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Upper School Explores Stories of Neighborhoods and Change

Friday, December 4, 2015

Manhattan Country School’s Upper East Side neighborhood has experienced great change since we first opened our doors in 1966. The neighborhood of our future home on West 85th Street has also undergone great transition. Through this year’s Upper School theme—Neighborhoods and Change—students are examining how and why neighborhoods transform.

At the November 20 Upper School Assembly, students explored the idea of where one is from. When asked, students offered a range of answers such as “Harlem,” “New York City,” and “America.” One even replied, “Planet Earth.” For some, the answer was influenced by the context in which they were asked. For example, if questioned in New York City, one might respond with their borough or neighborhood. But, if traveling abroad, the answer might be a more general “U.S.A.”

The discussion also explored the question, How many times have you moved? Answers ranged from never to 10, with the discussion segueing into a conversation about the reasons people move. To be closer to family, because of a better job, to accommodate a larger family, to be closer to school or work are just a few.

The group then screened a documentary titled “El Barrio Tours,” which explored the impact of gentrification and told the stories of residents in Spanish Harlem who, as the neighborhood has changed, struggle to live in a neighborhood they no longer recognize and can no longer afford.

The discussion of gentrification continued during the December 2 Upper School Assembly, which featured a special guest: Ruth Lauture, the 83-year-old grandmother of Fifth Grade Teacher Shani Brignolle. Ruth has lived on the Upper West Side (MCS’ future neighborhood) for more than 50 years. She shared her story of leaving the political turmoil of Haiti with just a suitcase in hand to come to America. She spent a couple of years in Boston, before taking an apartment on West 87th Street in New York City. Not much later, her children joined her from Haiti. In need of a larger home for her family, Ruth moved to West 93rd Street, where she has been since 1968. Her first thought about being in New York City was that it was “strange.” She had to learn to navigate the subway and the English language, ultimately making a life for herself working a variety of jobs including babysitting, handling hotel laundry, working at a watch repair factory and cleaning houses. She’s gotten used to life in Manhattan. “Now it’s my place,” she says.

Shani prefers the Upper West Side of her childhood, when, she says, the neighborhood was safe and convenient, with lots of kids and people you knew and who knew you. Today, with rising housing prices pushing out long-time residents and businesses and an influx of new residents and chain stores, Shani says, “I feel like the outsider in the neighborhood now. I feel like I’m not supposed to be here.”

Both Ruth and Shani talked about the attempts to get long-time residents to leave the neighborhood. Ruth has evaded rising housing prices by living in a rent-stabilized apartment, but some of her neighbors haven’t been as fortunate. Her apartment building was recently sold and the new landlord has raised the rent in some other units by $2,000. Since the building’s been under new management, it’s taken longer for things to get fixed—a common strategy to encourage tenants to move out.

Both assemblies offered our Upper School students enlightening accounts of the impact of gentrification. It’s a complex topic that our students will continue to analyze during the school year as they investigate the many reasons and ways neighborhoods change.