For young people born without that proverbial silver Spoon in their mouths, New York City has never been An easy place to grow up. It’s a tough love kind of city.
For every person who has described a rather idyllic Childhood in old New York, there are many more who Remember a harsher one, going as far back as the days of Jacob Riis, the social activist and photographer who chronicled The lives of poor young people in Lower Manhattan in The late 19th century. What he saw and showed the world influenced attempts at making their tenement lives better. In How the Other Half Lives, he observed:
“Bodies of drowned children turn up in the rivers right along in summer whom no one seems to know anything about. When last spring some workmen, while moving a pile of lumber on a North River pier, found under the last plank the body of a little lad crushed to death, no one had missed a boy, though his parents afterward turned up.”
A contemporary of Riis’ in the late days of the 19th century did even more. Lillian Wald, a nurse on her way to becoming a doctor, visited the Lower East Side and saw firsthand the results of so many people, often unemployed, cramped into so little space—usually more than one family in a room in one of those squalid tenements. She saw children, especially, suffering from malnutrition, cholera, tuberculosis and other respiratory problems—and decided to do something about this breeding ground for contagious disease. She moved into the neighborhood and became the nurse and the advocate.
“The question of unemployment is immediately reflected in the illness among the poorest and less food for children and, therefore, more sickness among them,” she said. “It is exactly like a temperature chart: sick children show the curve when financial depressions occur.”
The very concept of childhood was different then. Children were workers, and child labor was something Wald campaigned against. Lloyd Ultan, the official historian of the Bronx, offers a snapshot of job opportunities for young people in the early 20th century: By 1910, as that borough grew by leaps and bounds, jobs in factories and shops were plentiful; the groups with obvious difficulties—mainly because of language barriers but also some racial and ethnic discrimination— were immigrants from Eastern Europe. But, Ultan says, “it was not unusual for children to work after eighth grade.” Many people saw no need for schooling after that.
By the roaring ’20s, some neighborhoods in New York were encountering a unique mix of challenges. In Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto, sociologist Gilbert Osofsky wrote that if life was a struggle for European immigrants, it was even more so for the people who poured in to Harlem from the rural South during the great migration that started around 1910 and lasted through World War II. In Harlem, problems compounded. One civic group wanted to eradicate tuberculosis through health education but ran up against the reality of how Harlem, “the most overcrowded neighborhood in the nation,” needed more than health education; it also needed better housing. Another philanthropic group, the Children’s Aid Society, tried to provide kids with an antidote to the terrible congestion by building playgrounds but then had to address the reality of juvenile crime. When some educators and benefactors launched vocational training programs, they encountered the reality that “these could not open doors for Negro youngsters in New York’s predominantly lilywhite corporations and unions.”
By the Great Depression, as jobs dried up, labor unions pushed for tighter restrictions on who could work: Under 18, one needed a permit; 18 and above became the norm. Schoolboys could deliver newspapers like the Bronx Home News. Because transportation was fairly good, young men could travel to Manhattan for jobs involving physical labor. Those who found no legitimate work might turn to petty thievery, even working as part of the organization of Dutch Schultz, the Bronx Beer Baron.
During and immediately after World War II, jobs were once again plentiful. But by 1950, Ultan says, “unskilled labor was disappearing. You needed education to operate machinery.”
In the post–World War II years, New York’s youth story was dominated not by immigrants or migrants but by their children—the Claude Browns of the world. Brown’s family came to New York City as part of the great migration. They and millions of other blacks from the rural South moved north to escape conditions that were barely better than slavery. In his 1965 semi-autobiographical novel, Manchild in the Promised Land, Brown, who grew up in Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s, wrote of “roaming the streets with junkies, whores, pimps, hustlers, the ‘mean cats’ and the numbers runners.”
This push-pull struggle for New York’s youth dominates movies, musicals and books that have defined the city to audiences afar, from West Side Story to Beat Street, from
The Cross and the Switchblade to Saturday Night Fever, from Rachel and Her Children to Last Exit to Brooklyn, from “Fame” to Yo Soy Boricua, from The Warriors to Do the Right Thing. The lyrics of the city’s unofficial anthem—“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”—are hopeful. But for young people in New York, the if has always been a big IF.
Today’s trying times—described by the Fiscal Policy Institute as “the steepest and longest downturn in the United States since the 1930s”—pose a 21st-century challenge to the city’s youth. According to the Community Service Society (which owns City Limits), some 220,000 people between the ages of 16 and 24 are “disconnected,” neither in school nor in jobs. Many have dropped out of school and have no marketable skills.
Not all the news is bad. More kids are graduating from high school. Fewer teens are having children. But teen unemployment nationwide is higher than it has ever been. College is harder to afford but more costly to live without. Just under half of the murderers and more than a third of the murdered in New York since 2003 have been younger than 25. This is not a movie or a play. This is real life in New York in 2010. It’s what Steve Banks, the attorney-in- chief at the Legal Aid Society, is worried will become of the city’s children. “You see outlines of a lost generation of children,” he says. “It’s not hard to imagine they are going to be indelibly scarred by the experiences they are going through now.” What is old and what is new about the challenges facing New York youth today?
“In some ways this is a deepening of what we’ve always seen. I think that’s just a given in a lot of these communities,” says David Gonzalez, a New York Times reporter and a Bronxite. “It’s always been bad.” Bad, but not always in the same way. The Community Service Society’s chief, David Jones, born in 1948, grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in a black middle- class family living in a very segregated city. After third grade, when he could not yet read and amid a high rate of turnover of teachers and a lack of books from the central school board, his parents took him out of public school. But to him the past and present are easily distinguishable. “The neighborhood for young people wasn’t all that bad,” he says in reflecting back. “There was gang activity, but compared to now, it’s almost laughable.”
Not all that far away was Marty Markowitz, born in 1945. Living in a relatively sheltered Jewish household in Crown Heights, he knew he was poor, and at some point he realized that to the south of his neighborhood were Italians and to the north were blacks. He was 9 when his father died, and he found work to help the family. He delivered newspapers. He worked in a luncheonette making malteds and ice cream sundaes called frappes. He delivered dry cleaning. He delivered kosher meat. One of his customers was a big tipper. “A dollar tip in 1956 was a lot of money! That dollar tip made me the happiest guy in the world.” When he was old enough to obtain working papers, he worked in factories. And, ultimately, while working during the day, he managed to earn a degree attending night school at Brooklyn College for nine years. It was tough. But it was possible. “Jobs were more plentiful for kids. There were more opportunities to find work than there are today,” Markowitz, now the Brooklyn borough president, says. “That’s because we lost our manufacturing base.”
Keith Hefner, who runs a newspaper for and by teens called Youth Communication, remembers having a very talented young Nigerian-born teen in his program about 25 years ago. He needed work. Hefner told the young man to start at the 12th floor of the building they occupied on 22nd Street in Manhattan, which also housed a variety of blue-collar and white-collar businesses. “Start at the top floor and knock on every door. I guarantee you’ll have a job by the time you get to the first floor,” Hefner told the young man. Indeed, the teen found employment. “I could never imagine that happening now because the jobs don’t exist,” Hefner says.
Darren Ferguson, a Harlem-born preacher, is seeing that jobs that teens might have gotten in fast-food chains are now going to others. “They find themselves competing with older workers who are looking for any job. Those who have a skill or a degree are now competing with more experienced workers who are willing to take an entry-level job just to get back into the workforce.”
Even teens who have jobs suffer from the economy’s uncertainty. Christina Gee, a 17-year-old senior at Brooklyn Technical High, has been working since she was 15. She sees her friends operating with diminished expectations.
“I feel many students are going for pharmacy and nursing—safe fields—instead of pursuing interests such as music or dance. I have a personally close friend who is conflicted with dance or nursing but ultimately decided to do nursing in hopes of a stable financial future,” she says. “Many of my friends are also choosing CUNY schools rather than private. Money is a big issue when it comes to college choices. Some friends turned down NYU because the school did not give enough financial aid, and a $20,000 loan seems like a lot to repay since the benefits of a college degree are unknown.”
Maybe there’s an argument for dropping the dream to dance and pursuing an employable skill instead. But what’s so difficult these days for teens making that decision—to follow a dream or to opt for something more practical—is that even if they make the “right” choice, there still may be no work anytime soon.
Ferguson, a former gangbanger who did nine years in prison, knows the streets. And he believes today’s city youth lack the ability to make the right choices.
“Many of them do not believe, as we did, that education holds the key to their success,” says Ferguson, the pastor of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Far Rockaway, Queens. “The other part of this is that many young people lack some of the survival skills that my generation had. There is a sense of entitlement among them—iPhones, iPods, iPads, BlackBerrys, cable television, laptops, flat-screen televisions, etc.—that were only accessible to the rich in years past. The ease of access to these things—to even those who do not have a lot of resources—makes it difficult for young people to understand the concept of struggle and sacrifice.”
And yet some obviously do. In April, about 1,000 people— many of them in their 20s—spent days in line outside a Long Island City union hall hoping for an application, just an application, for a job as an elevator maintenance worker. Only 750 applications were handed out. Only 75 people might ultimately be hired. The question remains whether some will give up and drop out of the hunt for a job and, thus, mask the true unemployment in the city, officially 10 percent but approaching 20 percent in some parts of the Bronx. Idle hands are the devil’s playthings. There has been an uptick in violence—mainly teen-on-teen crimes, including gun violence. Heidi Hynes, executive director of the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center in the Crotona section of the Bronx, has already seen what happens when “more kids don’t have anything to do after school.” Within the past few months, she says, a member of her staff and a student “got jumped after school by groups of kids.” Kellie Terry- Sepulveda, executive director of the Point, an arts and education center in the Bronx, says she recently returned from a fundraiser and saw 30 or so young people “running wild in the street” around midnight on one of the quietest blocks in Hunts Point. A police van was nearby. “Something was in the air, and I hadn’t felt that since growing up in Highbridge in the ’90s. I do think that we’re heading back to a place where we haven’t been in a while.”
Remember wilding? That term came into our municipal vocabulary in 1989 when roving bands of black and Latino boys, romping and rampaging and indiscriminately assaulting and robbing people in Central Park, turned the city hysterical with fear—influenced, of course, by hysterical head- lines in the daily tabloids.
That’s what some people fear will recur, since most of the young unemployed, underemployed and high school dropouts fit the popular profile of troublemakers. Fear dominates the response to youth in the city. It has at least since Willie Bosket, the sociopath who described himself as a monster and whose killing spree in the 1970s and 1980s led to New York’s enacting one of the most drastic juvenile crime laws in the nation, under which even 13-year-olds can be charged as adults for certain crimes. Perhaps largely because of that fear, there’s kind of a reverse wilding going on now.
It’s cops chasing kids and adults alike, mainly, if not exclusively, males of color. And often in the city’s public housing projects.
“There is a ‘Round up the usual suspects’ approach,” says Banks, “and young people are more likely than not to be caught up in such an approach, since the only place they may have to go if they are unemployed and out of school is the street corner.”
Under the law as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, one cannot be arrested just for being somewhere that a cop thinks you shouldn’t be. “But the reality on the ground is that’s what happens,” Banks says. Young people are being arrested for taking up two seats on a subway or for riding bicycles on the sidewalk. Or for visiting their grandmothers in a public housing project without having proper identification, even if Grandma vouches for them.
The NYPD contends that police stops follow the same pattern that crime does, targeting neighborhoods with lots of crime complaints and targeting people who match the descriptions provided by crime victims.
But many teens have horror stories to tell. Andrew Naiku Washington, a black teenager, was stopped by police officers after leaving a neighboring teen’s apartment across the courtyard from his in Eastchester Gardens. He was handcuffed, frisked and arrested for trespassing. Ultimately, the case was dismissed when it came before a judge. But, a federal lawsuit
led on behalf of Washington and other teens says, Washington “has been stopped and questioned routinely by NYPD officers in Eastchester Gardens while going to and from his own home and the homes of his friends and neighbors.”
The job market and the criminal-justice system are just two areas in which some young New Yorkers are facing very grownup challenges.
Some 17,000 children are currently in the city’s homeless shelter system. Nearly 10,000 people under the age of 24 are in state prisons. About 1.4 million people in New York City live in households that cannot afford adequate food. About 400,000 children under the age of 18 live in those households.
“When parents suffer, kids suffer,” observes Joel Berg, executive director of the NYC Coalition Against Hunger. “Parents will go to extraordinary lengths to shield their kids from the downturn, including a lack of food.” But as circumstances become more dire, the less they can protect their offspring. “With this economy, periodic food shortages become more frequent and more severe.” He is seeing more young adults coming to food pantries for help.
As Gonzalez observes, many young male immigrants in this age group think it makes more sense to drop out and hustle for work as a day laborer so they can put money in their pockets and in the family’s. Even if they managed to earn a CUNY degree, he notes, if they are in the country illegally, they will not be able to legally obtain jobs.
Meanwhile, the youth aging out of foster care are in the midst of a “real disaster,” says Hefner. “They go into homeless shelters. They go into prison. They go into mental health facilities.”
Some groups are hit harder than others. A recent study by the Community Service Society found that nearly one-fifth of Puerto Rican youth are not in school and not working. While Dominicans are the most likely in this age range to be in school, Mexicans are the least likely. Black youth are also in trouble, with 14 percent considered disconnected. Many young New Yorkers know what the poet Langston Hughes meant when he wrote: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”
When he was in fourth grade at P.S. 5 in Bed-Stuy/ Bushwick a few years ago, Desean Freeman penned a poem called “Life.” It included this passage: “Have you ever gone one place/And in a year and a half leave/To go some other place?/You go from state to state/Just seeing the road ahead/And behind you/Wandering.” Two 12-year-olds, Bharada Selassie and Khadim Diop, who currently participate in Harlem’s Impact Repertory Theatre, recently wrote, “Do you hate all teens because we’ll someday take your place…. Or is it that you have something to hide/So you blame it on someone with little less pride/I mean you’re the one who taught us what to do/So if you really hate us why don’t you hate you?”
They’re angry. But ultimately, as Brooklyn’s Edwidge Danticat writes in her novel The Dew Breaker: “Anger is a wasted emotion.” And as Jay-Z raps, “In New York/ Concrete jungle where dreams are made of/ There’s nothing you can’t do.”
All over the city, there are efforts to avoid wasting emotion or youth.
Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. is pushing the concept of green jobs—installing roofs, retrofitting boilers and installing wind turbines. He is trying to persuade trade unions to help supply the instruction needed to train potential green workers, teenagers and young adults. He, like other politicians and civic leaders, is trying to squeeze more GED money from the city and the state to reduce the number of “disconnected.” The youth leaders of Sistas and Brothas United in the northwest Bronx advocate on their own behalf for change. The U. S. Soccer Foundation, working with Football Club Harlem, joined forces with the Children’s Aid Society to turn an asphalt playground into a soccer field. Street Corner Resources in Harlem works to stop gang violence before it starts. The Door in Lower Manhattan connects youth to GED programs and jobs. Police Athletic League gyms, despite funding struggles, provide a place for kids to play and learn the discipline of the ring or the basketball court. Even if you are not a math whiz, you know that these disparate efforts suffer from problems of scale and sustainability.
The federal economic stimulus bill has subsidized some after-school and youth employment programs— though not nearly enough to meet the need. Last year, for example, nearly 140,000 young people applied for jobs in the Summer Youth Employment Program; just over 52,000 were placed. This year, with cutbacks everywhere, the demand may be as high as 160,000 young people. The city knows that more than 14,000 young people won’t get summer jobs this year because of a cutback at the state level alone.
Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president, may be able to find jobs for 150 young people this summer. Terry-Sepulveda says her organization, the Point, and others “are all treading water.” They are having to be more creative in using the resources that they have, and in some cases they are pooling resources. “When all those young people who used to be engaged over the summer have nothing to do all day long,” says Heidi Hynes of the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center in the Bronx, “that is going to be a problem.” There are limits, of course, to how much New York can smooth down the rough edges to life for its young.
But we need a 2010 version of the Civilian Conservation Corps, that New Deal program that provided discipline and training and, yes, jobs for youth. Hynes says New Yorkers should not be opposed to paying more taxes, if it comes to that. “We know that our youth will be safer and healthier if they have an out-of-school school activity,” she says.
Government won’t be alone in the effort going forward. Rev. Ferguson, who works with young people through a hip-hop ministry, sees more religious institutions helping young people with job fairs, college fairs, job skills and résumé writing as a part of the charge to provide hope.
“We cannot provide a false hope that things will always be good or that God will miraculously send money—not manna—from Heaven,” Ferguson says. “We need to equip our people with thick spiritual skin that gives them a resiliency that will carry them through lean times.”
It is, after all, a tough love kind of city.
THE BROOKLYN BUREAU
The Brooklyn Bureau, a non-profit news organization launched in 2012, publishes in-depth coverage and investigative journalism on New York's largest borough and provides tools for civic engagement.