NYC220 cover image See all stories from issue #220, April 2010

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ISBN: 9781935552017
One City, Three Worlds
Catherine Cosmo, Johane Celestin, Dan Costume, Madeline Legister, and Jan Nicole Garcia

Researchers looked at income and unemployment in 24 different neighborhoods and what they found was troubling. The city’s poor,x` mostly minority neighborhoods were suffering from much higher unemployment rates—up to 19% in some areas—while the wealthiest, and largely white, areas had only 5% unemployment.

When we saw those numbers we thought, “Huh? But wasn’t it the rich guys in the fancy neighborhoods who supposedly lost their jobs?” Apparently, not so much. The Fiscal Policy Institute blames the city’s financial sector—the rich Wall Street dudes—for the recession. But it notes that the finance industry is already recovering quite nicely. (If you don’t believe it, google “Wall Street bonuses.”) Meanwhile, the trickle-down effect of the recession has been that lots of low- and moderate-wage workers in the outer boroughs lost their jobs.

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It seems like the areas that had less to begin with were more vulnerable to the recession. We decided to compare three of the neighborhoods included in the study firsthand. NYC reporters went to the wealthy Upper West Side in Manhattan; the moderate-income Astoria/Woodside area in Queens; and a low-income Brooklyn neighborhood, East New York. In each place, we observed our surroundings, talked to local teens, and researched economic statistics to see how the neighborhood is faring.

Upper West Side, Manhattan

Median Income: $92,281; Unemployment rate: 5%

As we walked out of the train station, this felt like a normal, quaint area. But upon closer inspection, there were definitely a few things that proved the neighborhood was financially on the higher end. For one, the H&H bagel store, which had chandeliers inside, sold bagels for $1.40 each (though they were worth every penny). Flashy cars, including Infinitis, BMWs, and Mercedes were parked alongside more average cars, like Nissans, Toyotas, and Jeeps.

There were lots of healthy trees, flowers, and shrubbery, and the apartment buildings were lavish, with doormen and extremely detailed architecture. You could tell those places must have sky-high rents. Along the sidewalks people walked purebred or designer dogs, like the trendy Puggle (half Pug, half Beagle). The streets were relatively clean, busy with yellow taxis, and lined with specialty stores like wine shops, a cupcake shop, home décor stores, and gourmet food groceries.

We passed a couple of private schools, both of which charge more than $30,000 a year in tuition per student. We even witnessed a mother and daughter hop into the backseat of a luxurious Cadillac SUV driven by a man in a suit, a chauffeur perhaps.

Of course, with its Puggles, expensive bagels, flashy cars, and private schools, the Upper West Side feels prestigious to me, a middle-class teenager. But to the residents of that neighborhood, it must feel quite ordinary.

—Catherine Cosmo

Jack Smith, 16, Collegiate School

Has the recession affected you or those around you?

Kind of. We downgraded apartments from a 3-bedroom to a 2-bedroom. Not that big a deal. We were probably going to do that anyway.

How do you define “rich,” “poor,” and “middle class”?

I’d say the annual income of someone who is rich would be $250,000 a year and then middle class would be, I guess, $50,000-100,000, and lower class would be anything less than that.

Has anyone taught you how to manage money?

My dad. He works for The Wall Street Journal, in the finance section. I invest some of my own money in the stock market sometimes and he gives me good tips. A lot of investment bankers’ kids go to my school and sometimes it’s kind of awkward because my dad writes about [the bankers].

Do you think the American dream of going from rags to riches is realistic?

It don’t think it’s realistic for everyone, but there are definitely certain cases where it’s true. It would take determination and really just a dream.

How do envision your financial future?

I’m sure I’ll have some sort of struggle, but I doubt I’ll be in too bad shape.

Jessica Davis, 13, The Calhoun School

Has the recession affected you or those around you?

It hasn’t affected my neighborhood much, but I can tell there are not as many new buildings going up.

How do you define “rich,” “poor,” and “middle class”?

I don’t really define people by that. But I guess if I think of a rich neighborhood, it’s like big houses.

Has anyone taught you how to manage money?

My parents. They tell me you don’t just buy to buy. You buy what you need.

Do you think the American dream of going from rags to riches is realistic?

It depends on how hard you work and what your background is. It takes a lot of work and you have to be really smart and able, and have a good education.

Astoria/Woodside, Queens

Median Income: $47,513; Unemployment rate: 9%

Astoria/Woodside screams suburbia. The quiet, residential streets are lined with homes that look like something from 19th century England. The residents are friendly and diverse—there were South American, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European people all on the same block, and the small restaurants reflect that diversity. The biggest commercial section is crowded with family-oriented chain restaurants and stores, including Applebees, Starbucks, Baby Gap, and a lot more.

Compared to some other parts of Queens, Astoria/Woodside is a class higher. One thing that stood out, for example, was PetLife, a “holistic” pet supply store located in the middle of a block of beautiful homes. You wouldn’t find a store like PetLife in lower-income parts of the city, because it sells expensive organic dog food and fancy dog outfits. These products aren’t usually a high priority among people with lower incomes. There are also several other high-end storefronts: gyms with jacuzzis, a hot yoga center, and a tanning salon. From these things it appears that the recession hasn’t affected the neighborhood much.

On the other hand, we saw a big Rent-a-Center on the main shopping street, and as we heard from Herman De Jesus (see p. 15), these stores prey on poorer people. We also met a local student who said his school was forced to cut jobs and some after-school programs due to budget cuts.

—Johane Celestin

Billy Skamnias, 15, William C. Bryant HS

Has the recession affected you or those around you?

It affected my school a little. They laid off some teachers, and [we have] fewer supplies and after-school programs.

How do you define “rich,” “poor,” and “middle class”?

Poor would be $25,000-30,000 a year. Middle class, $40,000-50,000. Rich would be triple digits.

Do you have friends from significantly different financial backgrounds than you?

I have friends who are poor and live in worse neighborhoods; I have friends who are rich and live in better neighborhoods. I don’t really think it affects the relationship.

Do you think the American dream of going from rags to riches is realistic?

Yeah, it is. I’ve known people who are maybe second generation, first generation whose families came here from Greece or Italy; they opened up a small business. Then it becomes a bigger business and a bigger business. They move and make more money. I think it takes hard work and people who support you, connections.

What do you think tax money should be spent on?

Not on tearing down buildings and building new ones, especially in a recession. There’s been a lot of that around where I live, but I think [tax dollars] should be spent on hospitals, public schools, and safety.

How do you envision your financial future?

I think everyone has a struggle, especially at first. If you’re coming from a lower-class neighborhood, you have to work a little bit harder.

Evelina Reyes, 15, William C. Bryant HS

Has the recession affected you or those around you?

Yeah, my aunt lost her job.

How do you define “rich,” “poor,” and “middle class”?

I would want to help the poor out if I had a lot of money. Rich would be like, over a million dollars. Middle class would be you don’t have everything you want, but you have the things you need.

Has anyone taught you how to manage money?

Some of my teachers tell us not to waste money on things we don’t need, because there are people out there that really don’t have much.

What do you think tax money should be spent on?

I would use tax money to help out people who need housing, food, and clothing.

East New York, Brooklyn

Median Income: $29,907; Unemployment rate: 19%

East New York is quiet. When we got off the train, the neighborhood didn’t seem very populated at first, but then we saw a woman leading a group of little kids down the sidewalk and into a building with a beautiful, colorful mural. The kids looked like they were having fun.

I think one reason it didn’t seem as busy as other parts of the city is because there are more family houses than big buildings or stores. Scattered through the well-kept rowhouses are also homes with broken windows and doors with graffiti. Just like many other neighborhoods, it has some garbage lying on the sidewalk, but in general it is clean.

As we walked through the neighborhood, we only saw Hispanic and black people. We saw several churches, both Baptist and Catholic, in just a few blocks. There are a lot of closed storefronts, as if the places went out of business a while ago. The only clothing store was a place called The Discount, which had a sign saying everything was 50% off. We didn’t see many delis, and actually we didn’t see any supermarkets at all.

Surprisingly, there was a small farm, which is where we met a big group of teens. They all had jobs working on the farm and told us that there was a farmers market there Wednesdays and Saturdays.

—Jan Nicole Garcia and Dan Costume

Sharnay Procope, 16, East New York Family Academy

Has the recession affected you or your neighborhood?

The little bit that we have, we make do on that. With the recession and everything, that’s basically taking cuts from the little we have.

How do you define “rich,” “poor,” and “middle class”?

I say if you have support, family, food, things like that, you’re rich. I’m considered rich like that. [In terms of income,] over $80,000 a year would probably be considered rich. Middle, I would say below $20,000. Poor, maybe below a few thousand.

Has anyone taught you how to manage money?

Yes, at my job at East New York Farms they teach us how to think about things we may purchase—things we need, things we don’t necessarily need.

What kind of things do you think tax dollars shouldn’t be spent on?

It shouldn’t be spent on things we already have a lot of. If there’s an empty lot, instead of building a McDonald’s there—we have a thousand of those—make it a park or some type of open space.

How do you envision your financial future?

I think I’ll do well. Matter of fact, I know I’ll do well.

Suetanya Joseph, 15, HS for Dual Language and Asian Studies

How do you define “rich,” “poor,” and “middle class”?

If you’re able to afford big houses and big cars and whatnot, I think you can be considered rich. Poor is if you can’t afford much. Average income for a rich person [would probably be] a million a year.

Has anyone taught you how to manage money?

Yeah. When I’m going out to get a new pair of shoes or something, or if I just got my paycheck and I want to go spend it, my family will be like, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Maybe you should save your money until you want something bigger than just a pair of shoes.”

Do you think the American dream of going from rags to riches is realistic?

It happens maybe not every day, but probably every month. People are unique and once the right person notices that [uniqueness] then, instantly, it’s like whoa. Like getting famous or inventing something new. Instantly, it happens.

How do you envision your financial future?

I don’t think I’ll have to struggle. Once I get a job as a vet, I’ll be good from then on, definitely.

Cost of a plain bagel:
East New York: 45¢
Astoria/Woodside: 85¢
Upper West Side: $1.40

Teens’ guesses on the local family median income:
East New York: Less than $20K per year
Astoria/Woodside: $20-50K per year
Upper West Side: $60-80K per year
Teens’ perceptions about what seemed “normal” varied widely depending on where they lived. The interesting thing wasn’t who got closer to the real number (it’s actually $55,980 in NYC), but that we assume that what’s normal in our neck of the woods is normal everywhere else, too.

What we do on school vacations:
East New York: “Work,” “marching band,” “homework,” “stay in the city”
Astoria/Woodside: “Visit family in New Jersey,” “hang out in Rhode Island,” “practice with my band”
Upper West Side: “Visit family in Utah or Tennessee,” “go to my country house in the Catskills,” “chill in the city”

How we spend our money:
East New York: necessities, clothes, food, hair
Astoria/Woodside: music, clothes, games
Upper West Side: clothes, food, movies