Seventy-one steps to the left of the 91st Street door of the building I live in, there is an entry down into Riverside Park, a long, lovely 330 acres that is treasured by volunteer gardeners, dog walkers, ball-fetching dogs, joggers, bike riders, slow strollers (like me), children, bench sitters, and river viewers.
A turn to the right leads into the busy Upper West Side. After two blocks of modest, low-rise apartment buildings, erstwhile single-family rowhouses now divided into multiple dwellings, two tall apartment buildings, a small synagogue, and a large church, 91st Street intersects with Broadway, a usually clamorous boulevard of shops, restaurants, small grocery stores, sidewalk fruit and vegetable vendors, apartment buildings new and old, expensive and cheap, and homeless people.
An early morning walk finds the homeless still sleeping in doorways or sprawled on sidewalks on dirty, makeshift bedding. Where do they go to the toilet? That is, after all, what everyone does upon waking up. Where do they brush their teeth or wash up? How do they keep from catching the Corona virus? How did they come to be suffering in this way? Bad choices? Of course. Circumstances beyond their control? Certainly.
The zip code of this area is one square mile in size. It has a population of about 59,000. Median family income is $113,997. “Average adjusted gross income” per family is $339,330. (I’ve been unable to find out exactly how that is calculated, but it clearly points to some of the families having more income, probably a lot more, than $113,997.) Twenty-two percent have incomes of less than $50,000.
East of Broadway are a hulking public housing project, a building that seems to be a single-room occupancy facility, and parking garages that offer standard-size spaces for around $17 an hour. PS 84 is close by a private school that has a tuition charge of $47,965.
Privileged lives and desperate lives and in-between lives are separated by little physical space but immense social distance.
Still, living in a building full of well-off people as Ann and I do, it’s easy to feel disconnected from both the working poor and the nearly or completely helpless who are down on the street nine stories below and a block or two away. Not entirely, though. As I write this, Ann has just returned from a walk during which one of the lost souls for whom the sidewalk is home vomited on himself and almost on her as she stood waiting for a light to change.
A walk in Riverside Park (or Central Park, which is a few blocks to the east) calls up mixed feelings. Classic liberal uneasiness at being so fortunate coexists with deep gratitude for these beautiful, well-kept, safe spaces. Time under the lane of sycamores at the north end of the park or the stand of American elms in the middle part or among cherry blossoms in spring or passing by the blooming flowers in the beds lovingly tended by volunteers or being still on a bench looking at the constant river – none of that does anything directly to fix the problem of inequality, maldistribution of wealth, or the general problem of suffering, but it does offer a moment to take a deep breath and carry on.