An illustrated, 70-page advertising supplement lies inside my New York Times most Thursdays when I check my mailbox at America House. Called HOMES, it carries the subtitle “The Finest Luxury Properties in Manhattan and Around the World.” I live, however, not at America House on West 56th Street, but in what was once a very different neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Until recently, when my home Jesuit community received its copy of The Times, the HOMES supplement was not included because of our different zip codes. But because of gentrification, the supplement now reaches that neighborhood too, having apparently acquired what the supplement unabashedly calls a “prestige zip code.”
America’s own address was not always upscale. It moved to its present location some 40 years ago, at a time when its segment of West 56th Street, between Sixth Avenue and Seventh Avenue, was far humbler. But over the years the block has changed dramatically. An expensive hotel now stands just across the street from America’s front door. So on Thursdays, those who live in our 56th St. neighborhood, as well as mine, are offered homes that cost millions.
The season of the year makes a difference in what is featured on HOMES covers. A late summer issue, for example, shows the exterior of a three-story shingled home in an exclusive section of Long Island popular with those intent on being near the water during the summer months. The same issue also has offerings in the city. On the back page, for example, we see a photograph of a duplex that sells for $4.35 million, described as a “family home.”
Zip code targeting is just one of the subtler signs of the growing gap between the haves and the have nots. A far more visible sign is the increasing number of homeless men and women (including whole families, for whom a “family home” of any kind is just a dream) throughout the country. Here in New York, as a reflection of the economic downturn, one Times headline ran: “Record Number of Homeless.” In some neighborhoods, doorways serve as homes. Walking back to my community along First Avenue, just below the United Nations, I sometimes pass a building undergoing renovation. Posted in a doorway is a hand-lettered sign that reads: “In memory of Dino, Homeless. Died 1/15/03 at 49. Good person and friend.” A mini-eulogy is added: “His spirit almost made it through the cold and frustration of New York.” On the doorsill below lies a cardboard box with a red pillow, which I took to be Dino’s. Next to it is a vase with artificial flowers, dusty from the rush-hour traffic day after day. Dino was at least remembered by someone.
On my way to work in the early morning, too, I see homeless men and women rising specter-like from other doorways. One recent morning in midtown, I passed the Citicorp building, with its elegantly slanted roof. On a low ledge near the sidewalk sat a number of men and women who had evidently spent the night in the shadow of the building. Among them was a grey-haired woman in her 60’s with only a thin windbreaker against the cold. On an esplanade below the ledge, colorful umbrellas at metal tables provided a scene of well-being—for those with jobs and a place to live. The contrast was unsettling.
Some cities have enacted measures that criminalize homeless people. Police in Orlando, Fla., for example, are empowered to arrest people who sit or lie down on the sidewalks. New York City officials acknowledged late last year that the number of homeless persons arrested has risen. In one instance reported this past spring, the police department here went so far as to file charges against an officer who refused to obey a sergeant’s order to arrest a homeless man found sleeping in a parking garage. That officer must have read Matthew 25 and taken some of Jesus’ words literally. May we all become such literalists of the Gospels, prepared to suffer the consequences for the sake of a fellow human being.