If you want to know why I am speaking at a rally and march on Friday, June 7, at P.S. 191 near Lincoln Center to protest the closing of three schools to construct luxury housing, consider this statistic: there is a 13-year waiting list for public housing in New York City. That's right, 13 years! Given the budget cuts in the New York City Housing Authority and the generally bad reputation of "the projects" in mass media, that is a sobering comment on what kind of options poor and working class families have in New York City. Many are living doubled and tripled up, some are in rented rooms, some are boarders in other people's homes, sleeping on couches in their living rooms.
Now let me give you another statistic. Approximately one-sixth of all apartments in Manhattan are used as "pied a terres" (part-time residences) for wealthy people from other countries. When you see a new luxury high rise going up in Manhattan or downtown Brooklyn—yes, we have them in Brooklyn, too—you can bet that a good portion of those apartments are going to be vacant for much of the year.
New York City plans to knock down three public schools in the area near Lincoln Center to build luxury high rises, relocating those students to other area schools. A more potent symbol of misplaced policy priorities in New York City could hardly be found. Here, children of poor, working class, and middle class families are being displaced to make room for the building of apartments for extremely wealthy people, many of whom don't even plan to live in them full time.
For special needs children who get services in these schools, the closings are a particular tragedy, but all of the children will be profoundly inconvenienced by being placed in a new school out of walking distance, and being separated from longtime teachers they have developed strong relationships with. What we have here is a toxic combination of two philosophies that have achieved dominance in cities throughout the United States. First, that the private real estate market should drive urban planning, and given the concentration of wealth among global elites, this insures that luxury housing will be seen as the primary engine of growth. And second, that public schools should be treated as service providers to consumers—rather than vital community institutions—and can be closed at will, either because they fail to provide quality service, or stand in the way of economic development.
The result of these policies, which we have seen play out in Chicago and Washington as well as New York, is that public school children become chess pieces in high stakes reform and development strategies developed by the rich and powerful. Their interests and needs, and those of their families, are erased, allegedly for the "greater good." But the question must be asked—for the greater good of whom?
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Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program.
A version of this post originally appeared at With a Brooklyn Accent