Below is an excerpt from my Urban Ethnography class final project. The assignment was to do a short ethnographic study, for which I chose to focus on a housing project in the Two Bridges area, specifically the disused playgrounds.
Playgrounds in Two Bridges
The Two Bridges part of Manhattan consists of the area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, from the waterfront as far back as the bridge overpasses. The bridges reach the island at an angle, and so Two Bridges is almost conical in shape, getting smaller as it nears the water so that one can see both bridges at once from one street, whereas from another street it may be quite a walk from one bridge to another. This gives the area nearer the waterfront a somewhat cramped and enclosed feeling, which is encouraged by the fact that the most direct way to enter/exit it from the Wall Street side is through small tunnels created by the Brooklyn Bridge overpass. What initially drew me to conduct my study in my particular part of Two Bridges was the lost-world feeling that struck me on emerging from said tunnels. The Woolworth building looks laughable next to the rest of this skyline of peeling red brick and fading neon Chinese characters. No tourist would ever come here, a place they appear to miss completely as they walked the bridge right above it. I chose my area because of the playgrounds, and what I nicknamed “the elderly woman phenomenon”. First, however, let us define “my area”.
The area was six-or-seven blocks long and two blocks wide and consisted mostly of a public housing project that we will simply call S. Houses. The project held a number of apartment blocks connected by concrete pathways dotted with six playgrounds. A community center, which we will just call The Center, occupied two floors of one of the easternmost blocks. The neighborhoods of Two Bridges are varied but are usually strongly bounded minority areas. Here, somewhere near the waterfront, they had been pulled together, encroaching upon each other but in a seemingly amicable way. This had been a black and Hispanic area until new Chinese immigrants began settling here in the early 1970s. Now S. Houses clings to edge of Chinatown, but as one of my subjects, Jack, said (speaking for friends who had lived here since before then) “no one leave, they just move in together”. His friends were correct, in one place literally – the busiest culinary establishment in the area was a combination Chinese restaurant and diner. S. Houses was a federally designated poverty area with an average annual income of $17,000 and, according to my source Thea, a naturally occurring retirement community (NORC).
Two things caught my eye as I walked through S. Houses. The first was the abundance of elderly women walking around the project, some pulling groceries, others just pulling their feet, but almost all on their own. (The elderly women I had seen were traveling on the other side of the Brooklyn bridge or over in the heart of Chinatown usually had least one younger person affixed to their side.) Occasionally a bench would hold a small group of chatting elderly men and women. These groups were always racially segregated. What caught my eye second was they way the S. Houses tenants practically lived on the concrete pathways between the apartment blocks. The “Tenants Association plots” were empty except for an abandoned chair, but the pathways were filled with people waving/nodding to each other, saying hello and smoking together. On my second visit an impromptu leaving-party had sprung up around a moving van – someone unpacked their CD player, someone else ordered a pizza, and the crowd grew to thirty or forty (mostly of the project’s elusive younger adult crowd) over the course of an hour.
The children also lived on the street. Boys and girls running, playing ball games, or whizzing past on their razor scooters were a common feature of the pathways – but over the course of the two week period of my observations I never saw a single child in any of the six specially-built S. Houses playgrounds. I returned at mornings, afternoons, and evenings, in warm and freezing weathers, but the only occupants I saw were a middle-aged couple sharing a sandwich and a cigarette on one of the little tables one morning. The playgrounds
were brightly painted, the most colorful places in the area, and their emptiness stuck out. They were not locked. I wondered if perhaps they just so boring that children as young as five or six would prefer to play basketball without a hoop than play on them. I scouted three nearby public schools and two Catholic schools, each with its own, fenced-off playground that was full of children.
My overall impression from these observations was one of safety and community. What kind of place is this, I wondered, where elderly women will walk alone without a care, where children can play in the street without a chaperon, and want to play in the street because the street is their playground? I was reminded of Jane Jacobs’s Eyes on the Street. Jacobs argues that many people are afraid of heavily populated areas because they are afraid of being in proximity to people they do not know. However, she also argues that this does not make sense – that in fact, the best way to be safe is to be surrounded by people. They become eyes on the street, creating what could be called a social forcefield, watching out for each other whether they realize it or not. Therefore, the safest places are those with multiple functionalities that keep them occupied by as many groups of people through as many hours a possible. Under this theory, S. Houses fit the bill as extremely safe. Considering the unsafe reputation of much of Chinatown, this was pleasantly surprising.
When you do not have a place to live amongst your chosen people, or a year to do so, the ethnographic process is very difficult. You are a complete stranger with no reason to be there except to study people who never considered the idea that they might be studied. It did not help my situation that, as a young, Caucasian woman, I belonged to both (very minor and very obvious) ethnic and age-related minorities. (The only other Caucasian people I saw in my first week at S. Houses were the posters of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law advertising the new Sherlock Holmes movie. This gave me a strange feeling, if only because it is the only time I am ever likely to be put in the same category as either of those people.) The tenants I approached on the street were kind but reserved, and they all seemed to shut down, giving one-or-two-word answers once I told them my purpose. Leading up to this with extensive chit-chat never helped. I’m sure some of this was the result of a language barrier, but
Due to my unlucky streak in trying to speak with those outside I decided to try The Center, where I had volunteered once the previous year. The Center was formed by the joining of two previous community partners in the 1950s, when neither had enough funding to function on its own. Now it hosts a gym, an after school program for over three hundred children, parenting classes, and language programs for native speakers of Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, and other languages. Its staff have fifteen languages under their collective belt – they need to. I dug up the number for their Assistant Director, Thea, who was only too happy to help. A Caucasian Two Bridges native in her early forties, Thea had started working at the Center “over twenty-five years” ago teaching English to native Spanish speakers.
During her time in the area she described the neighborhood as having changed from a safer, more community-oriented place with a “less transient population” to a more dangerous one.
“This was the kind of neighborhood where people stuck around,” she said, claiming that now the old tenants were still around but that members of the newer population changed “all the time”. The old generation could be seen in the elderly women who walked the streets alone, having moved into rent-controlled apartments in their younger days (many immediately upon arrival in the United States) and to not be able to to afford to move away. She pointed out something I had missed – that most of the eyes on the street belonged to the project’s seniors, who were focused on each other, getting home, or (in the case of one man I saw) talking to themselves. This forced me to question their validity as a force for safety, since it could be argued that most of them were, in fact, neither watching the children nor fit to stand up to any dangerous situations. And dangerous situations, Thea said, were common in S. Houses. It may as well have been the children alone on the streets.
The strong community atmosphere lasted until the the mid 1980s, when gang activity spread farther into the area. “The first ones I remember were the Chinese gangs” Thea said. “I can’t remember names, but we had the Bloods and Crips in here too, later.” She also remembered the No Fair Ones (NFO), which began with children “around twelve and thirteen,” who went on to recruit younger members when they were older.
When asked about why the playgrounds were so disused, Thea’s answer shocked me: Drugs. A group of three drug dealers frequently used at least two of the playgrounds as extremely successful selling points. I might have been skeptical about this had I not seen three men standing casually and silently against the playground fence on my way out after ever interview. They were being given a wide berth by pedestrians. I watched them for a few minutes from afar one afternoon, which suffice it to say was all the convincing I needed. According to Thea, parents had started noticing this activity a couple of years ago and moved their children to other playgrounds. One of the playgrounds was attached to the Center and used for its after school program. Thea, newly appointed to Assistant Director, was put at the forefront of this when parents complained to her. The Board of Trustees moved to keep the children in the gym rather than go to the police, believing nothing would be done. To this day the nearest police presence was a collection of traffic cops under the Brooklyn Bridge. In fact, the only time Thea had seen police in S. Houses was the year before when two officers chased an unknown suspect from an unknown location up a stairwell, right through the Center, and out the other side. The gang activity continued, “but [Thea tried] not to think about it these days,” preferring to focus on making The Center a safe and productive haven for the community.
Two of the other playgrounds were disused because they were frequented by a different sort of group – people from a nearby church preaching Christianity. The group had started showing up three or four afternoons and continued every week for nearly a year. She refused to name the group’s denomination, but parents had grown tired of them (or sometimes their children) being preached to during play time and neither the Center nor the Tenants Association had been unable to get them to to move.
Thea shot down my assumptions that the children of S. Houses were being communally watched over and that they had chosen to play in the street. Instead, it was now apparent that they had been Now with a considerably less safe feeling, I attempted to continue my interviews outside to no avail. Thea offered to ask some parents from the after school program if I could speak to them, but none were interested. Finally, coming from my last check-in with Thea, I found Jack and Jill (so named because any fake Chinese name I could have created for them would have sounded silly to the point of being borderline offensive). They were in the gym, both quite elderly, Jill talking to Jack in what sounded like Cantonese while he shot some (rather arthritic – he was at least in his seventies, after all) hoops. They were helpful and much more interested in my project than the rest of the neighborhood, although they nodded knowingly when I told them this.
Jack and Jill claimed to be part of a large and fluid group of seniors who often spent evenings in the gym to feel safer, especially in the Summer when they said gang activity is common in the area at night. Thea had said the project “takes on a whole different feel at night,” and Jill agreed, saying she would never go outside after dark without her husband. I asked her about the women I saw walking by themselves.
“They have no one,” she replied. “Their family, everyone they know, have moved away.” Jack and Jill moved to the United States in 1991 and lived in S. Houses since 1992. They described hearing gunshots more than once in recent years, during which they felt the project had become increasingly dangerous.
“Those kids [on the street] are from the shelter,” Jill said, referring to the family shelter a few blocks away. “Parents don’t care, so they play anywhere.” She also thought this true of many children living in the apartments.