Our First Story

A number of years ago, I used to cross Amsterdam Avenue to get from one part of the Columbia University campus to another. But what I crossed was also one of the deepest, if mostly unknown, economic and racial divides in New York City. As I stepped off a boardwalk onto the avenue, I would be immediately approached by one of the shabbily dressed black men and women hanging around the crossing. He or she would follow me from one boardwalk to another, making a hasty plea for cash, and quickly walk away with a few coins once we reached the other side. On that side a campus security guard would promptly check on us to ensure that nothing was happening.
Owning both side of the street, the University prohibited panhandling on the boardwalks, making the street crossing the only place in that vicinity, where the local homeless could eke out their daily subsistence. There, between squealing cars and rushing students, was their domain, where they could be themselves — the outcasts of our ostensible prosperity, begging to survive another day in the middle of the first African-American president’s Alma Mater.
Many of these men and women came from black communities in south Harlem, which are only a few blocks away from the Columbia campus but a world away from the wealth and power embodied by the ivy league school. Walking through that other world, I would see the grim output of centuries of this country’s racial divisions — half-alive figures huddling on porches and benches or lying on the ground, reduced to a state that many of us would find unfit for an animal. For a number of years that I lived on campus, I did what many students and neighborhood residents did: I volunteered at a local homeless shelter, trying to do my small bit to bring a modicum of humaneness into these people’s lives and to shun my sense of guilt for being on the other side of the divide that separated us.
One of the things I understood in the shelter was that no matter how much effort volunteers made or how many individual successes we had, we were up against powerful forces that devastated low-income black communities, to a great extent through governmental policies or lack of action. Segregated housing and education, mass incarceration, and failing social services are only a few of them. Our society dealt with these communities by putting their pain out of sight, by separating ourselves and taking advantage of them. The ghetto and the prison are monuments to this separation, as was the panhandling strip between the Columbia-owned boardwalks of Amsterdam Avenue.
Today, as I work in southeast Queens, much of which is populated by African-American communities neglected for decades and devastated by the 2008 foreclosure crisis, I see many faces that are much like those I used to see in the homeless shelter: faces of decent hard-working people, who have been pushed to the margins by failing schools, draconian laws, mental illness or plain hard luck — people who did an honest day’s work in the past and could offer to the society a lot more if it bothered to give them a fair chance to do it.
My name is Gennady and my government failed thousands of my homeless fellow citizens but cutting them and their communities out of our society, as it failed their neighbors — myself and others — by leaving it to us to undo this failure. But I have also failed myself by letting my government get away with it for as long as it did.