The Other Race

In this campaign, poor New Yorkers are listening, but they're still waiting to be heard

Freddy Ferrer came to Bronx Community College on October 25 and gave his most stirring speech of the campaign, talking about his humble origins, about the "two New Yorks," about a bridge "built of planks made of hope and opportunity," about how he was going to "speak for those who can't speak for themselves," win or lose on November 8. "And," Ferrer declared, "I will be heard."

The kids from Peter Kolozi's poli-sci class, some of them standing behind Ferrer as he talked, holding blue campaign signs, heard him. But they weren't exactly feeling him.

"He needs to change that speech," Juliet Santos says during her class's debriefing two days later. "We hear it every time he speaks—'When I grew up,' 'My family this,' blah, blah. Forget about you. Say what you want to do." And then there was that hammy intro shouted by one of Ferrer's campaign aides before he spoke ("the next mayor of New York, Fernandohhhhhh Ferrer!"). "You expected him to come out in red boxing trunks," Santos quips.

Campaign snapshots: Ferrer in Brooklyn
photo: Willie Davis
Campaign snapshots: Ferrer in Brooklyn

He didn't even speak about college tuition, they say. Nor did he stop to talk to them, or ask them what was on their minds, or take questions. It seems like these are the very kids that Ferrer was talking about in his speech—kids like a younger Freddy: bright minds from modest backgrounds, mostly black and Latino, all in an introductory class on American government but well schooled in what it's like to be taken for granted. "There are two New Yorks, but if he doesn't reach out to this half he can't represent us," says Jacqueline Montes.

But Maurice Sanders of Harlem, another student at the speech, says Freddy's life story resonated. His mother, like Ferrer's, was "really working hard and not getting the pay and recognition she deserves," all while dealing with "lack of heat at night and having rats and cockroaches in the apartment and the landlord doing nothing."

But in Kolozi's class, Ferrer didn't fare well. Only about half the students are registered to vote, and barely a quarter say they plan to cast ballots this time. Many say they went to the speech looking for a reason to back Ferrer. "I was very disappointed because I'm completely for the Democrats and I'd like to see change happen, but after seeing his delivery, it's swinging me not to vote for him," says Emily Rivera.

The students were also piqued by TV news accounts of the speech in which it seemed Ferrer had really revved the crowd up as he talked about that "bridge" built of hope and opportunity. "That's bullshit," Kortney Wilson says. But nothing irked them more than that Ferrer had come and gone without really talking to them.

What was the rush? Where was he going anyway?

"He went to the other side of the bridge!" someone shouts, to laughter.

A report issued in September by the independent Community Service Society contained this incredible fact: If the poor people in the five boroughs formed a separate city, it would be the fifth-biggest metropolis in the United States. Census data say both the rate and absolute number of people living in poverty rose in New York City last year. CSS says the lowest-paid workers saw hourly wages fall 6.5 percent from 2000 to 2004—in a city where housing is getting only more expensive.

This dilemma was clear to the people gathered outside the deli at 153rd Street and Eighth Avenue one morning last week. Behind scaffolding across the street were apartments that are being renovated, and their rent is expected to double. A man who's lived there for 46 years says a lot of people he knows are being forced out by prices. There's little love for either Bloomberg or Ferrer. "They need to talk about how they're threatening us with raising our rent," says Marie Brown, sitting outside a laundromat a few blocks south.

That feeling of imminent threat is what you feel in poor neighborhoods, where financial isolation has been replaced by heavy investment. In some ways, of course, that's a good thing: Hard work by neighborhood residents, Ed Koch's remarkable affordable-housing initiative, and the NYPD's stunning reduction of crime have made once blighted areas very appealing to investors. "It used to be Dodge City out here," one gray-haired Harlemite remarks. So things are better now? "Oh yeah." But there's a flip side: Poor people fear being chased from their neighborhoods along with the crime.

At least the housing problem—which Ferrer and Bloomberg both have called a "crisis"—is on the media's campaign radar screen. Much of what else concerns poor people is not.

Welfare has barely been mentioned in the campaign, even though for many people public assistance is a dominant factor in their life story. "This is the way that most of us have to live day to day in the sense that this is where your food is coming from, this is where your housing is coming from, this is where whatever little petty cash is coming from," says Keith Gamble, a volunteer for Community Voices Heard in Harlem. "Most people are literally driven into the WEP program." That's the Work Experience Program, the city's version of workfare that stirred controversy under Rudy Giuliani but has quietly continued to involve 15,000 or more people a year under Bloomberg.

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