Diaspora Diaries: New York
As part of an ongoing series called Diaspora Diaries, we run articles by Indians living and working abroad about life in their adopted country. If you’d like to contribute, please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a desi living in New York City, I’m often approached at parties by strangers who’ve visited India and need to talk about it. Almost without fail, they will declare that they loved the country—the food, the art, the shopping, the people—but that they were unable to accept the poverty.
In New York City, poverty isn’t something we acknowledge. Even now, as we’re mired in the second year of a devastating recession, we don’t speak openly about how important money is and the inequities in its distribution. For an American visiting Mumbai, the poverty is obvious and everywhere. There’s a woman begging streetside with a baby on her hips, a boy peddling black market paperbacks from the median, and a family sleeping on mats at the edge of the sidewalk.
But a New Yorker who witnesses this is far less likely to identify poverty in her own city. Why are Americans critical of poverty in India, and so nonchalant about poverty in their own country? Why isn’t the fundamental reaction the same?
I live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a stately, gentrified neighborhood. Yet there is poverty here, all around. Women at the grocery store select fatty, spoiling cuts of meat to feed their families, because that’s all they can afford. Men on their way to work buy $2.25 subway tickets, because they don’t have cash for the more economical $89 monthly pass. Old women hobble down the sidewalks on their walkers because they can’t afford the bus fare. And there are people living on the street.
Of course, homelessness in New York is different from homelessness in Mumbai. Almost two-thirds of Mumbai’s population lives on the street or in inadequate structures. There are about 3,000 homeless people in New York, and about 38,000 more living in city-funded homeless shelters. While organisations offer counseling and soup kitchens, the prevailing attitude among the middle-class here is that the homeless need to lift themselves up.
It’s troubling the way New Yorkers accept homelessness as a fact of life. During his tenure, mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken on a number of astounding infrastructure projects. He’s led the planning and construction of a subway line, two baseball stadiums, a network of bike lanes, furnished pedestrian plazas, and several large parks. Now, he’s spearheading the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site, an undertaking fraught with political and financial risk. Why can’t he understand universal housing as the same sort of civic project, and simply get it done?
In New York City, it’s illegal to beg in subway stations and loiter in public places. Benches inside subway stations are built with vertical fins so that no one can lie down on them, and many parks are closed at night. In this way, the homeless remain removed from view. In Mumbai, by contrast, the homeless are living on the beach, and the pavement. They’re sifting rubbish for scraps, and washing themselves at public taps. They occupy what space they can find and live their lives in the open.
I give a dollar to the lean, bearded, middle-aged homeless man who lives near my apartment every time I pass by him. I’ve seen him almost daily for eight years, and watched him eat other people’s leftovers and sleep on a cardboard mat. Yet I don’t know the least bit about him, not even his name. I wonder sometimes if we would have a different relationship in Mumbai. On a New York City sidewalk, he’s an inconvenience and an eyesore, someone I overlook if I’m distracted or in a hurry. If we were in Mumbai, would I feel closer to him, or more responsible for him? Would I try to help in a more significant way?
One could say that Americans are pragmatists, stepping forward to solve problems, and that Indians are fatalists, resigning themselves to difficulties. Poverty is a strange exception. New Yorkers have a curious blind spot for those less fortunate than themselves, and for the homeless in particular. Mumbaikars have a benign openness about it. They don’t feel personally guilty and they don’t remain distant either. They understand that they share the same city.
Nalina Moses is an architect and writer in New York City. She is a regular contributor to Planet-mag.com and Swee10.com.Tags: Diaspora Diaries, Homelessness, Mumbai, Nalina Moses, New York, poverty, Special Top Story