New York is a city of workers

Debates on who is a ‘real New Yorker’ tend to erase New York’s working-class, immigrant residents.

Andrew Yang walks with New York State Assembly member Latrice Walker on January 14, 2021, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Yang, a former presidential candidate, has officially entered the race for mayor of New York City [File: AP/Frank Franklin II]

When I was booking a vaccine appointment online for my father – an essential worker and a senior with preexisting medical conditions – I did not expect that the process would be as arduous as it was. As elders who are not tech-savvy and whose English is imperfect, my immigrant parents have often struggled to navigate the multilayered machinery of the city’s healthcare, education, labour, and political bureaucracies without assistance.

As I booked my father’s appointment, it dawned on me that there are probably thousands of others like him who may not have someone to do this for them.

It might be hard to believe that the city widely held to be the economic and cultural capital of the country – perhaps the world – would fare so poorly in administering the COVID-19 vaccine, especially given how quickly it became the epicentre of the virus when the first wave reached the United States.

But this is also the city where excess vaccines are being discarded due to lack of coordination, where the mayor and governor have been promoting conflicting guidelines about public gatherings, and where the corpses of those whose lives were taken by the virus had to be piled up in trucks because existing infrastructure could not hold them.

With the frenzy of the presidential election out of the way and a new administration at the helm, New Yorkers must now contend with the frenzy of the mayoral race in our city. And given the centrality of the city as a cultural engine and economic powerhouse – not to mention the home of some of the biggest American media outlets – the mayorship is consequently a national discussion.

The entry of former presidential candidate Andrew Yang into the arena, followed by his choreographed performance shopping at an exceptionally large and clean bodega, prompted a flurry of responses on Twitter ridiculing his claims to the city, drawing renewed attention to the question of who counts as a “real New Yorker”. But these questions, lighthearted as they are, obscure much more than they reveal. Who dictates the criteria and who gets erased by them?

I was born in Brooklyn in the 1990s and have resided here ever since, in the type of working-class immigrant community where you could live for decades without spending much time anywhere beyond your neighbourhood because everything you needed and everything you knew – the mosque, the school, the clinic, the supermarket, the tech and retail stores – existed within a ten-block radius.

You had your community “uncles” who were as affectionate as they were harsh, your hole-in-the-wall corner stores and restaurants manned by overworked teens who hooked you up with free food, your awkward stoop kids who spent the whole day… on the stoop, your neighbourhood troublemakers to avoid, your unhoused buddy who offered sagely wisdom to everyone that needed it, your friends you only knew through a single place like the café or the park or the mosque, your religious leader who seemed both omniscient and totally out of touch, and so on. Everyone had their proper place, as if it were the will of a higher cosmic order.

This was not an anomaly, as there were dozens of Black and brown communities like mine. But the passage of time has exposed me to the realities of unprecedented change that come with living in a fast-paced city. In my lifetime, I have witnessed four major tragedies in this city: the September 11 attacks of 2001, the stock market crash of 2008, hurricane Sandy of 2012, and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2021.

And with each one of these crises, many of the aforementioned characters who were everyday fixtures eventually became no more, their lives upended in myriad ways. Some were deported by the government in the post-9/11 “war on terror”, others rendered out of work due to massive layoffs, some were left homeless by the superstorm, and many lost family members to the virus.

After September 11, we witnessed the sharpest rise in anti-Muslim attacks ever seen – rivalled only by the Trump era. After the stock market crash, we saw big banks and corporations receive billions of dollars in bailouts. After hurricane Sandy, we witnessed the wealthiest districts receive electricity service within days, while many, including my own, were deprived of it for weeks. And now with the pandemic, brought upon us in the midst of a global uprising for racial justice, we see how unequal “the great equalizer” truly is.

Every city has its own idiosyncrasies. New York, perhaps unlike any other city, has its own internationally recognisable quirks. We are the city of tough love and thick skin. We embody a rough, resilient, and resolute kind of urban culture. And while Yang’s performance at the “bodega” – or supermarket as I would call it – was an attempt to demonstrate his own bona fides, it spoke to something much larger about New York that is often forgotten: This is a city with actual people, poor and working, Black and brown, immigrant and refugee.

To say this might sound cliché, but even a cursory glance at the media discourse about New York shows that it only pays lip service to this essential character of the city. It is why the question of whether or not “New York City is dead” was raised after the city became Ground Zero of the pandemic last March.

Perhaps one can say that the question came as a natural response to the devastating impact of the virus on the city’s economic life, but asking it reveals less about the city and more about the one asking the question. It would never cross the mind of anyone from the neighbourhood I grew up in. New York City… dead? Why would it be dead? Are we not still here?

In all of the New York talk, ordinary New Yorkers are conspicuously erased: Those of us who grew up in inter-generational households, who went to New York public schools (gasp!), and who were here when the pandemic ravaged our city and who will be here long after it is gone. And if we are truly to make this city function as a city that represents all of us, we need to centre those people and voices that are erased but that have otherwise always been here.

This is not to play nativist or to gatekeep who gets to call themselves a New Yorker, but rather to hold ourselves accountable to the very ideals we claim to embody, regardless of whether we have been here for two years or 20.

How many working-class people did not receive any stimulus packages because they were undocumented or did not have the resources or ability to file their tax returns? How many will be neglected because they could not navigate a byzantine healthcare bureaucracy to book an appointment for a life-saving vaccine?

We should be less concerned about endless cultural debates about “real New Yorkers” or whether “New York is dead” than we should be about the material conditions of the ordinary people who call New York their home.

New York is not only the glitz and glam of Times Square or the shows on Broadway or the Opinion Pages of the New York Times. It is also the gyro stand worker who serves you a hot chicken over rice in cold weather while barely making ends meet. It is the cabbie who makes sure you get to your home safe while dealing with racist passengers and the destructive effects of the gig economy. It is the mail carrier who ensures that you receive your mail in the midst of a pandemic while their profession deals with cuts in funding. It is people like my father whose labour was only deemed “essential” when the city that he gave his life and labour for was struck by a deadly virus.

The pandemic has forever transformed public life in the city and forced all of us to reconsider questions of inequality, labour, urban design, and transportation. Wherever you stand in the cultural debates, let us all affirm that if New York is for all of us, it must first and foremost be for its workers. When we talk about New York – our beloved, pained, and defiant city – let us make sure that we talk about a city that is for all of us.

That, to me, is what being a New Yorker is about.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.