Interview: Retired MTA employee Tony tells us about life in Harlem, New York

I just retired from the MTA after 44 years,” Tony tells us. “Started there in 1971, been working ever since. It’s changed a lot since I started, but it was good work. Steady paycheck, hard work, but I always knew I had a job.

The MTA is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. They are responsible for public transportation both in and around the New York metropolitan area, including parts of coastal Connecticut. This includes the famous subway system as well as a slew of other train services, as well as bus service. Between 8 and 9 million people use the service every single day, most commuting to and from work and school.

The MTA prides itself on its efficiency and reliability, though many New Yorkers will gripe about suspended service and delays that occasionally strike the lines throughout the week. Construction is a constant obstacle as they work to maintain and expand existing tunnels as well as to expand service to previously under-served neighborhoods.

“People just like to complain,” Tony says with a shrug. “It ain’t easy moving that many people around everyday. They don’t talk about how cheap it is to ride, what like $3 each time? That ain’t nothing. Besides, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than trying to drive a car in this town — you ever see the traffic around here? It’s crazy. You ain’t going nowhere in a car in this town.

“But I get it. You get dependent on something. Nobody is trying to mess things up, but things happen, you know? They want to have the service, but don’t want to wait on it to get built up. They want to be to work on time, but so does everybody else. We’re all just trying to do our jobs, and the jobs just get harder and harder.”

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Nearby buildings begin to block the sun

Tony is a 66-year-old black man, his hair just starting to gray. He lives in West Harlem — a predominantly black neighborhood with signs of gentrification starting to pop up. We ran into him at a grocery store on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 145th st when he struck up a conversation about how the neighborhood was changing.

“I lived over here since I was little. I was born up in The Bronx, but my dad died when I was little and we had to come live with my grandma over here. I like it, but I guess I don’t know any different. If I had grown up in The Bronx I guess I’d like it better, but this is what I know. This is my neighborhood.”

Stepping outside so Tony can have a smoke, we asked him if he was worried that the changing demographics would change the character of the neighborhood.

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145th St. is always bustling

“You know, I don’t think it’s a bad thing, really. I know some people get mad, saying white people are coming in and changing up the culture. But they also bring in money, and they ain’t trying to do anything that the rest of us aren’t trying to do. We’re all just trying to live where we can, and this is just where it’s affordable for them.”

He takes a drag, blowing the smoke. The street corner is a fairly busy one, predominately made up of families with small children walking to and from school. Nearly every person we see is black, with a few Hispanic faces mixed into the crowd. There are notably few white faces to be seen — this is very clearly still a black neighborhood.

“Besides, this area has always been changing. It’s different now than it was 20 years ago, and 20 years before that. You can’t have it stay too much the same. It don’t matter what color the people coming in are, so long as they do their part to make it better and keep it clean.”

“But what I am worried about is the immigrants coming over. They can come in and they can do the jobs that we always been doing, but they’ll do it cheaper. I saw it over at the MTA — it’s been going on there since the 80’s. We got to take care of our own people first before we can start bringing these guys in who don’t even speak English! At least these white kids can communicate.”

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Frederick Douglass Blvd. lined with shops

He shakes his head, and throws his cigarette into the gutter. He walks toward the wall of the grocery store, leaning against it as we continue to ask our questions. So what does Tony think about the Trump Administration and its push toward shutting down illegal immigration and building a wall along the southern border?

“Look man, I don’t know about all that, to be honest. All I know is what I’ve seen. Everybody is always saying that Trump is racist this and hates that, but I gotta be honest, I don’t see that. I mean, if he shuts down these immigrants — I’m just talking about the illegal ones now. I don’t mean you can’t have nobody coming in, but we have to have a limit.

“I got family members and friends who can’t get no work right now, but somehow these dudes from Mexico and China and wherever are getting jobs left and right without even knowing the language? Something stinks about that, you know? My nephew went to college, got a degree in Engineering and he can’t get work. They always saying that engineering is where all the jobs are at, but my nephew can’t even get a job. That ain’t right.

“Then I hear that all these guys from India and China are coming and they got jobs in engineering but they been here less than a year. How does that make any sense at all? Used to be that these guys would come over and be driving cabs even if they was doctors!” He laughs. “I guess that sounds a little racist, but you can put it in because it’s true.

“I guess that all I’m trying to say is, that there ain’t enough jobs for everybody. I don’t know if it’s just because we got too many immigrants coming over, or if it’s something else, but that’s got to be part of it.

“Lookit though, I didn’t vote for Trump. I didn’t like some of the stuff he said, still don’t. But he’s in now, and we got to give him a chance to at least try some of these ideas out. I ain’t saying we shouldn’t ask for how to do it, or how much it’s going to cost, but we should at least look into it and see where it goes. It can’t do much worse than what we got going right now.”

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