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    Posted April 21, 2015 by
    vallyn
    Location
    Brooklyn, New York
    Assignment
    Assignment
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Photo essays: Your stories in pictures

    More from vallyn

    A Story of a Block in Harlem

     

    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     Virginia Allyn spent the last year taking photos of one block in East Harlem on Lexington Avenue between 124th and 125th Streets. Through her collection of 6,000 photos, she hopes she can change public perceptions of places like Harlem. “The goal of the project is to contribute to an understanding of the skid rows, the tenderloins, the block in Harlem. I believe most people are judgmental and believe what you see here on this block is the fault of those on the block,” she said.

    Her descriptions paint just as much of a picture: “This one block in east Harlem is home to a higher concentration of formerly incarcerated persons than anywhere else in New York City. This block is sandwiched between two homeless shelters. Here empty Styrofoam cups and plastic bags blow as the wind blows. Cigarette butts, empty cans, all kinds of trash litter the dirty sidewalk.”
    - zdan, CNN iReport producer

    There are streets in every city known by such tags as "Skid Row" or "The Tenderloin" plagued by poverty, homelessness, crime, unemployment, addiction. The lost souls down on the luck and down and out find their way here. It is an American tragedy. For a year I witnessed one block in East Harlem on Lexington Avenue between 124th and 125th Streets and spoke with the people who make this "home" or the place to be, who spend their days and sometimes their nights on the sidewalks, outside the storefronts. Here someone's selling cigarettes for $7.00 a pack. Someone else walks by asking "anyone got K2?" (K2 being the new, cheap high to hit the scene), someone's braiding a friend's hair while someone else is rummaging through the trash receptacle at the corner, scavenging for food or anything of value. Jimmy stands outside the pawn shop shouting "cash for gold...check it out...broken bangles, earrings...we accept any kind of silverware...doesn't matter if it's broken or damaged..." And then Kenny gazes out at the street from the vantage point of his wheelchair and says "these four corners...I've never seen anything like this!..."
    On this one block the 99 Cent Rush, the shuttered Quicklane Candy Store, Quick Cash Pawn Shop (now relocated), a cheap pizza place, a supermarket, a recycling center, a discount clothing store form the backdrop for this tapestry of misfortune. Some of it is self-made. Some, not. In the words of one man all too well acquainted with the street "it is a block of misery."
    Economic opportunity did not come the way of the majority of these folks. When misfortune did come their way they could not and did not rise. Getting back on one's feet is more than a daunting challenge when considering the obstacles that must be overcome.
    This one block in east Harlem is home to a higher concentration of formerly incarcerated persons than anywhere else in New York City. This block is sandwiched between two homeless shelters. Here empty styrofoam cups and plastic bags blow as the wind blows. Cigarette butts, empty cans, all kinds of trash litter the dirty sidewalk. There is a stench of urine and cheap wine. The hustlers hustle and police keep an eye out walking the beat. Commuters navigate between shopping carts full of recyclables, pigeons and human bodies propped up against the nearest wall. Disabled with walkers, canes and wheelchairs are ever present. Pairs of shoes, pieces of clothing, dvds and other items for sale line the sidewalk. In broad daylight a mugging takes center stage for a quick minute. A man's pockets are turned inside out as he's lifted like a rag doll from his sleep. FDNY and EMS arrive on the scene. Across the street a fight breaks out. Minutes later a man lies face down in handcuffs while police talk to bystanders and onlookers gaze. Here it's all about survival.
    The farther into any given month the money from welfare and SSI checks has been spent and the street becomes more desperate. The dynamic of the block changes from minute to minute. Amidst the sound of sirens and non-stop drama Brother Angelo stands on the southeast corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue handing out tracks with the words "You Are Somebody."
    A program known as Street To Home engages and identifies those hard to house due to the challenges to stability posed by severe and persistent mental illness, chronic health conditions, alcohol and substance abuse as well as non-responsiveness to traditional outreach efforts. The economic toll of homelessness is staggering.
    In the immediate area of 125th and Lexington Avenue there are substance use services, health care providers and clinics, mental health services, food pantries, soup kitchens, jobs assistance programs, domestic violence services, among other resources. What then will change everything? What will alter this landscape where days fold into each other for the lonely and desperate who have found their way here? On a sunny Sunday afternoon Jameen holds a cigarette between
    his fingers and states "this is a place to live or die." A piece of fabric is wrapped around his head. His clothes look like they haven't been laundered for weeks.
    Many receive public assistance. Some receive food stamps. The Food Stamp benefit for a single adult was $200 in 2012 but it has been slightly reduced. The Public Assistance grant to a single individual in that time period was $215.00 a month. If an individual is in a shelter that amount is to be reduced to $22.50 every two weeks. These numbers don't meet any standard of living in any city. According to the Council for Community and Economic Research, New York City is home to three of the top five areas in the country with the highest cost of living. While room rentals are advertised as $125 and up a week, one may need deposit money and/or pay up another week in advance. The cost of renting a room by the day is off the charts.
    Finding hope here is not easy. Street rally preachers and ministers frequent the block. Churches bring full course meals on some days.
    Here the day after tomorrow won't look much different from today except perhaps for the clouds in the sky, a change in the weather. But tomorrow the sun will rise again and anything can happen.
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