Living in the Bronx was never something that I imagined myself doing. The first images that often come to mind when many people think of the Bronx is the image of the “the Bronx is burning”, poverty, and gang violence. Yes, there is poverty. A lot of it.
However, it is entirely possible to live in the Bronx and entirely avoid this fact through privileged élite “public” transport that allows for privileged people to entirely avoid this fact. Going to a private Jesuit university in the Bronx, Fordham University, one sees that there is a “zone” surrounding the university which is considered “safe”. Students (and some faculty and staff) are afraid to leave that zone that surrounds the university. In fact, one cannot enter the gated campus without showing proper identification—unless you are a food delivery person (which also perpetuates this avoidance of “the Bronx”). In fact, throughout the neighbourhood there are Fordham guard posts that further act to “buffer” the area from “the Bronx”. A Fordham student can live all four years of their college career and never truly be exposed to “the Bronx”. In this zone residents can find access to farmers markets, the New York Botanical Gardens, the Bronx Zoo, and the “necessities” of the privileged class.
Over the years Fordham has sponsored and created a protective barrier that protects its largely white, upper-middle class student body from “the Bronx”. Students can get to Manhattan easily through an inter-campus van service that delivers students to the Lincoln Center campus. Students can get to Manhattan via the “Metro North”, which deposits students in “Grand Central Station” in just two minutes from a special train rather than taking the “proletarian” subway. Students access the Metro North train by walking just outside of the gated community and have instant access to the privileged mode of transport. Disclaimer: I too participate, and often use these services.
Metro North can cost almost three times the price of taking the B/D train, ($5.75-$7.50 as compared to $2.50). Furthermore, once in the city, Metro North users have to pay an additional fee to use the subway—costing up to almost $10 for a one-way trip to the city—$20 dollars as opposed to $5 roundtrip. Late at night, when the Metro North shuts down, students can take a university shuttle that takes them from the subway directly to campus, thus avoiding having to walk through the streets at night. If a student wants to stay in the neighbourhood, they can go to bars that require a Fordham Student ID to enter.
This form of privileged transportation is created for the upper-middle class; the average household income in the Bronx is $13,959 (according to government census data). This, of course, is in a county that has 27% of its population living below the poverty line. Most residents in the Bronx quite simply cannot afford this expensive alternative to travel. Indeed, this is not only a class issue, but also one that calls attention to race. As seen in the “Racial-Ethnic Concentration graph” that protected zone is predominately white. Residents of that white zone, Belmont, have access to a form of transport that allows them to avoid “seeing” the Bronx.
Taking a ride on the Metro North is a fundamentally different form of travel as compared to riding the subway—large comfortable seats, access to chargers that allow for them to plug-in their laptops. There is even talk about adding WiFi access. The Metro North services commuters coming into Manhattan from Connecticut, as well as the Fordham community. Comparatively, the subway allows for a confrontation with the low-income, ethnic “Bronx”. While this transport is “public”, the access to it is limited to upper-middle class residents—allowing them the luxury of not ever being confronted with low income residents of the Bronx.
In Manhattan, when confronted with these low-income residents, the homeless, or the mentally handicapped, the privileged class still put on their blinders to avoid seeing these social issues playing out in front of them. They listen to their iPhones, read their newspapers, or simply just roll their eyes at the multitude of people that pass through the train asking for money. We become desensitized. This confrontation is avoided by an even more élite mode of transport—taxis.
Taking this example as a metaphor for comparison, in other parts of the United States this plays out in a different way. Public transportation is generally used mostly by low-income commuters going to and from work. One might argue that at the very least the poorly serviced bus routes offer a way for the workers to cheaply get to and from work. Of course, this transport only facilitates a rationale that condemns most of these low-income workers to a place in society that perpetuates a hegemonic system that ultimately benefits the élite. University students also benefit from busses that service their students, that acts as a form of élite transport.
The upper-class rarely sees the “derelict” during their morning commute, as they drive to work listening to their music or favourite NPR podcast. Perhaps, on occasion, one might see a homeless person on a street corner asking for money. They most often ignore the person entirely, or roll their eyes at them in contempt. This perpetuates discrimination.
Why does this matter? It matters because it points to a more fundamental problem that allows the élite to live in a sort of denial. Are there solutions? If the “subway” is a equaliser, then perhaps these sort of considerations should be considered not only in everyday transport. Rather than relying on statistics that dehumanise, perhaps we should allow ourselves to be confronted with things that inherently do make us uncomfortable.