This summer I interned at the Bowery Residents Committee in New York City. Every morning I would wake up at 4:30, throw on my jeans and sneakers, and double-check that my orange BRC polo was in my backpack. My cohort and I would rush to get to the Flatbush subway station by 4:50, sometimes running blocks to make sure we did not miss it, and then for an hour we rode the train to Chelsea, Manhattan. Being in the subway was always my first big experience of the day, and as the days ran on I began to realize how important that morning subway ride was; it set the tone for how I began to view the world while I was in New York.
The subways were always packed at 5 am, much to my surprise. I figured there would be very few people trying to make it to Manhattan by 6 am, but I quickly realized how hard people have to work in New York no matter what job they have. Men and women lined the subway cars, some in scrubs, some carrying hard hats, and some looking properly “Manhattan” in their business attire. What I witnessed on those subways every morning was a plethora of hard-working, mostly blue-collar Americans who endured long commutes and dirty subways for a living. Crossing from Flatbush, Brooklyn into Chelsea, Manhattan was like crossing galaxies, and I began to realize that the issues of wealth inequality, gentrification, minimum wages, and homeless are in fact all related and urgent in New York.
As I entered the BRC office around 6 am every morning, I took a few minutes to consume breakfast and contemplate whatever strange occurrence had happened on the subway. But my ideas about wealth inequality did not stop at the crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Every day I was assigned different subway stations to canvass. My job at BRC was transit homeless outreach, and so every day I, along with two other team members, drove the BRC van around greater New York. I saw projects in the Bronx, crowded neighborhoods in Queens, the increasing gentrification in Brooklyn, and the fast-pace life of Manhattan. Each subway station I encountered was different and unique in its own way. In addition, the facilities of each station are not equal. Without ever going above ground, I could identify the burrow I was in just by quality of the station.
As I interacted with homeless individuals in the stations, I was also aware of the extreme class divides surrounding my interactions with these people. On one level, I was aware of my own differences and privileges from the people I sought to help. I was also aware of the differences between myself and my co-workers, as most of them grew up and still live in the Bronx. But as I interacted with homeless individuals in the subway stations, I was most aware of the divides between our clients and the rest of New York. This was a phenomenon that always intrigued me. Somehow, in the same space, there exists some of the most privileged and well-off Americans riding the subway to work, while at the same time some of the least privileged just trying to find food for the morning. This story was mostly true in Manhattan where there exists the largest dollar income gap of any county in the U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/18/nyregion/gap-between-manhattans-rich-and-poor-is-greatest-in-us-census-finds.html?mcubz=0&_r=0). The divides were less polarized in the other boroughs, demonstrating how the lower rungs of the New York economy are pushed out of Manhattan and how wealth inequality continues to drive people out of living in the same places where they work.
The subway system was a critical point of my summer, and almost everything I learned and experienced centered on this system. While the system is wonderful in that it allows a group of different socioeconomic, racial, and cultural classes to come together, it does not hide facts of difference. New York – and more broadly, America – needs to decide what differences we want to celebrate and what differences need to be strongly re-evaluated. We are a nation founded on a system that inherently distinguishes among economic types; however, there has long been a belief that this system is still fair despite gross discrepancies. I wonder how we can continue to justify a system as being “fair” when generations of people have continued to live in the same economic standing, despite their 5 am subway rides, long hours, and physical exhaustion, all for a wage that barely allows them to make ends meet. I wonder how long New York can sustain a working class that is so far removed from the area in which the work is available, and I wonder how long America can continue to let the growing divide between the rich and the poor polarize our country.