The Brooklyn Difference

September 4, 2006 – I finally graduated. After 4 years at Columbia University, and spending all 18 years prior to that under the supervision of my parents, I have finally graduated on to life. I have an apartment, I have a job and I have my own personal computer for the first time in my life. My job is as a writer and my computer is a customized Dell laptop, so in those respects, I have a huge amount of control over how those two things in my life affect me. My apartment, however, is not something I have too much agency over. Due to my lack of funds, low credit score and paucity of a parental contribution, I had to look for an apartment that was reasonably price before considering any other logistics.

I fell upon a quaint apartment in Brooklyn, with 4 bedrooms, new floors and a 6 acre park across the street. It was a steal if you ask me, and my roommates would probably say the same. However, my neighborhood, Crown Heights, is quite different from where I had been living for 4 years in college. Columbia University is located in uptown Manhattan, in a neighborhood called
Morningside Heights, one of the wealthier parts of New York, and well, Crown Heights just isn’t all that affluent. And Crown Heights is not exactly the embodiment of self-agency.

Crown Heights is comprised mainly of Blacks. There are a few Caucasians, a sprinkle of Latinos and there is Jewish Synagogue across the street. But all and all, and solely based on my own estimation, races outside of the Black race only comprise about 10-15% of the population in Crown Heights. I came up with that number literally by sitting on my stoop and counting the first 100 people that walked past my door, and then I did the same thing in front of the nearest neighborhood grocery store. But as I counted the people, I took notice of a distinct difference between the people that walk the streets in Crown Heights, and the people that walk the streets in Morningside – and it wasn’t the color of their skin.

People in Morningside tend to have a daily purpose that is intended to lead them to their life’s dream or a position of affluence later in life. While people in Crown Heights tend to have a daily purpose that is intended to lead them into later in the week, if that far. But how did I interpret this for myself? (I am aware that Morningside is campus area, but Lower Manhattan
demonstrates this same difference, so I’ll just use it for these purposes.) First of all, there is a distinct difference between when and where people are walking throughout the day in Crown Heights vs. Lower Manhattan. In Manhattan, people are going to work, class, and meetings in the mornings and afternoons. Conversely, people walking around in Crown Heights are going to places like the store or are just standing outside conversing. While of course you will find plenty of people in Lower Manhattan outside and talking, you won’t find them doing it for as long (on average) – and certainly not all day. However, I am not in anyway saying that people in Crown Heights are not going to work, because they are, probably even more so than people in Manhattan because persons in Crown Heights have more of a need to work. Yet, when I see Crown Height’s adults without jobs, I see many more people who are not in pursuit of something more, something that will keep them from doing the same old things they do everyday.

Why is it that people in Crown Heights don’t go about their day in the same manner as Lower Manhattanites? I’m sure there is an abundance of answers, but for me, there’s only one: money. Black people in Crown Heights do not have the same kind of money as those living in Lower Manhattan. But how does that cause us not to have the same type of daily actions? Well, if someone told you could potentially make hundreds, even thousands, of dollars by attending this convention or a series of meetings, you certainly would attend. But if someone else told you could make a couple of bucks contributing to this community grocery store or neighborhood co-op, you’re not going to be as likely to go. That’s an exaggeration, but you see my point. Thus you see that Manhattanites are driven by a pursuit of money that is a much easier to attain. While the average Manhattanite talks to people about money making ideas on the daily basis and is in contact with people who are making money in a variety of ways, the average Crown Height’s constituent does not have this same access to money making ventures.

The problem lies in isolation. Crown Heights is separated from Lower Manhattan by more than just a body of water or a one hour train ride. They are separated by an entire way of life and culture. If you look around Crown Heights as someone who lives here, you see your neighbor working down the street, your other neighbor sitting on the stoop all day, and another neighbor who comes back and forth from his ends-meat making job five times a week. Children grow up seeing what these people do everyday, and then they see that these people seem to be coping with their lives, having at least some occasional fun, and most importantly, they see that these are the people that are in control of their lives. And as a child, you look up to authority and public status and you hope to achieve that same status you looked up to later in your life. But when you see that that status can be achieved just by getting a job and remaining in your same neighborhood, you realize that you don’t have to aim that high. And you can’t blame a person for not aiming much higher than what they see everyday. The average Lower Manhattanite does not aim to be Donald Trump, however, they do aim to live in TrumpTowers or at least have a job with Trump Real Estate. And why? Because those are same jobs and thing their neighbors and parents display everyday, and if they don’t attain such things, they lose the status that accompanied them when they lived at home. And even in Crown Heights that is a “no-no.”

Another reason for the difference between Lower Manhattanites and Crown Heighters is that the adolescents in Crown Heights do not seem to have the same goals and aspirations that adolescents from Lower Manhattan do. I was outside running in the park and I decided to play basketball with some high schoolers afterwards. After schooling them for a while, we were tired as hell and got some drinks from the corner store. I was asking them what their plans were for after high school and I received some surprising answers. Most of them had no definite plans, which is definitely acceptable, but when I asked what they would like to do, the answers were attention-grabbing. One kid brought up wanting to become a rap-star, far-fetched, but not abnormal, not negative and definitely not worthy of knocking down. But then I got answers such as getting a job down the street, moving in with their older siblings and making a living with a federal job. I grew up in an area just like Crown Heights, and these answers were still mind-boggling to me. I thought after moving out of the ghetto almost a decade ago that at least the aspirations of ghetto youth would have risen. And while I know this is no nation wide survey, it’s what I see and hear on the streets every day that I leave my apartment. That’s the reality of it all.

But why haven’t the aspirations in ghetto’s gone up significantly in a decade’s time? Afterall, in the same amount of time that has elapsed since I moved out of the ghetto as a kid, personal computers have gone into use by 3 times as many people and companies such as Google and Starbucks’s have taken over the world. So why can’t the people of Crown Heights become more aspired in the same amount of time?: Education! And not just in school, but in life. Yes, students in Crown Heights do not get the same benefits as the private schoolers in Lower Manhattan get, and they probably do not have the same tools and resources that even the average Lower Manhattan public school has, but people are not being told by their teachers to go work at the corner store either. The problem is that people in places like Crown Heights are not getting the right advice from the people around them. They are not being told about programs that will get them into college, get them an executive position later in life or will lead to some type of monetary assets in the future. Do you have any idea how many people I met at Columbia who would not have been there had someone not helped them get a scholarship to private school or had put them in programs specifically designed to get minorities and the underprivileged into Ivy League institutions? Trust me, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you!

People need help in life, and yet the people of Crown Heights don’t get enough of it. The government finds it acceptable to fund us with a handout here and a handout there. Blacks in Crown Heights are given just enough money to continue living where they live and working where they work. What the people of neighborhoods like these need are community aids, tutors, leaders and societal up-lifters. The Sumerians had the Bronze Age. The Europeans had Enlightenment. The English had the Revolution, and the Americans had the civil war. All of these one-time world powers had something occur to them that resurrected their lives for the better, and for a long, long, time. If the government keeps giving Blacks, and other minorities of deprived neighborhoods, handouts and money that sustains our wonderful status quo, instead of the tools and resources that Blacks need to become smarter, more aspired and progressive, then places like Crown Heights won’t change.

And maybe that’s what “they” want. Maybe that’s what the country wants. Gentrification is no stranger to the ghetto. And the longer the people of deprived neighborhoods stay down, the easier it will be to take away their neighborhoods in the future. Hurricane Katrina is proof that the economy wants to take advantage of destitute people. And by not giving deprived neighborhoods the same advice, speakers, announcement of opportunities and media significance as those in Lower Manhattan receive, these neighborhoods will remain meager and underprivileged.

The worse thing about the difference between poor areas in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan is that there is still some similarity between the two. Afterall, there are a number of successful people who have come out Brooklyn’s impecunious neighborhoods, such as Eddie Murphy, Shirley Chisholm, Aaliyah, Michael Jordan and Herbie Mann. And when people like this go on to make it out in the world, it pains me to see the rest of the potential of such beautiful and intelligent races wasted and taken advantage of by the government, and even by ourselves. But the worse thing can be the best things sometimes, and that certainly is the case here. For however many youths there are who don’t beat the system, there is someone who is beating it for themselves and is in effect, beating it for us all. Just because “they” are throwing us under the water, doesn’t mean we have to drown and forget how to float. So keep on keepin’ on, BK and all my locales across the nation! Keep that head above water.

I know I raised a lot of questions and didn’t come up with any solutions, but that’s just what kind of piece this was. The kind of piece designed to make you think about what could be done and what should be done right now and in the future. During times when the elephant is in the middle of the room, questions probably are no longer appropriate to ask, because the focus needs to be more doing something and not about coming up with ideas. But when they move the elephant across the water, or even take it way up town, then somebody needs to find it and point it out before anyone can start taking action. Now, I’m certainly not claiming to be the first one to see the elephant, but I don’t want to risk anyone else forgetting that it’s still here. ~ Uzo Ometu

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