michelle’s mother has lived in her building on Water Street for 22 years. She owns her two-bedroom apartment. She and her husband moved there from Harlem. “My father’s a retired fireman. He studied with Countee … Countee Cullen. He studied French, he named me because he loved French. My grandmother owned a candy store in Harlem, but I think they sold it.”
Todd returns to the bench, fixes his eyes on his mother’s, puts a small hand on her knee, and says, “Swings?” Michelle answers, “Not yet.” Much of Michelle’s concern centers on Todd. “Day care is so expensive. I pay over $300 a month in day care for a private nursery. The reason I put him into that is because I’ve heard things about public nurseries and feel more comfortable in that situation, but it costs … Well now he says his ABCs instead of popping his head to the disco beat.” We laugh. “There’s plenty of time for that later.”
Todd runs off toward a white man in his thirties whose daughter may be a year older than Todd. This is 10 minutes after she talked about instilling suspicion of strangers in children only to be stuck convincing them that it is okay to get on a school bus. She looks to the playground swing set, eyes the man, then says, “Well, he looks like he can push a swing.” A smile supplants the concern, and by way of a seeming non sequitur she goes on, “I was thinking the other day I better start reading the Bible.”
Her free association is not without its undercurrent of concern. “A lot of people around here going off the deep end with all these epidemics going around, like the crack epidemic. Jesse Jackson was on the TV the other day, and said he’d been going to high schools telling kids that not doing drugs and alcohol should be the norm. He made a good point, talking about Martin Luther King. When Rosa Parks was about to sit in the front of the bus, she called King up, if he’d been spaced-out he wouldn’t have been able to answer that call. His point was if you’re spaced out you can’t help yourself or anybody.” She brings it on home: “That’s the hard thing about growing up around here, because you see people you grew up with going this way and that. On drugs going this way,” she gestures down and for the first time looks a little low.
And where is she going? “I think I’ll move out of the city. Well, a lot of people I know that are my age are relocating to the South. If I were 26 years old, 15 years ago I wouldn’t have the same problems.” As I walk by Todd he looks at me, then toward his mother, expectantly.
The next day I retrace my path past the Pueblo Nuevo development, back behind the Hamilton Fish swimming pool. I head into the courtyard of Masaryk Towers, a light tan co-op development between Columbia and Rivington.
The development is jimmied between two darker colored city housing projects, six 20-story buildings to the north of the Williamsburg Bridge. You can see the slats of the bridge frame momentarily the motion of cars traveling into Manhattan. I sit next to two large, smooth-skinned women on a brightly painted bench. My wait for an in is punctuated by the clack of plastic baseball bats against Wiffle balls, of bike gears shifting.
In the courtyard there is a great deal of Sunday afternoon activity. A Hispanic man has joined the two women. A security guard passes again. A little guy pops a fly then pulls decidedly at his shorts. A Monopoly $20 lies face up in the scrubs, blown from somewhere. At 5:30 the flag, the American flag, is lowered and folded by the security guards. I am not in the right place. The two women and man leave. I get up. On the corner of a bench is a black woman in her fifties, sitting alone.
“This place is a mess. When I moved here in 1968 it was very nice and brand new, supposed to be middle-income housing, and it was very middle-income because they screened you and everything. Everything’s going to hell.” The ground rules are clear: she will not tell me her name. No not at all. “Etta” is wearing a green pantsuit with a print top, the print the reverse of her pants’. She is wearing sensible sneakers. Do people double up here? I ask her for the second time. The first time she stared the question down; now she hesitates. “If they are, they’re keeping it to themselves. If you got someone staying in there with you, you better keep your mouth shut.” She paused. “Well, there was a lady on my floor and they were about to throw her out. So we signed a petition and wrote letters to keep her here. She’s here so far. But she couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat not knowing if she’d be thrown out. That’s why you can’t lift a finger to help folks, as soon as they get mad they go tell on you.” She goes on to talk about other things she considers newsworthy: the death of friends, the death of both her babies, muggings, and a suicide in the complex. Occasionally she interrupts herself to point out each of her neighbors as they come in or head out. Though her reminiscences are sometimes painful she accents many of them with a laugh, head thrown back. “If I died in my apartment they would know. I keep an eye on my neighbors. They would notice.”
Etta is about the same age as Michelle’s mother and has lived in the co-op nearly as long, moving here from “the projects,” with her husband, who’s since passed away. “It was multiracial, when we moved here. Sulzberger Rolfe managed it. They are the best landlords in the New York state. When this place started to go to pits was when they threw Sulzberger Rolfe out.”
I fish for her opinions. “Well it seems that many people double up because rents are so high, or because they are trying to avoid becoming homeless.”
“Yeah, but you can’t bring these homeless people into the house because they’ll have you out on the street. I read in the newspaper where this lady was trying to be kind and brought a homeless woman into the house and when she was sleeping stabbed her, she was only trying to be kind, that’s homeless for you. But the way they keep raising rents, that’s what throws a whole lot of people out. These rents aren’t stabilized. No, they’re fixing to go up. No, there are a whole lot of problems. When you want to come home in the evening and relax, not have no headaches — this place is a headache.” She quiets. “But you know what? When we did this we thought we were getting away from the stuff we had to face in the projects, but hell it looks like we jumped from the frying pan into the fire.” It’s getting dark and I turn off the tape recorder to leave. “Yeah that woman took in roomers because her husband’s old and smokes a lot, so she can’t leave him alone. Well, I wrote letters.”
From this bench the complex looks a little more worn. She’s looking out toward the security booth. “Oh yeah, this is a melting pot, always been, but it looks like the better class of people are leaving.
“Here comes my longtime neighbor. Hi.” She’s says confidingly, “I have to keep an eye on them because sometime they sneak away.”
Around the block from Etta’s co-op in Hamilton Fish Park Alice and her sister, Felicia, are just hanging with a man and his girlfriend. The girlfriend’s two sons are off to the side of the bench climbing up along the fence then dropping back down. It isn’t clear till much later that the two young boys are part of the group. In front of Felicia a dark blue stroller reclines, the baby quiet and sleeping.
“Do you live around here? I’m looking for people who are doubling up in apartments.”
“Ooh,” Alice looks up. “I could sure tell you about that.”
“Would you? I don’t have to use your names.”
During this time the man has been standing with his foot on the bench, cigarette in hand. “Doubling up,” he says, kind of mulling it over. “Yeah, I know about that.”
Alice then says a little more evasively, “Maybe you could go ask other people in the park. I definitely want to talk to you, but could you go away for 10 minutes, just walk around? If nobody else talks to you then come back.” We compromise and I go sit on a bench near the Pitt Street entrance to the park and wait.
A few minutes later Felicia, who’s wearing sponge curlers and a bright yellow T-shirt, comes over to me. “My sister wants to know if you have a number where she can reach you. She’s a little upset right now. She gave this woman some money for Pampers and milk — they don’t give them to you in hotels like they do in shelters — and the woman hasn’t come back. That was at one o’clock.” With my luck they think I’m a narc.
Felicia sits down and tells me that right now she’s at the Third Street shelter, but that she’s moving. A bird shits on my foot. “Shit.” “What happened?” She half laughs. “It’s supposed to be good luck.” Maybe it’s a sign that they will talk. It becomes evident that this is something of a family reunion, a touching base. “I only see my sister so often because we’re moved around. Sometimes I don’t see her for months and I don’t know where she is. It would be different if we had the same case, but we don’t. We’re split up. Tomorrow I’m moving to a hotel in Brooklyn.” She mentions her nine-month-old baby son — who’s recently had pneumonia — and she talks about how she hates air-conditioning. She gets the phone number and takes a slow walk back to the bench down on the other end of the area, stopping for a drink at the fountain.
Alice never comes over to the bench, though she calls the next day for information on housing. ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 20, 2020