“I was the only one to give her a big hug when she visited here,” says Marilyz Cabrera, who works for the handbag section at Macy’s in the Parkchester area of the Bronx.
“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a people person, and she doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty,” the 28-year-old Colombian immigrant explains, telling the story of the young legislator’s neighborhood victory lap after she became a member of the United States Congress earlier the year.
At the 171-building Parkchester development where Representative Ocasio-Cortez was raised as a young child, many residents have stable middle- and lower-middle-class employment.
But the ever-present spectre of being automated out of a job – combined with a cost of living that is 83 percent higher than the national average – has left some people in this Bronx enclave treading water financially, and hungry for a path to a more affluent future.
“The economy could be better,” Cabrera says, adding that she has a “low-paying job [but I] should be able to get more”. A Green New Deal to update infrastructure and create clean-energy jobs could deliver that.
For Cabrera, the kind of jobs promised by Green New Deal proponents are more appealing than the minimum-wage department store position she began in January.
The second of five goals listed in the US federal Green New Deal, cosponsored by Ocasio-Cortez, aims “to create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people”.
That proposed set of measures would devote unparalleled resources to a mass mobilisation transforming the US economy. The goal is to generate new opportunities by moving away from fossil fuels and switching to carbon-neutral electricity.
While the national Green New Deal remains stuck in Congress, New York State and New York City have enacted climate-change policies that could provide Bronx residents with green jobs much sooner than the federal programme.
Legislation billed as the state Green New Deal and signed on Thursday by Governor Andrew Cuomo was backed by Ocasio-Cortez – who has enthusiastically embraced the role of political champion for Green New Deals.
At the state level, New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act aims to provide massive investment in wind, solar and battery storage technology over the next decade, creating jobs to improve transmission lines and modernise the electric grid. New York City’s own Green New Deal also sets ambitious new targets for energy efficiency. Retrofitting old buildings could create thousands of jobs. And along with congestion pricing, the state plan is expected to help shore up struggling public transit.
“Using green energy is good for the planet,” says Cabrera. “There are so many ways we can spend money more sustainably, and be productive without polluting as much.”
‘Not like before’
Fuad Shaibi, 37, manages a convenience store in Parkchester. Despite US unemployment hovering near 50-year lows, he regularly sees those who have been left behind.
“Some people with no jobs come to me looking for work and ask, ‘You hiring?’,” Shaibi told Al Jazeera.
“We support her ideas. [Ocasio-Cortez] came to our community, so we voted for her,” Shaibi added. “She spoke about immigration, improving roads and solar power.”
Tree-lined Parkchester was built in the 1940s as a planned community by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.
The mid-rise buildings create a sense of cohesion in the eastern Bronx, an outer part of the borough with a high concentration of ethnic diversity, from African-Americans and Bangladeshis to Chinese and Puerto Ricans. Parkchester is indeed typical of New York’s highly multicultural 14th Congressional District.
When Ocasio-Cortez was born in 1989, her family lived in a Parkchester building next to Unionport Road. Although they moved from the Bronx to nearby Westchester County when she was five, the 29-year-old Democrat’s voter and candidate registration has been at the same condominium apartment – the one owned by her father in Parkchester – since 2012. She recently relocated with her partner to a new flat in the Bronx, where the couple reportedly stays on weekends.
“Not one person I’ve bumped into here has mentioned something negative about AOC,” said David Negron, 56, a field representative for the Renaissance home health aide company recruiting new employees just across from the local Starbucks.
While Parkchester faced security, electrical and plumbing issues in the 1990s, residents such as Negron say that management and the quality of life have improved dramatically at the leafy 52-hectare (129-acre) complex with deep-red brick exteriors and bright green window frames.
‘The rich will stay rich’
Median household income for the Bronx was $37,377 in 2017, compared with $61,372 for the country as a whole, and $84,133 for Manhattan – the borough of New York City across the Harlem River from the Bronx.
Rents at Parkchester aren’t exactly cheap, either. A two-bedroom apartment starts at $1,735 per month. The minimum household income requirement to qualify is $65,063, though many units are condominiums.
“The Green New Deal is appealing,” said Ronald, a Parkchester resident who declined to give his last name for security reasons because he was a corrections officer at the city jail on Rikers Island for 26 years.
“Although the poorest guy on the block is going to stay poor, and the rich will stay rich, the Green New Deal will make the wealthy less powerful,” he said.
“We should put money back in the people’s hands,” Ronald added, referring to the potential for bold climate legislation to fix staggering inequality.
When asked who will pay for wide-reaching jobs initiatives, he said, “The funds should come from a variety of things, just like a tree grows from different sources. This is the same idea. Everybody has to join in to create growth.”
At the C&C Market Research office where Parkchester residents queued to receive quick cash payments for completing demographically targeted surveys, several people were hopeful about what the Green New Deal might bring to their community – despite needing more details.
Audrey Wilson, a former teacher, said job training was in short supply, and that too many of her Parkchester colleagues saw declining prosperity.
However, Wilson was faithful to her new Congresswoman’s economic promises: “Let her nay be nay, and her yea be yea.”
Soaking up sun by the fountain in the middle of the lush Metropolitan Oval public space at the heart of Parkchester, Susan Murren-Azad – also a retired teacher – spoke favourably about “making sacrifices to provide a better life for those who come later”.
“Don’t tell me to tighten my belt just so some CEO can get his break,” she said.
“The Green New Deal will cost a bit more for a while,” Murren-Azad added, emphasising that a greater tax burden over the next decade would be preferable to “going to hell in a handbasket full speed ahead under the current president”.
“And I’m not the only person in my age group who feels this way.”
This article is the fourth in a four-part series looking at the economic and political context of Green New Deal policies around Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district. With local details and global significance, we examine the people and places most affected by climate proposals. Click on the stories below: