Monday, May 15, 2023
Generally clear. High 77 degrees.
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By Carol Tannenhauser
Poverty and homelessness have been in the news and on my mind these days. Between the safe haven opening for homeless people on West 83rd Street and the migrant crisis that has brought tens of thousands of asylum seekers to our city, it seems we are overwhelmed by the needs of others.
I remember a conversation I had with my grandfather long ago.
Grandpa was an immigrant from Russia. He grew up on the Lower East Side…sold loose cigarettes to help support his family…caught the 1918 Spanish Flu. He was very intelligent, but there was only enough money to send his older brother to college, so Grandpa went into construction…worked his way up to foreman…became a contractor…built the Woolworth Building…fell off of it, breaking his leg and becoming a numismatist. Trading coins turned into a successful business. His daughters made it out of the city and, eventually, he did too. They were all ensconced in the comfortable suburbs of my youth…as was I.
But not for long. Shortly after returning home from college, I announced I was moving to the city.
“Why would you want to move to the city?” my grandfather demanded.
“Because the suburbs are so…bland…there’s no poverty!” I blurted out.
“Why do you want poverty?” he asked, quizzically.
For half a century I have been stumped, coming back to his question time after time. Recently (too late to share with him, unfortunately), an answer came to me. Does it reek of privilege or white maternalism? I don’t mean it to; it’s an impulse I’ve always had when faced with unfairness and suffering.
“So I can help alleviate it.”
What do you think, Grandpa?
Thank you for this. We can all benefit by being a little more kind.
Actually there is increasing poverty in the suburbs
There is a lot to be said for having and experiencing a complete spectrum of emotions.
Personally, I exclude that spectrum which includes unwarranted ‘terror’, ‘fear’, and many of those feelings people report here when they encounter strangers, cyclists, and things foreign.
So, when I feel lonely, I experience it as it is. May adaptation is to recognize that the feeling is not permanent and, for me, dissipates in a matter of days. The bright side is that I am always curious to experience what it will be that will move me into a new feeling. Same for loneliness. Same for poverty. Same for love.
I have experienced the full spectrum in my long life and because of that feel my life has been well lived.
One feeling I have not experienced is ‘toxic positivity’ (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/toxic-positivity), thank goodness, and when I encounter it, I cringe and walk away.
My ex-inlaws carried their fear and anger from the stetls and pogroms of Poland and Russia to their deaths, expressing it in what I thought, for a while, was humorous, maybe even classic Jewish humour. But the talk of ‘Swartzes’ ‘gays’ and so forth became way out of line in my life. After 30 years, I walked away.
If I had to be poor, I would want to be poor in New York City. It is a city of considerable generosity. Another thing is that it is a city of eccentrics. The rich are sometimes indistinguisable from the poor in appearance.
You might enjoy the book The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn which talks about the “grassroots movement led by young and idealistic white college graduates searching for “authenticity” and life outside the burgeoning suburbs”. It very much applies to the UWS of that time period as well.
Well-said, Carol. A simple message we should all remember.
I remember when my grandfather, a lifelong New Yorker, became a widower in 1980. He was born in Central Harlem in 1900 to immigrant parents who had a jewelry/watch business. The family eventually moved to Washington Heights, and my father’s generation mainly to suburbs.
One of my uncles lived in Riverdale and wanted his father to move in with him. I can still hear my grandfather saying, “so I went up there. I looked left, I looked right, all I saw were trees”. For the remainder of his life he stayed in his little apartment downtown where he could look at the river and play cards with his friends.
I made the return to NYC and eventually the Upper West Side. In the last decade of their lives, my parents moved from a suburban home to a lovely Nj condominium where my father (born 1926) could container-garden on the balcony. He first referred to this home pejoratively as an “apartment” but grew to appreciate a building a little different than where he’d grown up with five brothers. In his last years I drove him around his old neighborhood and he pointed out what windows of the Bolton (Amsterdam and 176th) were the apartment he was born in.
I’m now enjoying friendships with my father’s cousins, who have retired to Carnegie Hill. I live just a few blocks from the apartment they came to as children from Vienna, on 100th between West End and Riverside.
As one who made a “return” in many different ways, my family history is filled with addresses from northwest Manhattan that I continue to locate and visit. I know many of us share these family experiences and stories.
When I moved to the UWS in 1972, it was relatively inexpensive and very diverse. That’s changed and I’m sad about that.
I think we need to take care of the homeless, emotionally disturbed and the refugees in our neighborhood. We need to welcome them as neighbors provide services and send their kids to our local schools.
We also need affordable housing so that our children could also join the neighborhood.
I agree, need to make NYC more affordable so these multi-generation neighborhoods are possible. Two ways to do this: (1) Covid-style disaster that crushes demand to live here or (2) allow for building of more units all over NYC (including LI and surrounding burbs). Hochul has proposed transit oriented development and Adams has called for looser zoning, the combination of those would be a good step towards option 2, hope they can get it passed.
Loved reading this Carol. Interesting story.