Avital Aboody, from Sherman Oaks, CA, attended University of California at Berkeley and is the Tenant Organizer at Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. Read on to see how she is attempting to find sense in the madness of life in New York.
New York. Sometimes referred to as the ‘center of the universe’. I can almost understand that now, if that means the center point through which all peoples and creeds pass, collide, and become dizzy from the impact of such rampant diversity and disparity. It is so striking to me to suddenly realize that although I’ve traveled all over the world and opened myself up to many new ways of living, this is really the first time that I feel like I am living in such a uniquely diverse space. It’s ironic really because one of my major concerns about doing this program was moving into a house with eighteen other young, upper middle class, socially conscious Jews, which seemed to me to be the promotion of an intentional lack of diversity. And in many ways that concern still holds true and it feels strange to live that way in this neighborhood and in this city. But as the program and house community builds upon itself, I am finding ways to value this structure both as a place of comfort in shared experience and as a safe place to experience jarring discomfort when our often more subtle differences become pronounced and at the center of sensitive discussions. But venturing beyond the walls of our home, wondering what from out there will permeate into the familiarity of in here, I find myself confronting real time examples of processes that I’ve mostly only theorized about and dabbled with in my journey towards becoming a self-proclaimed activist. Walking the streets in my neighborhood and riding subways up, down, and across the boroughs of New York City, my senses have become highly attuned to both the sheer volume of people that occupy this city, and the extent to which they are largely people of color. And instead of experiencing this reality as an outsider, I take comfort in the realization that I am a member of an interconnected and representative world that we often don’t like to admit that we might actually inhabit.
So what am I actually talking about? I’m talking about my neighbors being a collection of folks from the African and West-Indian diaspora, the Black American community, young white hipsters, Latinos from all over the Americas, students, families of varying socio-economic statuses, elderly people, professionals, working class citizens, immigrants, new neighbors, long-time tenants, brownstone apartments, gentrified modernized buildings, houses with stoops, large subsidized apartments in disrepair, family-run food and drug stores, Baptist gospel churches, swanky wine and tapas bars, hole-in-the wall Laundromats, parks and playgrounds, bike lanes, trash on street corners, people on street corners, life. All this and many more snapshots that I decided not to list are just within the one mile radius around my house; my house of Jews in their early-mid twenties talking about and engaging with urban poverty, trying to make sense of our role in perpetuating/combating it, and in that process also make sense of ourselves and the multiplicity of identities embedded in and occasionally seeping out of our very porous bodies.
In my 12th grade English class my teacher wrote this quote by Emily Dickinson on the board: “Much Madness Is Divinest Sense/ To the Discerning Eye”. I don’t remember what it meant to me then but as I recall this quote right now, in the context of my first month in New York, it seems strikingly relevant. In my training at work I’ve been bombarded with information about the interplay between government, banks, investors, property owners, and renters. I’ve also become painfully aware of the role that money and greed play in many social and/or professional interactions between peoples, whether incorporated or individualized. I’ll explain. I now work as a tenant organizer for an organization called the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB). Essentially, my job involves identifying multi-family low income housing buildings across New York City that are at risk of losing their affordability for a number of reasons. We find such buildings by browsing open public records from the city, state and federal housing agencies and picking out buildings that have high code violations or failed inspection scores, usually signs of building neglect and horrible disrepair. In more recent years, UHAB has spent much of its organizing capacity working with rent stabilized apartments that fell victim to the predatory practices in the housing market, characterized by overly high mortgages/purchase prices intended to jump start gentrification by getting long time low-income tenants out of neighborhoods like Harlem and the Bronx in hopes that higher paying tenants could move in and bring profits for landlords and investors. As a tenant organizer, I go into buildings that have deplorable conditions and are also often in foreclosure. In these overleveraged buildings, foreclosure is usually a result of the fact that the income from rent couldn’t support the expenses(maintenance and repairs) plus the high mortgage payments, so the owner just stopped putting any money into the building at all and let it fall into shambles and into the hands of the bank to re-sell to yet another high-bidding irresponsible landlord. So I go into these buildings, knock on all the doors to get the tenants’ version of the story and see what the real needs are. Then I organize meetings with the tenants, facilitate the formation of a tenants association, and then ask the tenants simply: “what do you want?” and “how can we work with you so that you can get that?” From there, we empower tenants to develop a strategized campaign to demand and ensure affordability and good livable building conditions, whether that be by holding banks accountable for bad lending, getting responsible non-profits to buy buildings at fair rates, help tenants to “go co-op” and own the building themselves, or anything else the tenants can dream up.
So where is the divine sense amidst the madness? Well I think that is the question that I will keep asking myself and searching for with discerning eyes as I continue to make observations and analyses about intersections of life in New York. Since moving here I’ve felt such vibrant mixtures of bliss, depression, frustration, excitement, confusion, anticipation, and a host of other sensations. And as I work towards channeling these thoughts and emotions into actions that I can be proud of, I hope I’ll start to find “sense” in scenarios that often seems too nonsensical to work with in my constant quest for change-making tools and allies. As New York keeps pulsing, I’ll keep learning. I can hardly wait!