by Jeffrey Henderson·
There’s an old joke about New York City that will always be true.
New York City will be amazing when it’s finished.
The joke leans on the constant construction and repair that the city has undergone since its inception. New Yorkers are always invited to a fresh outlook on life simply because a block of scaffolding was removed and only the retirees remember when it was erected.
The status of the city’s neighborhoods can be measured by scaffolding and cranes. The bustle or stagnation of development are typically signs of increased investment.
Another sign is litter.
When I was very young I remember seeing my father walk across the street to pick up a candy wrapper that had landed in our neighbors front yard. I noticed the trend when I saw him do something similar in front of his friend’s barbershop. And again at the diamond where we played little league baseball. At my high school basketball games he would do the same thing in the bleachers.
My father was organized, but by no means was he a neat freak.
I can’t say that I ever realized the previous events until I watched him step over an empty box of popcorn at an away game.
On the wealthy side of town.
I then began to play each act of cleanliness my father had ever performed in my head. I was naturally looking for a pattern.
Was it because we lost? They were white? Popcorn allergies?
In the spirit of ‘show me, don’t tell me’, I realized that every act of cleaning up was based either a) knowing the owner of the property or b) knowing the person responsible for cleaning up.
The owners of the laundromat on 128th and Lenox have a complex social circle that is both welcoming and protective. I made friends with the gentleman that I saw painstakingly sweeping the sidewalk at 6:30AM as I went for my run.
Two things about Sarge, his family owns the building and he’s a military man. Plus, they run the business.
So that corner is always tidy.
There’s pride that comes with keeping your corner of the world presentable.
Owning something takes effort.
But the complex community that frequent that corner also do their part to keep the area organized and clean.
Even if you don’t legally own the property, there’s a sense of ownership you share with folks who commonly frequent and maintain the space.
Travel throughout the City and you’ll see how ownership has an effect on the general upkeep of every property. Even when the attendee is paid to take care of the sidewalk, you can tell how invested they are by the way wave the hose over the cement.
Ownership is meaningful.
Real estate in NYC is not cheap, but it’s all relative. And development priorities mean that investors tend to sit on properties for years, decades even, until a neighborhood is ripe for investment. The buildings on East 86th were in desperate need of renovation while the subway was being built. The evolution of retail space and apartment living pushed the area to change the outdated footprint of the neighborhood to better the surrounding community.
The push to get those projects completed fell on the ears of the owners of those projects because they shopped at the same grocery stores and dropped their kids off at the same schools. By no means did these large scale projects happen over night, but they got done.
Now imagine that evolution taking decades to happen to entire neighborhoods.
When ownership is just a name on a sheet of paper you don’t see the impact that neglect offers. And if you don’t have any connection to the ownership, what incentive is there to take care of some one else’s property.
Except for the fact that you live there.
But ownership and residence are two different things.
The science of climate change has been around my entire life. Environmental concerns in the form of air and water pollution are nothing new. Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth was a loud cry for help, but Nike had already heavily invested in it’s Real-Use-A-Shoe program and the Considered line.
Yet, for me it wasn’t really a priority.
It felt like trash in your yard.
Not my problem.
Thanks to the lack of distractions provided by COVID-19 white folks have the time to focus on some of the troubles Black and Brown folks have been experiencing. Hard to focus on recycled content with a broken tail-light. Props to Greta for sailing around the world, but an immigrant uncle packing chickens during a pandemic may take priority.
But now I’m optimistic that help is on the way.
Ownership is Coming
The usual spraying of money to charities and internships is nice, but the investment in Black and Brown empowerment is new. The shallow social media post backed by the VP Diversity and Inclusion seat got exposed quickly. I see and hear real economic and policy shifts that feel new.
I see ownership becoming a reality and decision makers diversifying.
When Black and Brown people don’t have to spend every waking breath trying to convince everyone that we are being targeted, we might be able to help Greta sail across the world. When those efforts bring about better jobs that include equal pay and seats at the table, we will start to roll up our sleeves to reduce carbon footprints and help clean everyone’s water.
My peers already have me reading decks on solar energy and hydroponic farming, so I’m guessing my ADHD will take me there soon. I’ve been catching up on the conversation with my ethics and sustainability guru Swati Argade of Bhoomki. I see how the efforts in these areas have a monumental effect on all communities with the same uneasy bias toward Black & Brown folks. Globally.
I’m ready to engage in this world now that I see the momentum shift that’s occurring where we suffer the greatest. So long as it comes with ownership, I’ll care.
We will care.