Justice in the City: For the Public Good Conference

At this year’s For the Public Good Conference, which took place at Barnard College in April, participants in the morning panel on “Exploring the Public Good in New York City” addressed a range of issues from LGBTQ youth rights to gentrification. The panel provided a rare space in which activists, advocates, and academics alike came together to speak about inequality in New York City—a subject that affects each panelist in different ways but one which they were all able to address in this unique setting. Individuals on the panel included John Blasco and Nico Fonseca of FIERCE; Ede Fox, active in local politics and president of the Prospect Heights Democrats for Reform; Robert Hawkins of the NYU Silver School of Social Work; and Amanda Geller of the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health

The panelists first responded to a question posed by moderator Gail Cooper, who asked what the public good signifies for the City today. Blasco and Fonseca addressed the issue of LGBTQ youth of color leadership and pointed out that New York will not be a safe space if there are no safe spaces for LGBTQ youth. Many LGBTQ youth—particularly those who lack familial support—face difficulties in finding affordable housing and securing employment that pays a living wage. In addition, issues such as homelessness, policing, the lack of gender-neutral bathrooms in public schools and parks, and the lack of documented history and awareness of LGBTQ history in New York—including the historic gathering space at the Christopher Street Pier—contribute to the displacement and marginalization of LGBTQ youth. Fonseca stated, “in order to survive we have to continue moving because every space we have claimed as ours has been taken, and that sucks so much.” LGBTQ youth activists are attempting to reclaim the Pier and reverse its status as a sundown town (there is even a curfew in place now).

Others commented on the need to invest resources into the city as a whole, and to provide people with greater access to such resources. In addition, panelists remarked that public officials including the police should protect people rather than act as oppressors. This point relates to the panel’s subsequent discussion on gentrification, a phenomenon that most speakers agreed is akin to the migration of blacks to the North that occurred during Jim Crow segregation.

Gentrification, occurring in neighborhoods throughout the city, pushes people to the margins around growing wealth in the communities in which they once lived. “Gentrification looks a lot like takeover,” one panelist poignantly said. Professor Hawkins referred to his research and his analysis of US Census data that showed that although New York’s population has decreased overall in the last 20 years, it has suddenly increased in the last two years. This is directly linked to one consequence of gentrification, which includes the departure of the middle class from gentrified neighborhoods, a phenomenon, he stressed, that only exacerbates poverty in those areas. Fox noted that the areas in the City where affordable housing is needed most are also the most heavily policed places. This, in turn, establishes a dynamic between community members and law enforcement or public officials that is devoid of trust.

For the full conversation, see the video above.

Emilie is a senior studying sociology at Barnard College and a research assistant at the BCRW.