Despite Hardship, Residents of East New York Look Ahead

By Ivan Garcia • Dec 23rd, 2011 • Category: Editorial, Lead Story

By Ivan Garcia

Empty lots, abandoned buildings, foreclosed houses and shuttered businesses populate the working-class neighborhood of East New York. As communities around the U.S. have been impacted by the economic crisis, it falls on the residents to determine their future. East New York has long been called “the ghetto,” by locals and outsiders alike, but the people who live there would like nothing more than to see that stigma erased.

Elizabeth Alarcon works from home as the operations manager for a newswire, PR.com. Her duties include distributing news to media points online and managing a staff of telecommuters. She recently remodeled the home she has lived in for 29 years. Her biggest concern in her neighborhood is progression.

“I would love for my neighborhood to lose the stigma of ‘the ghetto’,” she says. Her ideal scenario would be for her neighborhood to become more like the gentrified parts of Brooklyn, such as Williamsburg and Bedford Stuyvesant, which have become places where businesses can flourish and people feel safe to raise their families. “That area is all money now when it used to be the ghetto,” Alarcon says of Williamsburg, now one of the priciest neighborhoods in New York, let alone Brooklyn.

Alarcon’s neighborhood is family-oriented, and most of the businesses and home owners on Norwood Avenue, one of the area’s primary commercial streets, have been there for many years. “Everyone knows each other and we tend to look out for one another,” she says. Many of the independently owned stores closed during the economic recession, and now, the people who own homes in East New York fear their property values will decrease as a result.

Aida Alarcon, Elizabeth’s mother, expresses her fear. “I’m afraid squatters will occupy the empty lots and this can make the neighborhood more dangerous,” she says. “My daughter just spent $500,000 to remodel this house. And I love this neighborhood, I don’t want to leave.”

To make matters worse, a halfway house was recently built down the block from the Alarcons’ home, and that didn’t sit well with mother or daughter. “I immediately called local government officials to protest it,” Elizabeth says, adding that the people she called were helpful. They made phone calls to find more information about the type of halfway house it was going to be. It turned out the home’s residents were mentally ill, and any issues they had with the law were minor. After calling her councilman, Alarcon was relieved. “I mean it’s not good for the neighborhood because that also decreases property values,” she says, “but at least I knew it wasn’t going to be criminals.”

While many homes and businesses in East New York are owned by locals, the people in the neighborhood think of themselves predominantly as working class. But others have a different view. Elizabeth recalls walking her dog one day when she overheard two workers from the halfway house discussing a recent theft. “I heard one of them say ‘How could this happen here? I thought this was a middle-class neighborhood.’ The other responded, ‘Well… there are different levels of middle-class.’ I guess we’re coming up in the world if we’re now considered middle class,” Alarcon says, laughing.

Some members of the community are, indeed, moving up, such as Rafael Espinal, who was recently elected state assemblyman for that section in Brooklyn. Espinal is the son of Aida Alarcon’s lifelong friend and he is now an influential community member who aims to improve conditions in East New York. His supporters feel confident that Espinal will help because he’s from the neighborhood. “I believe in him,” says Anastasia Ramirez, a middle-aged woman who has lived in the neighborhood for over 40 years. “He knows every niche in this neighborhood and we all believe he won’t let us down.”

As blighted as East New York might seem today, Elizabeth Alarcon says she’s seen worse. “It used to be much worse 10 years ago. The area was filled with gangs and drug dealers on every corner,” she says. Now police officers do routine checks around the neighborhood to make sure no illegal activities are taking place. “There are cops walking around, which makes me feel safer, but I fear that my neighborhood is going to regress.”

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