De Blasio’s "Tale of Two Cities" Fails to Inspire South Bronx Millennials

ByGabriel Grand

Just a handful of subway stops away from City Hall, where Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio was elected to office on Tuesday, lies the neighborhood of Mott Haven. Located in the heart of the hardscrabble South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the United States, Mott Haven is a world away from Manhattan's bustling downtown.

The poverty rate here is 36.9%, with 16.6% earning less than $9,155 per year for a family of three. Overcrowding, rent burdens, and poor housing conditions drive thousands of residents, who are mostly black and Hispanic, to homeless shelters. According to locals, gang-related crime is still a frequent occurrence, as are instances of police Stop and Frisk searches on the streets.

Mott Haven epitomizes the growing income gap between neighborhoods that led de Blasio to call New York "a Tale of Two Cities." But for all that de Blasio's campaign did to promote awareness of poverty-related issues in the outer boroughs, millennials' attitudes here towards the election range from skeptical to uncaring.

"I don't think [the new mayor] will have a major impact in the South Bronx," said Mike Ramos, 35, who has lived in Mott Haven his entire life and works as a hospital security guard. "It's more up to the local representatives" like Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz, Jr. and City Councilwoman Carmen Arroyo, he stated, adding that City Hall seemed "more focused on the economic development of Manhattan."

"I don't really pay attention to politics. All I think about is working. All I think about is survival."

Two decades of business-friendly, Manhattan-centric policies under former Republican mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg have left many in the city’s outer boroughs feeling alienated and helpless.

"I don't really pay attention to politics," she explained, stating that she doesn't have time because of her work. After graduating from high school this past June, Rojaz was employed at Chipotle and American Eagle simultaneously. "All I think about is working. All I think about is survival," she stated, mentioning that she started earning for her family at age 11. One day, Rojaz hopes to go to college in the United Kingdom to study architecture, but for now, she remains firmly entrenched in Mott Haven.

The polling place at P.S. 5 Port Morris, where signs encouraged residents to vote on Tuesday.

On the morning of election day, the polls at Samuel Gompers High School were nearly empty. The officials, a mix of uniformed beat cops and paid volunteers, far outnumbered the voters, who hunched around a cluster of electronic ballot machines.

Most of those who had turned out were elderly, and many appeared to be having trouble at the polls. One staff member assisted a woman who complained aloud that the text on the screen was too small to read. But even as the volunteer read the words aloud, she shook her head in visible confusion.

"I saw a good ten people who didn't understand the ballot proposals," said Rebecca Garcia, 34, who voted at P.S. 5 Port Morris. By her estimate, Garcia spent at least twenty minutes casting her ballot, partly because she paused to help another young voter at the machine next to her who "had no idea."

"Just understanding the casino proposal" is a challenge, Garcia declared, adding that she had voted against the expansion of casino gambling in New York state. She acknowledges that the job market is rough, but maintained, "I think there are better ways to get kids employed besides gambling." Voters approved the proposal on Tuesday, with 57 percent in favor of the measure.

"You can't sympathize with the poor if you've never really been poor."

Garcia is optimistic about the future now that Bloomberg, whom she faults for not addressing homelessness in New York, is out of office. "You can't really sympathize with the poor if you've never really been poor," she stated.

Nevertheless, Garcia remains cautious about placing too much hope in de Blasio because of her experience with the 2008 presidential election. “My first time voting was for Obama,” she said. “Things didn’t change.”

More than anything, people in the South Bronx yearn for changes that they can see and feel in their neighborhood. A common complaint among residents is that police perform Stop and Frisk searches frequently and with little or no justification.

"I could probably get stopped and frisked... just for walking down the street," said Javier Peña, a 19-year-old Hispanic teen who was working as a door clerk outside the poll at P.S. 277 on Tuesday. "You don't see people in business suits getting stopped and frisked."

Alan Perez, 51, who was volunteering as a Spanish interpreter at P.S. 5, said he had been stopped by the police multiple times in the Bronx. "Police needs (sic) to stop profiling Hispanics and African Americans," he declared.

"If you want to stop somebody, it should be for a specific reason... It's a civil right."

While the South Bronx isn't nearly as dangerous now as it was a few decades ago, at the peak of the crack-cocaine epidemic, many residents acknowledged that crime is still a serious issue in the area. "Even now, there's gangs," said Ramos, the security guard, "but they call themselves sets or crews" to keep a lower profile from the police. 

Despite the high crime rates, random street searches strike many as a major injustice. "If you want to stop somebody, it should be for a specific reason... It's a civil right," Ramos commented.

Reforming the NYPD's Stop and Frisk policy was one of the key points of de Blasio's campaign. "Innocent New Yorkers should not be subject to invasive and baseless searches strictly on the account of race," De Blasio's platform states. De Blasio himself has pledged to sign legislation to end police racial profiling; whether or not he manages to follow through on this promise remains to be seen.

Either way, in order to bring real change to the South Bronx, Mayor de Blasio will have to address deeper issues. Most experts agree that crime is a symptom of socioeconomic inequality. The real challenge, then, will be to bridge the growing income divide that exists between those who make millions on Wall Street and those who get by on food stamps and minimum wage salaries.

In the meantime, those millennials who are fortunate enough to be able to concern themselves with policy will have to direct their attention to those who don't. "I don't really focus on politics," said Peña, the 19-year-old door clerk. When asked what issues he cared about most, Peña gave a response that will resonate with many millennials: "The only issue I have is finding a job."

This article was updated on Wedesday, November 6, to reflect the final results of the New York mayoral election.