“New York is the Best [One of the Most Inequitable] Cities in the World”

Many students choose to come to The New School because of its reputation as a institution committed to social justice principles. Many also come for the chance to live and study in New York City. But what upon arriving in New York, what does New York look like when you look at the city through the lens of social justice?  In this essay, Nathaniel Phillipps, graduate student at Milano and student member of the University Social Justice Committee, shares some of his perspectives on living in New York:

Homeless person sits at the Wall Street subway station in NYC

I boarded the local R train on a Friday night at Atlantic Ave. From the platform it looked as if the car was empty, but as I walked on through a door near the end of the car I noticed that almost all the passengers on the entire car were concentrated at the opposite end, holding their breath, covering their nose, and glaring at a person seated a few steps from me. The car reeked of urine. I did not move as I only had one stop to travel, and the smell was pretty potent I’m sure regardless of where one stood.

The target of everyone’s stares was disheveled and wearing sandals, even though it was freezing outside. One might assumed that the source of the stench was from this person, seemingly homeless, but who is to say that it didn’t come from someone else–that someone couldn’t have urinated in the car earlier? But that’s besides the point. I can’t know for sure what this person was feeling, and I don’t mean to appropriate their feelings, but I perceived them as exhibiting shame and sadness judging from the way they held their head low in their hands as if to hide their tears. Their eyes never left the floor. The train arrived at my stop and I got off. I watched as the passengers who were on the train with me got off as well only to switch to another car to escape the smell. As I was walking to the exit, I saw a passenger speak to the conductor and I stopped to listen to what was said. He told the conductor that there was a “filthy person” in the car.

In that moment, I felt like I should have said something. Regardless of the person’s “filth,” did they not have the right to ride the subway? Did they not pay a fare like everyone else? Were they endangering anyone by being there? Absolutely not. I don’t know the struggle of the person on the car, but I would be willing to bet my all that there are a myriad of compounding and intersecting structural reasons for what has resulted in them being on a train, in sandals in the winter, smelling how they did. I would bet it all that they are a victim of an oppressive system of class, economic, and social marginalization (if not more). The man’s complaint of a filthy person on the train was an attempt to erase or minimize those debilitating structures and reduce a suffering person to a nuisance, something to be removed, probably criminalized, and definitely neglected.

I had to make a decision. One decision was to respond to the man who complained and tell him that his comment was violent, inappropriate, dehumanizing, hateful, and oppressive. I didn’t make that choice, because I thought it would be futile and just lead to an argument which would have been a waste of time. I thought I would just write a post about it instead–this one. That way I wouldn’t waste time and more than one person would know that I thought his complaint was reprehensible. In retrospect, I should have done both. I should have said something to that man, even if he didn’t care for what I said and it just evolved into a shouting match or he told me to fuck off, at least he would have known that someone out there vehemently disagreed with him. Someone out there did not co-sign his thought and his belief that a “filthy” person was not worthy to ride the subway. Somebody refused to reduce another human being to a problem that needed to be removed, and wouldn’t validate ignorance or erasure of oppressive systems and circumstances that led to this nameless, faceless transit rider sitting in isolation, stench, and humiliation.

I should have responded to that violence, but instead, like so many of us often do, I was silent. If I could go back in time and choose better, I would. All I can do now is avow to not exhibit the same cowardice next time. One of the most jarring parts of moving to New York is being on the subway and watching people beg for food and assistance on a daily basis, at all times of day. A few days ago a man sat next to me and few other people in a car and divulged that he had “full blown AIDS” as a pretext for his request for food and money. Sure, it made me uncomfortable, but I could have responded to him more politely than I did. However, nobody should have to spend their days begging for food from strangers on the subway. Nobody should have to disclose having a disease (whether the man was being truthful or not) to receive assistance. I read an article in a daily paper about commuters complaining about the increase in “vagabonds” traveling on and sleeping in the subway, and how they should be policed more or denied access. These are people that we see everyday on our way to school, to work, to the fancy restaurants in Chelsea, or to our nice warm apartments in a gentrified neighborhood (not mine, not yet anyway). And so many people seem not to care, as if these occasions have no possible attachment or impact on our lives that we can eradicate them from our consciousness and not be bothered by a lingering thought while we shop for groceries at Whole Foods.

I, for one, am sickened by it and write this article in hopes of doing something to change this inexcusable condition of society. When somebody asks me “how’s New York” or tells me “New York is the best city in the world,” these moments on the train are what immediately come to mind. Perhaps I shouldn’t criticize New York in particular because this happens everywhere. But, hardly anywhere else does as much wealth exist than in New York. That wealth could and should be channeled to mitigate the deplorable conditions of which we as a society relegate so many people to live under. And it is for that reason that I can’t agree with the admirers.

–Nathaniel Phillips

What does NYC look like through your social justice lens? Send your musings/essays/photos and rants to socialjustice@newschool.edu and we will consider posting them here.