In early March, I received the news that my application for a Fulbright Scholarship had been successful. I nearly fell off the sofa in surprise, but my celebrations were muted. Within days, the UK went into full lockdown – and I was back on the sofa! During a year when so much news has been far more important than mine, I’ve kept it to myself. Even eight months later, I don’t really know when I will actually take-up my award. But I’m still delighted that the Fulbright Commission recognised the potential of my research proposal, which I think has even greater significance than when I wrote it.
I outlined some of my plans at an LSE Cities research seminar in December last year and in a Jacobin article I wrote with David Madden. Then everything changed. Although I still think the comparisons between Jerome Avenue in The Bronx and High Road West in Haringey are fascinating and significant, the dramatically changing circumstances wrought by COVID-19 and the other events of 2020 necessitate a rethink.
Jerome Avenue runs through the 15th Congressional District, the poorest in the US. Median household income is $26,100, half that of New York City as a whole and 48% of residents receive food stamps, compared to a national average of 13%. These jarring disparities were true before 2020 and had been made worse by the fallout from the financial crisis of 2007 – 2008, from which the area was still struggling to recover when COVID struck. The early phase of the virus swept through The Bronx more aggressively than any part of America, leaving a trail of death, sickness and more entrenched poverty. Then, on 25th May, the killing of George Floyd provoked what has been described as the biggest social movement in US history. The 15th Congressional District is 97% non-white, so Black Lives Matter. Then we had the astonishing spectacle of the Presidential elections. Given the turmoil and polarisation of the nation before 3rd November, the chaos that followed was perhaps inevitable, as is greater civil unrest in the months and years ahead. Against this background, it would be absurd for my research to stick to its original brief and not take the seismic events of 2020 into account.
Virus permitting, I’ll be going to New York City on 1st March next year. I’ll be attached to the CUNY Graduate School, thanks to the support of Professors Ruth Wilson Gilmore and David Harvey. But I’ll be living in The Bronx and spending time with Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), a housing and social justice organisation based in the 15th Congressional District that I’ve known for several years.
COVID had an instant impact on working class tenants in Congressional District 15. When the virus hit, thousands faced the threat of homelessness because, as they lost jobs and income, they were unable to pay rent. In response, CASA has been part of a city and New York state-wide campaign demanding a ban on evictions and cancellation of rent. But many Bronx residents have already died from coronavirus because they carried on working – often in vital public services – partly to keep a roof over their heads.
Before, during and after COVID, housing was and remains one of the most pressing concerns for people in the CASA area. 90% rent privately and although that sector is more regulated in New York City (and other parts of the US) than in the UK, many tenants still experience crippling rents, disrepair and the constant threat of eviction. Before 2020, these precarious housing conditions were exacerbated by urban regeneration programmes seeking a “new” image for the neighbourhood. Hundreds of private apartments, some displacing local employment, were planned through a $189 million City of New York project to “rezone” Jerome Avenue, raising fears among CASA members and others of a loss of jobs and affordable homes. However, this project – and many others like it – is now in doubt as NYC adjusts to the massive financial implications of the pandemic.
Being embedded with CASA will give me an insight into how The Bronx is, or is not, recovering from the multiple traumas of 2020 and whether it is “healing” in the way President-elect Biden has hoped. While the CASA neighbourhood is not, in some ways, typical of the nation, it’s the type of place where the putative promise of the American Dream has been most frustrated. The people CASA works with are overwhelmingly poor, living in sub-standard housing and from immigrant backgrounds. Again, these socio-economic inequalities have been thrown into sharp relief by COVID, but they long precede it. Given the huge proportions of African Americans, Asians and Latinos who voted for him, Joe Biden will soon be under pressure to deliver policies that benefit hitherto marginalised communities, like those CASA is based in. As one local resident said to me recently (interview 11.11.20): “There’s a lot of hope in the community that things are going to be different”. My Fulbright research will give an early indication of whether that hope is likely to be fulfilled.
Image Credit: Tim Sanders.