By: Nick Santangelo

The College of Liberal Arts and Temple University as a whole pride themselves on their location within Philadelphia, a vibrant and growing city with the sixth-largest population in the country. Students have instant access to a wealth of some of the world’s best arts, entertainment, sports and restaurant options. But when a major city grows and is revitalized through gentrification, it has to consider the impact on all of its residents.

Last Friday, the Department of Geography and Urban Studies welcomed Clark University Professor Asha Best to speak in Gladfelter Hall’s 10th floor Center for the Humanities at Temple (CHAT). Dr. Best told students about her research into how black residents of New York City have been affected by the city’s changing landscape post-1965. The professor argued that the way blacks (particularly immigrants) create, imagine, remake and inhabit urban centers are often seen as problems needing to be solved. Her research into the Caribbean neighborhood of Brooklyn’s East Flatbush has found evidence that this view restricts black urban mobility by restricting their “right to the city.”

Dr. Best spoke to the standing-room-only CHAT audience about the “complex relationship between blacks and cities,” specifically when it comes to creating better urban transportation. She spoke of a need to create urban changes in black neighborhoods that are logical to their black residents, like “dollar vans.”

A Different Kind of Transit

Different from traditional taxis, phone apps like Lyft and Uber and separate from public transit, these vans are a type of transportation created specifically by blacks and migrants. They’re a response to a lack of urban planning to meet the needs of black and migrant workers and are popular in many post-colonial cities. Unfortunately, New York City has often seen them as a threat to what it views as the “natural” way cities are planned and navigated.

“The city is allowing things to happen that are crippling to the industry,” one dollar van driver said in an interview with Dr. Best.

But for many black residents of East Flatbush, they’re a necessary component of their urban life. Dr. Best spoke of how the concept of “white roving” (the ability for whites to simply walk around the city) is often criminalized for blacks. As evidence, she cited the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Akai Gurley. Dollar vans have stepped in to make the city more traversable for working-class blacks, and that mobility is crucial to creating and maintaining black opportunity in the city.

The drivers Dr. Best has interviewed see a correlation between where the city most heavily polices and fines them and where gentrification is happening. This has put the existence of the dollar vans into peril as the drivers deal with concerns about violence and imprisonment that could potentially come from police interactions. With her research project, Dr. Best is trying to capture how neighborhood boundaries have shifted under the efforts to remake Brooklyn into a world-class destination. What she’s seeing is what she calls the “vernacular” of the working urban class being worked out of existence.

Just Another Day in the Life

It started under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The mayor actually supported the dollar vans, but only because he disliked having a large social safety net and wanted to keep the drivers off welfare, according to Dr. Best. Many of the drivers told the professor that the Giuliani administration enacted a heavy-handed policy of monitoring their movements, which built “a sense of extreme anxiety, not only around theft but a lack of liability insurance,” said Best. “There was a constant question about what will happen when they get into accidents.”

The administration used coded language about cab drivers being foreign immigrants and rapists, which Dr. Best said was “linked to longstanding fears not only to migrants as rapists but working-class black men.”

A student asked the professor how New York’s transit authority, the MTA, responded to the vans, which could be seen as a threat to its ridership. It turns out its reaction was not altogether different from that of the Giuliani administration. The MTA mounted signs urging people not to ride the “uninsured” dollar vans and began campaigns urging residents to report any vans they spotted.

“It’s really strange when there are urgent responses to buses or bus lines,” quipped Dr. Best.

To that end, the professor responded to another student question about how her work is unique by highlighting the relative mundanity of it all.

“I see all of this as very ordinary and mundane and as not being romantic,” she responded. “Some of the things I earmark such as people having two jobs or having to wait out the police, I don’t see those as romantic things, but they are sort of everyday life.”

So ordinary and everyday, perhaps, that these issues haven’t been given the attention they deserve.

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