[My apologies for making a factual mistake: Jonathan Cook died on 28 Dec, 2012 and not on 28 Feb, 2013, as I wrote earlier.]
I did have a relatively demanding day at work today. Every Friday, I teach two consecutive recitation classes starting at 11.00 am. Today I had to teach three instead, starting at 9.30 am, which is pretty early by my standards. I was covering an extra class for my fellow TA and friend, who is away at a conference. Such courtesy is often reciprocated as I will be away to Princeton for a couple of conferences in April.
As I walked to Bobst Library after a relatively late lunch at a pizza place, I noticed a tiny group of people holding a banner at one corner of the library. I could see the words NYU written prominently on the banner. As it often happens with demonstrations in NYC, I got drawn to the gathering to get a sense of the happenings.
The demonstration, which comprised of hardly 15-20 homeless people, was organized to protest against NYU’s expansion policy at the Village (around Washington Square Park). But the most immediate context of the protest was the death of Jonathan Cook, a 28-year-old homeless person, who froze to death on 28 Dec, 2012 in his sleep at a storefront in Midtown NYC. Cook was suffering from bi-polar disorder. He was treated and discharged from hospital. He returned to the streets and froze to death in his sleep.
This is not the first time that NYU’s policy of expansion at the Village has been criticized. NYU lacks, to my experience and assessment, quality class-room space. It has been desperately trying to increase the student-space ratio to the standards of some Ivy-league schools, which it aspires to emulate. In my own discussion classes, I often feel frustrated with the class-room spaces which make even using the white-board difficult. For a $50,000/annum undergrad fee, the students often don’t receive the infrastructural facilities they deserve. Being located in lower Manhattan, one of most expensive and coveted spaces in the city, expansion is often a difficult process as it means changing the demography and eco-system of the Village.
One person at the demonstration spoke very eloquently about NYU’s real-estate ambitions which contribute directly or indirectly to the housing problem in the lower East and Westside. The speaker rightly pointed out that once NYU realized the students were renting apartments from private landlords at a high price, it got into the real-estate business. NYU started buying out old buildings in the Village, renovated them and, then, either rented them to students or sold them as apartments.
In this NYU is not the only university to understand the potential of real-estate. A representative from a rents association spoke of similar problems in the Harlem area where Columbia University is located. Once the university buys out a building and renovates it, gentrification of the area happens at a rapid pace, often displacing people who can’t afford high rent in the Lower Manhattan and Harlem area.
Homelessness is not often a choice, as we tend to associate it with rebellion. The speakers explained that it is often caused by the homeless person’s inability to pay high rent. In addition, one third of all homeless persons suffer from mental illnesses. They receive treatment from hospital but are often left to their own devices once discharged from hospital. Without proper follow-up treatment and counseling, they eventually return to the street. Another third of homeless people are veterans who often don’t have the means to rent an apartment in Lower Manhattan area.
One of the speakers said he did photography for New York Times once. Now he lives a homeless life. After the demonstration, he declared that he would be lying outside the Bobst library in his sleeping bag. When I left the library close to 10 O’clock, he was still lying there, while I was shivering in my winter-clothing.
In the morning recitation class (which I was covering for my friend), I discussed Jack London’s short-story, ‘To Build a Fire’, which narrates the adventures of a man and a dog in North-West Canada. Set in extremely cold climate, the story narrates the man’s eventual failure to light a fire and survive and the dog’s ability to survive. In light of the class-lectures, I asked the students to think about the term, ‘teleology’ – marking a progression through time toward a state of Platonic perfection – in the context of the story. It appears that London is critiquing the very notion of teleology and human intelligence. The man’s failure to survive indicates that man might not be the most perfect being (which comes from Darwinian Theory of Evolution, though Darwin himself discounts such a notion of teleology), when it comes to the limits of environmental space.
I asked the students how the notion of teleology has been used to the detriment of third world countries which are often subjected to the catching-up game. If the west represented a perfect state, the non-west is thought to be on the way to march to perfection.
One of the students (an Economics major) very eloquently told me that there might not be anything wrong in trying to reach a society, like the west, where everyone is happy and economically prospering. I tried to explain that it’s not economic prosperity that is being questioned here but the idea that there is one single way of achieving that result, negating indigenous ways of life in the non-west.
The demonstrations of homeless persons at Bobst library make me question: Has the west itself reached the state of perfection that my student advocated so stridently?