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Life On The Margins: A Story From The Bronx

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The new Netflix musical drama The Get Down depicts life in South Bronx in the late 1970s: with the emerging hip-hop as a soundtrack, a community struggles with poverty and the spread of gangs while some benefit from its marginalized status. The community has remained isolated north of the Harlem River for most of the past 40 years while gangs and directors of poverty initiatives profited.

On the positive side, the area's mostly black and Latino communities developed stronger ties of support and, after a drop in gang violence in the late 70s, the youth found expression through graffiti and hip-hop. Walking through the poorest New York borough, I observed differences among neighbourhoods, evidence of ongoing gentrification and change, and the need for employment and safety.

For decades, South Bronx has been facing serious issues: it has the nation's highest overall poverty rate (31.5 per cent compared with the national 13.5 per cent), a low high school graduation rate (70.2 per cent for those under 25 compared with 86 per cent), and a low per capita income ($18,269 compared with $28,555). Roughly one out of three kids lives in poverty and drops out of high school while their families can barely afford housing costs.

Ironically, the marginalization of a community can also benefit some of its members. In addition to gang leaders, pimps, drug dealers, and an informal economy which can operate more freely, managers of large government projects for poverty alleviation can also benefit from this situation. Ramon Velez, a major figure in the Netflix series and once called a "poverty pimp" by Edward Koch, was a Bronx-based power broker who attracted $300 million in government funds through his organization over a quarter of a century. Nicknamed "El Padrino" ("the Godfather"), Velez built community housing and a centre in the South Bronx that provided medical and social services to the community.

On the flip side, he was also accused for using the community as a campaign machine, empowering mostly his inner circle, and acquiring money for services he did not provide.

Even though Velez is one of the most high-profile cases, with significant political connections and influence, individuals benefiting from the marginalization of their community exist in many US ghettos and in developing countries which rely on foreign aid. It is a very complicated and delicate matter that requires action from the local civil society and coordination with the state.

But solutions can come from within. Documentaries Flyin' Cut Sleeves (1993) and Rubble Kings (2015) show that street gangs in the Bronx operated as families as well, helping youth cope with living in the margins. Despite their criminal activities, young gang leaders sometimes aspire to become a positive force. For example, the Hoe Avenue peace meeting of 1971, a gathering of New York City gangs in the Bronx to work out a general truce, gave youth the opportunity to move across boroughs and redirect their energy from crime to art. Hip hop and graffiti originated in the Bronx and artists say that this was their way to emerge from being marginal.

To be sure, more than a few marginalized youth do find their way to higher education and a better life. Among them is Randol Contreras, a once failed drug dealer from South Bronx who was encouraged to pursue higher education and now is an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Coming of age during the Crack Era, Contreras was exposed to experiences which many years later provided the basis for his ethnographic book The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream.

Today, even though still marginal in many ways, the Bronx is a much safer place that attracts real estate investment, like the $600 million for the replacement of the Lambert Houses. Despite the relatively high number of low-income housing, however, many of its residents cannot afford living in the Bronx because of other costs, like transit.

As the Community Service Society of New York reports, the City's transit affordability crisis is "particularly pronounced in areas of the Bronx and Queens with large concentrations of low-income [Blacks and] Latinos, where transit fare burdens can reinforce the economic and geographic isolation." The Bronx Defenders, a holistic public defender office in the area, highlight the issue as more problematic in over-policed communities like South Bronx, where people often get arrested for fare evasion -- instead of receiving a civil summons -- and thus face a criminal charge.

For a community as a whole, life in the margins is rough. As I walked around South Bronx, I sometimes felt less confident about my safety but also had the opportunity to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of a community that is trying to stay coherent through its street art, music, and community gardens. As you move closer to Yankee Stadium and 161st Street, where the Bronx Supreme Court and Hall of Justice are located, a different -- cleaner, safer, gentrified -- South Bronx emerges. What remains to be seen is if a community can move out of the margins while maintaining its social cohesion.

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