Over the first two weeks of the Washington Fellowship, the Wagner College fellows have visited Port Richmond and Harlem – two New York City communities typically considered underprivileged. Seeing poverty in these communities, in arguably the most developed country in the world, gave some food for thought about the nature of the development that Africa hungers for.
Port Richmond- a once thriving, now poor community- betrays the paradoxical relationship that can exist between development and poverty. It had flourished as an affluent farming community on New York’s Staten Island. Dotted around the neighborhood today, however, are only vestiges of the wealth that the farming community had brought in. The owner of a desolate urban greenhouse, determined to revive something of the agricultural glory days, clings to the memories of abundance that were once a reality in the community. He spoke of how the community’s main high street – Port Richmond Avenue – was once such a hive of commercial activity that it was commonly referred to as the “Fifth Avenue” of Staten Island. But if it weren’t for the deep and passionate sense of nostalgia in his voice, it would have been difficult to believe him. What remains of much of Port Richmond Avenue and other areas of the community are now run down and abandoned buildings, scattered in between shops typical of a lower-income American community.
Simply told, the downturn of Port Richmond from a self-sufficient and rich farming community to a lower income neighborhood began at the time that the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was erected in the early 1960s. The bridge, as part of a wave of infrastructural developments that greatly eased access to and from the Island transformed Staten Island into an ideal residential community for middle- to high income earners in mainland New York. Residential property development complimented other infrastructural development and, in turn, brought about an increase in the price of land, which increasingly became unaffordable for local farmers. The more development and outside affluence that poured into the island, the more economically sidelined the local agricultural community became. Today with all its urban structures in their dilapidated state, it is difficult to imagine Port Richmond was anything other than an urban, lower income area. Long gone are the vast farmlands we’re told about that, only a few decades ago, generated wealth through agriculture that sustained the Island. In their place instead now are low cost residential housing, a play park poisoned with arsenic and abandoned stores that speak of an economic development dream that Port Richmond paid the price for.
On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by Harlem. I expected to see much of the brokenness of Port Richmond, but on a grander scale. When our group hopped off at 12th Street subway station in the centre of Harlem, I was still trying to figure out how best to keep a secure grip on my handbag without attracting attention it. I was pleasantly surprised (and somewhat embarrassed at my ignorance) to witness Harlem currently undergoing gentrification. A visit to the Harlem Community Development Centre enlightened that the area was, once again, at the helms of an urban regeneration. Between the turn of the 19th Century and World War II, Harlem was the place to be for African Americans. An income diverse community, it was home to everyone from Duke Ellington to school teachers to street cleaners. But Harlem didn’t escape the effects of the Great Depression and the post-World War II deindustrialization of New York City that saw a shift of affluence into the suburbs and a corresponding increase in poverty and crime within the community that remained. Fuelled by hip hop and other popular culture, I suspect that many in Africa believe –as I did before my visit- that Harlem is still a poverty-struck breeding ground for crime and gang wars. Tom Cruise’s infamous attempt to relate to black people with his “I’ll see you in Harlem, brother” never helped to challenge this image of Harlem.
But even as we marveled at the resurgence of commercial vibrancy and upcoming cultural diversity in Harlem, we wondered if the future of poorer residents inevitably meant displacement by wealthier newcomers. Could the community return to its days of income diversity, or should poor people migrate elsewhere, made to build new church families and other community bonds from scratch? This question of whether or not commercial development only serves to entrench the divides between poor and rich is by now trite. Nonetheless, we merely choose to accept these consequences for the most part, or leave their resolution to market forces, opting instead to embrace wholeheartedly a honeyed promise of development.
Perhaps less worn out is the question of how development can impact what already exists, what works well and what is cherished within a society. What must be done to avoid eroding these community gems and to avoid generating new poverty from development? Will there ever be sufficiency in economic development? Or is development at its core insatiable; an ongoing game of acquiring more and more that at every stage necessities winners and losers? It is possible that if some of these questions had taken centre stage at the start of Staten Island’s 1960’s development era, Port Richmond could have been spared its baffling fate: a community, as my Zimbabwean counterpart put it, impoverished by development.
Though the notion of development often rightfully brings with it strong expectations for overall gain, I don’t believe we raise enough questions about what and who are left outside the margins of development. There is hope for Africa to escape the misery of her poverty cycles but we must learn from the failings of development in developed countries in order to arrive at a development of our continent that is truly inclusive and sustainable. From the long-fought struggles of indigenous communities to protect their cultural wealth in the face of commercial interest in their resource-rich lands; to the newer phenomena of urban developments and redevelopment of modern African cities; through to the international trade agreements that we enter into: the threat of creating new and even greater poverty as a result of development is very real. My interactions in Harlem and Port Richmond have reinforced my belief that greater care needs to be taken in Africa to prevent the trails of poverty that development can leave behind.
About the author: Zila Milupi is participating in the Washington Fellowship of the Young African Leaders Initiative in recognition of her interest in community engagement and of work in Winners’ Circle Association, which is an NGO that she co-founded.
For more on Winners’ Circle Association please see www.ourwinnerscircle.org
For more information on the Washington Fellowship and the and to learn how to apply, please visit www.youngafricanleaders.state.gov/washington-fellowship