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An Evening Conversation with Matt Black & Alissa Quart on: The Geography of Poverty

Work presented at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine by Nina Berman’s students at the Columbia Journalism School during an evening conversation with Matt Black

On December 7, Magnum Foundation and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project co-presented an evening discussion at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Susan Meiselas welcomed renowned photographer Matt Black to speak with Alissa Quart about creating work that challenges public engagement on issues surrounding poverty.

  Matt Black and Alissa Quart in conversation. Photo by MF Fellow Jasper Briggs.

Matt Black and Alissa Quart in conversation. Photo by MF Fellow Jasper Briggs.

This conversation was followed by a presentation by Nina Berman and her students at the Columbia Journalism School, inspired by the installation of The Geography of Poverty, to look locally at economic disparity in upper Manhattan:

It doesn’t take more than a short walk down the block to realize that Morningside Heights and Harlem are changing. Glassy high priced apartments stand in place of crumbling lots.  Banks and gourmet shops outnumber bodegas and barber shops. A neighborhood where taxi drivers once feared to venture, is now marketed as the Factory District, the newest destination for the city’s ever expanding creative class.

Two of the biggest players driving the gentrification are this Cathedral, and our university. Needing money for repairs, the Cathedral leased its land to luxury housing developers whose high priced rentals units have helped push the cost of housing in Morningside Heights up 30%, one of the sharpest increases of any neighborhood in the city.

Meanwhile, Columbia is re-shaping Manhattanville to the north, with a $6.8 billion 16 building development rising on what used to be a  working class commercial warehouse district.  As the first building, the Jerome L Greene Science Center, designed by star architect Renzo Piano nears completion, a visual picture emerges of a neighborhood co-existing but in  sharp contrast.   On one side is Columbia and its $9.2 billion endowment. On the other side just across Broadway is the aging, underfunded, and poorly maintained Manhattanville projects, home to 2,700 residents where the average annual income wouldn’t pay a semester’s college tuition.

Already, Morningside Heights has the highest income disparity of any community in the city with the top fifth of residents median income at $207,000 per year, and the bottom fifth only $6,000 a year.

While institutions work to mitigate the impact of their development - Columbia is paying $100 million in community give backs and the Cathedral continues to be a vital social service provider - without truly affordable housing  and commercial rent regulation,  gentrification will inevitably mean eviction. In New York and in most cities, this process is marked by race.  The newcomers are generally white and more privileged. The existing communities are more black, brown and the working poor. In Harlem, this change is particularly profound given the community’s historic place as the center of African American culture.

The reconstruction of New York City is often captured through before and after comparisons showing seemingly instantaneous growth.   In our four-week investigation, we had the unique opportunity to photograph neighborhoods in the midst of transition. Poorer residents, and small business owners still call Harlem home. Can these people who trace their communities back generations, find a place amidst the “Enclaves”? Further, can there be peace and harmony within communities, and a sense of belonging for long-term residents and newcomers alike, without addressing the causes of structural inequality? It appears, for residents of Harlem and Morningside Heights that the fight is over. Gentrification is seen as a fact of life, an unstoppable force, for better or for worse.

Written collectively by: Aleksandra Konstantinovic, Erin Golkaskson, Fahrinisa Oswald, Kevin Milian, Harriet Dedman, Luciante Hoffman, Max Siegelbaum, Victor Vaiana, Wendy Lu, Ben Parkin with advising by: Professor Nina Berman

  Installation on 110th street. Photo by MF Fellow Jasper Briggs.

Installation on 110th street. Photo by MF Fellow Jasper Briggs.

Be sure to visit the installation on 110th Street, curated by Magnum Foundation as part of the current exhibition at the Cathedral, The Value of Food: Sustaining a Green Planet, on view until April 3, 2016.

Katerina Voegtle