East Village-Lower East Side Immersion
The purpose of this exercise was to explore a neighborhood that has experienced great cultural change in recent years and to consider the effects on the less affluent who now or formerly lived there.
Our CSM leader, Jessica, left our group at Grand Central Station with instructions and a list of questions for us to answer. Our destination was the Lower East Side and included a visit to Tompkins Square Park.
We were supposed to ask people on the street and in stores questions about the neighborhood. We learned:
-Housing is very expensive. A 2BR apt is $2,000-2,300; a 3BR apt is $3,500. Few apts are for sale, but prices average $1000 per sq ft, or $350,000 for a small studio!
-One church in the area provides a soup kitchen and food pantry several times a week, and some other services. We saw countless churches, mosques, and temples of all ethnicities, but no others advertised services to the needy.
-We also learned about changes to the area. The neighborhood used to be Eastern European, then African-American and Hispanic. Recently affluent Caucasians have moved in. Stores come and go. In the 1980’s the homeless occupied the park and drug use was rampant. The police removed the addicts and homeless and rioting occurred.
The park was closed and eventually restored. It is now a wonderful place with a dog park, swimming pool, basketball courts and more.
-On a lighter note, we were asked to collect menus from restaurants from each continent. There seemed to be restaurants from every place imaginable, but we couldn’t find Australia. We also had to count taxis—Mario counted 80 in 15 minutes.
-Our final challenge was to buy ourselves dinner on a budget of $2 each (no chain restaurants!) and ask a person in the park to join us for dinner. A piece of pizza at a nearby take-out place cost 99 cents per slice. It was humbling to realize how many people must decide on a daily basis whether to buy 2 slices of pizza or 1 slice and a soda. We shared our pizza with a gentleman named Raymond on a bench in the park. A former taxi driver, Raymond lives on disability in Queens, and shares his apartment with a woman with AIDS who receives no benefits. After much thought, Raymond recalled visiting Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey once. His real passion is writing poetry. We took a sheet of his poetry and it reflected the joy and happiness on the faces of people using the park in this beautiful neighborhood. Raymond’s caring for others was an inspiration to us.
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