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New York Neighborhood

February 10, 2006

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Two small friends, book-bags hanging on their backs, amble down a street on their way home from school. An image familiar to us all. In the USA however, it’s a relic of the past.

The west side of Broadway in Upper Manhattan bordering Columbia University has become ‘upscale’ i.e. high-priced. Residents here are mainly white, middleclass families. Few if any children are seen in the street.

East of Broadway Avenue, barely five-minutes away, life is different. The majority of families here are Hispanic. These streets are their ‘al-barrio’—Spanish neighborhood. Hot summer nights find old and young talking on front doorsteps. Residents shop at local ‘bodega’ for plantains, avocados and beans. Everyone speaks Spanish.

Sociologists call these New Yorkers ‘working poor’ compared to West Broadway where annual household incomes approach $100,000.

Al-Barrio families may be poorer. But their neighborhood is clean and respectable, and crime is not above average. Nevertheless, it appears their children are always in danger.

Moving through the neighborhood at 8:00 am, I am reminded of the perils of city life as I watch these children heading to school. One al-barrio school is on 109th off Broadway, another on 108th street. Yet nobody walks to school alone. Even with an older sister nearby, young children must be accompanied by adults. Each is led by hand from home to the school gate. Every day. It’s normal.

Again at 3 o’clock, when school recesses, parents arrive to collect their children. This, even where a school is hardly 200 meters from home. The same applies in Philadelphia and San Francisco, in Arab, Irish, Pakistani neighborhoods, to immigrants and longtime citizens. Why?

First, children here are prey to sex and drug traffickers and other criminals haunting our streets. Second, American society now subscribes to the code called “parental responsibility”. Anyone allowing his child to walk to school alone could be accused of parental neglect!

Families in crime-free ‘suburbia’ and towns across the country suffer the same fate. Drive through any American town in mid-afternoon, you will see columns of buses waiting outside schools to deliver their children safely home.

Perhaps this explains why parents here tolerate their children spending so much time watching television or playing computer games. It may be the reason Americans don’t care about Palestinian children shot on their way to school. News about hardships of Iraqi children don’t concern people here. American parents have their own problems.

[ New York Neighborhood ]
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