Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Weekend in New York City: Themes of Fair Housing and Worker Justice

I know I have been delinquent in posting the newest entry for Eastertide, but I hope it was worth the wait! This past Thursday through Sunday, I visited NYC and I learned quite a lot in a short period of time. No matter where I went in Manhattan or Brooklyn, it seemed justice issues followed me everywhere. Here are my thoughts and observations from the journey.

Thursday evening, Friday, and part of Saturday were spent visiting my good friend, Brother Anthony, who is preparing to become a Capuchin Franciscan friar. You can find his blog post about our weekend here. Anthony and his brothers are finishing up their postulant year at the friary in Brooklyn. As soon as arrived, I was greeted warmly and enthusiastically. The brothers served me a delicious dinner of fish fry, and we had lots of laughs throughout our lively discussion on Thursday evening. The brothers are living in one of the poorest and most violent precincts in NYC intentionally, so that they can identify with the poor. Anthony and his brothers are attempting to divest themselves from their worldly positions and live a life of minority- that is, poverty. Anthony kindly gave me a book he had been given that was interested in reading. He said he doesn't need more stuff.

On Friday, Anthony took me with him to his ministry site, Neighbors Together, which is a soup kitchen that was established 30 years ago to serve some of Brooklyn's poorest neighborhoods and works toward ending hunger there. I helped some in the kitchen and then joined Anthony for a training. He taught some of the members about the community organizing principle that sharing our stories motivates others to action and gave them some general public speaking skills. Then he invited them to share their stories. It was heart wrenching to hear how crack cocaine affected the surrounding neighborhoods, and how people were unable to find jobs that pay a living wage. Some of the members mentioned something called 3/4 housing. I didn't know what that was, so I asked Anthony later. He told me that 3/4 houses were supposed to be sort of like halfway houses, which are overcrowded and to which social workers no longer refer homeless clients, but instead they are modern-day tenements. They are rooms designed to bunk 10-12 people are are filled to 30, 40 or more. These housing units purport to provide substance abuse counseling and programs to get clean, but they are completely unregulated and often their programs are run by people who have had little to no training on drug abuse. People sign over everything they have- their meager Medicaid checks- to the landlords in exchange for a small corner in one of these rooms. Anthony says that often the toilets don't run, the heat isn't on, and the ceilings cave in. This is the last stop before living on the street, and people are giving up everything they have to keep themselves off the street. Unfortunately, for those who live in 3/4 housing, there is no way out of this situation unless they can find a job that will provide them with enough money to rent a real apartment. To say that I was shocked and appalled at the existence of 3/4 housing and the way in which it is run would be an understatement. Neighbors Together is trying to empower and mobilize its members to speak directly to their city councilors and demand regulation for 3/4 housing so that it becomes safe and less crowded.

After an illuminating afternoon at Neighbors Together, Anthony and I headed to the Lower East Side to people watch, eat dinner, and browse shops, all of which we did. Poor Anthony had to keep up with my impulsive and distractable nature as I ducked into shop after shop. I came home with chocolate bonbons, three gourmet teas, and a delicious red velvet cupcake in my belly.

But we weren't done with the Lower East Side on Friday night! We went back on Saturday to take a tour at the Tenement Museum. The tour we took was called "Sweatshop Workers." We visited the apartments of two immigrant families who endured sweatshop conditions when they arrived in America in the late 1800's. The NFT guide to the Lower East Side writes of the museum slightly hyperbolically, "You're supposed to feel content about your relatively spacious living quarters after viewing a day in the quotidian life of your ancestors, but chances are you'll grow envious of their decent digs." So true! Those apartments were small and cramped, but not that much smaller than my own apartment. Anyway, in the first apartment, it was really eye-opening to learn what it was like to run a garment factory in miniature in your own living room (that is something I am not doing, which makes my apartment much more bearable). In the second apartment, we learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, and how a massive strike in its aftermath affected the families whose daughters participated in the strike for workers' rights. Clara Lemlich, a leader of the strike, was badly beaten by gangsters who had been hired to stop the rally. But she came to the rally anyway and gave a rousing 20-minute speech! Learning all of this reminded me that workers' rights, which are currently under fire in the US, were hard-won by our foremothers and forefathers... they paid dear prices for the right to organize, with their pocketbooks and with their own bodies.

After the museum visit, I went to visit my sorority sister, Emmy, in Midtown. We caught up and grabbed a lovely dinner at a local Italian restaurant. On Sunday, we went to see a Broadway show, which happens to be based on one of my favorite movies, Newsies. The show centers on characters based on real kids who lead the 1899 news boy strike, which really happened in response to the gouging of the boys by newspaper publishers. A bunch of kids took on moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst- and won! The most rousing and catchy songs in the musical illustrate the fight for fair employment practices:

"And the World Will Know" - sung just after Jack and Davey form the news boy union
And the World will know
And the Journal too
Mister Hearst and Pulitzer
Have we got news for you
Now the world will hear
What we got to say
We been hawkin' headlines
But we're makin' 'em today
And our ranks will grow
And we'll kick their rear
And the world will know
That we been here
"Seize the Day" - sung as the boys prepare to face the scabbers and overturn the paper carts
Open the gates and seize the day
Don't be afraid and don't delay
Nothing can break us
No one can make us give our rights away
Arise and seize the day

Now is a time to seize the day
Send out the call and join the fray
Send out the call and join the fray
Wrongs will be righted
If were united
Let us seize the day

Friends of the friendless seize the day
Raise up the torch and light the way
Proud and Defiant
Well slay the giant
Let us seize the day

Neighbor to neighbor
Father to son
One for all and all for one

Of course, the show is full of incredible dance numbers, the obligatory patter song and tap number, and lots of good singing. But as I watched the story playing on the stage, and I listened to the character of Katherine Plummer talk about her responsibility to her generation, I thought about how Anthony always says that workers' rights is the fight of our generation. It was fought in the late 1800's and early 1900's, but because we have allowed corporations free reign in our society and they have taken advantage of their workers, it must be fought again. In the beginning of Newsies, the main character, Jack sings to his friend Crutchy in "Santa Fe,"

Why should you spend your whole life livin'
Trapped where they ain't no future even at 17
Breaking your back for someone else's sake
If the life don't seem to suit ya how bout a change of scene
Far from the lousy headlines and the deadlines in between

Jack is dreaming of a better life. I hear so many people my age and younger dreaming of a better life themselves. Our generation is sick of being wage slaves. The working poor of every generation are sick of being wage slaves. In Newsies, we see the transformation of the character of Jack from a dreamer who sits back and wishes to a free agent who puts his words and thoughts into action. When are we going to do that today? When are we going to demand decent housing and health care for all? When are we going to demand reform in government policy to keep jobs here and create new ones? When are we going to demand that our rights as human beings be respected in the workplace? I would suggest that the answer lies in verse two of "And the World Will Know:"

And the world will know
That this ain't no game
That we got a ton of rotten fruit and perfect aim
So they gave their word
But it ain't worth beans
Now they're gonna see
What "stop the presses" really means
And the day has come
And the time is now
And the fear is gone

And the world will know

As Christians, we're called to stand with those whose rights have been violated and who need fair housing and health care. It's time to seize the day.

1 comment:

  1. Wow what a profound weekend! Thank you for sharing it.