THE FRONT LINES is a nonfiction assemblage of stories and photos detailing modern-day poverty and homelessness in southwest Yonkers, New York by MFA Candidate Rachel McCain. A police “ride-along” of gritty southwest Yonkers provides one of the threads in a collection of my encounters with homeless people, nonprofit employees, government officials, residents and others who work, live, support and represent the city.
Yonkers is hardened, like a person who has seen too much too soon. Tales of homicide and drugs, racism and prostitution are woven into the fabric of the City of Hills. It is the old street walker of 1980s Larkin Plaza, sagging and worn from turning too many tricks. It’s the 1990s white resident living on the city’s residential east side, who is vehemently against building affordable housing in his or her neighborhood, despite growing up in Yonkers’ southwest. Conversely, it is the black or Hispanic resident living in the southwest, anxious and scared about his or her move to Yonkers’ east side, in 1995.
It’s the single mother of three looking for a fresh start on one of the “tree streets” in 1999, unaware of their crime-ridden past and present. It’s the homeless man or woman, destitute and depressed, who walks the streets surrounding Getty Square. It is the high school kid who turned to heroin for instant gratification, in the ’80s and yesterday. Or maybe it’s the lifelong resident who grew up in Mulford Gardens, watching his or her childhood memories disintegrate when the complex was demolished in 2009. And it’s the politician taking bribes but still promising a better tomorrow, while standing on a platform of lies, in 1983, 2013 and beyond.
In some places, the city is antique–full of mystery and forgotten history: Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research. Longfellow Junior High School. Abandoned School 19 and the Herald Statesman Building. Other areas are new and full of life, completely divergent from the city’s past: Ridge Hill. 66 Main Street. The revitalized downtown waterfront. Many are unaware of Yonkers’ times of yore, uninformed about the demolished Sprain Ridge Hospital that treated tubercular patients until the 1950s, on the Ridge Hill site. They do not know what happened to Robin Lawn and the Glenwood Lodge, the Hollywood Inn Clubhouse for Workingmen. Most remain uninformed about Public Bath House No. 1, demolished in 1962 to make way for a housing project, located at 55 Jefferson Street in the southwest neighborhood. According to an article in the Herald Statesman, the bath house had a “solidly imposing façade of a miniature 13th century castle, complete with parapets.”
“White flight” to Yonkers’ east side following factory closings, the slow decay of the city’s downtown area and the condensed placement of affordable housing in the southwest, created an east-west division that gave birth to a stark identity that is still associated with all things west of the Saw Mill Parkway: The city’s highest concentration of poverty is in southwest Yonkers.