A couple of months ago, I was sexually assaulted in the Bronx and don’t want to tell you about it. I want you to like the Bronx as much as I do, despite — and because of, sometimes — its grit. But I want to be honest about the intricacies of doing what I do, so here it is:
I could say it was a weekday after work around 3 p.m. in the sun, but that doesn’t matter. I could say that I was grabbed from behind and forced to the deserted ground by a big man, that I had a box cutter held to my ribs with such intensity that it took a month for the marks to fade, that my face took on a purplish tan of bruises, cuts, blood, that I went limp under his body until I could kick and knock my way out with my head and legs, that it seems dizzying to type all of this but it’s easier to do all in one long sentence. I’d like to feign nonchalance and say that I can defend myself. I know that’s silly to say. Things could have turned out differently.
"Shut up, you stupid cunt."
I ran, I think. I ran, but I don’t remember. There was bricks and shrubs and limping. Maybe I should remember.
I rode the subway downtown and switched to another train home. People in the Bronx didn’t pay attention. People in Manhattan stared, yet avoided my eyes. I realized my phone was gone.
"Scream and see what happens to you."
What happened to me was foreign in the world I had returned to, in the safety of my neighborhood in Queens.
I couldn’t close my jaw right.
"Bitch, you say one word, this knife hit the ground through you."
I made up a story afterwards for people that had to see me, largely because I didn’t want anyone to know. I could hear the voices going on about safety, how foolish I am to ever be walking in the South Bronx alone, despite my working there and wanting to enjoy the neighborhood. How, I, as a woman, need to be vigilant, that people there are dangerous. Saying something negative about the area seemed a betrayal, but here I was, unable to stand under the shower spray for weeks without wincing, losing the ability of good dreams.
The neighborhood I so love has a myriad of problems, among them a commonplace violence that is near cultural and that, at times, runs amok. Things are stolen and sold: sex, money and drugs. It’s lovely too, with its soul and its hydrants in the summer and expressive, colorful population.
There seems to be sides to the media — exposition of the streets’ darkness and a reactive, combative effort to show scenes of lightness, of beauty. But things are ambiguous. The neighborhood improves, but it staggers in its strides towards normalcy.
It’s true, what happened to me could happen anywhere, but it’s more likely to happen in certain parts of the Bronx. Violence has infiltrated and woven into large segments of the community, and things need to be fixed. It doesn’t mean the area is worth holistically fearing. On the contrary, it’s worth understanding.
"Don’t even look at me, bitch."
Afterwards, not knowing what else to do, I went to Hunts Point. People looked me in the eye there, expressed outrage, defense and an innate understanding, though I didn’t say what had happened. To them, my face wasn’t a surprise but something of a fact of life. “You show me who did this. You know I’d go back to Rikers for you.”
The response was a very Bronx-like thing, to become irate and to move on, the attitude and reality in a place where solutions aren’t easy to find.
I felt a skim of the risk that people there have grown up beneath and periodically face, things about which they have to worry for themselves or for their wives or children. The point of my writing this isn’t about me, but about a swab taken from the life of a neighborhood.
By coincidence, soon afterwards I received a letter, part of which reads as follows:
Hi, Cassie. I’m writing to you on behalf of a friend of mine who’s currently studying photography in Manhattan. She’s really interested in photojournalism and bringing awareness to issues of poverty and injustice that are so prevalent in so much of New York City, and yet so often get ignored. Her main barrier in pursuing this is fear and insecurity stemming from her status as a young woman. I was wondering if you had any advice on how you, as a female, overcame the stereotypes of violence and danger in order to commit to working in the more invisible areas of the city, like Hunts Point. I would really appreciate if you had any advice I could share with her, because the world really needs more people willing to show the truth!
This letter sat mutely in my inbox for a week before I could reply. What to say, after all this. I couldn’t, in right mind, blindly cheer for another woman to do something similar. I still can’t. I recounted a small bit of what had happened to me, and I never heard from her again. That, to me, was tragic, that someone who might have been impassioned instead was lost.
But we have to admit what can happen and what does happen and be willing to fight for something beyond it. What I felt was minimal, something briefly dealt to a wisp passing through. The community feels it all.
In the end, my message to the young student, and to you, is this: Don’t be scared. Don’t nurture your fear for a neighborhood you know little about. Be willing to love and support an area and to make and encourage positive growth. In other words, respect it. I had a scuffle— they have thousands. Realize that your fear and what you’ve been told to believe about a place is symptomatic of both its problems and what gossip has cultivated. Communication about the issues is weak, which you know because you want to get into talking about them. Work for what you believe in in a way that fits you, and push yourself. Take care, always, but fucking fight because it’s for something.
Last week, Beauty, a sex worker in Hunts Point, disappeared from the streets. Rumor in the neighborhood said she was locked up. Photographer Chris Arnade and I set out to find her real name. After days of electronic searching and misattempts, we found her. She had been arrested and taken to Rikers Island jail. We visited.
Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade
Enclosure began disguised as transit common to New York City, with a city MTA bus. Civilians boarding the last mainland stop of the Q100 find themselves carried over the bridge’s half-moon, views of low-slung, faded earth-colored buildings and loop after loop of sharp wire.
The line outside the Rikers Island visitors’ entrance ebbed and flowed in rhyme with bus arrival, the sole means of transport for jail visitors. After drop off, passengers funneled into a chain link fence queue, which empties into a locker room of sorts, charging 50 cents for visitors to leave everything behind — electronics, jewelry, car keys, purses, hair clips. The line snaked through with flashes of ID cards, composed of patchworked ethnicities save for the white population. Chris Arnade and I comprised one of possibly two other white duos in the hundreds-odd line collection — we, there to visit Beauty, a sex worker from Hunts Point incarcerated last week for an assortment of crimes: assault, robbery, prostitution and possession of marijuana.
Of the charges, two were felonies, the robbery the worst in terms of conviction sentence length, expected to be a minimum of three-and-a-half years.
The queue segued into an airport scan mimic, shoes off, pockets emptied, IDs out. Visitors carried nothing from themselves, only packages to their loved ones, containing mainly clothes, magazines and legal documents.
Chris and I solicited recommendations from long-time Rikers veterans on what to bring, narrowing to socks, underwear, a sports bra, sweatpants, long-sleeved t-shirts (all grey), and a book. Parcels are made complicated by extended rules — logos, drawstrings, hoods, shoes with laces, bra underwire, zippers prohibited; many colors banned.
Post TSA-like scans, visitors signed in with their fingerprints and carefully jotted booking and case numbers. Bus and building number revealed, visitors split haphazardly away from one another, bound for buildings differentiated by gender and type of crime. Amidst the chaos of finding correct buildings and bus zone, guardians knelt with toddlers and hefted infants; visitors deposited money into inmate accounts for commissary use.
We boarded the bus to the Rose M. Singer facility for women, traveling through streets flanked by run-down buildings and disjointed administrative trailers, each straight surface decorated with razor wire seven loops tall, boulevards framed in circles of metal. Visitors sat checker-boarded across the bus, airing patient resignation and nodded camaraderie.
Aboard the blue and white wrenching school-like correction buses, through parts in the buildings, lay a view of Hunts Point, the nearest land to the Island, a swim away. We saw the Bank building and the docked ship, the point where Beauty worked the streets just across the water. It disappeared as we neared the Singer building, one dotted with rust, where small buckets overflowed and protected the concrete entryway from roof leaks.
The dozen or so off the bus were scanned and hand-stamped, then fed through another metal detector. Linoleum floor met grey plastic chairs while Judge Joe Brown piped from a small TV perched atop a high shelf. Another set of lockers and Pepsi machines lined the walls. Visitors ferrying packages stood in line to have their items sorted, checked for color, intent and appropriateness. Item after item failed: shapes within a hand-made snowflake sweater neared a little too red; sweatpants were black (both associated with gang activity). The attendant shoved approved items into a brown paper bag, scrawling the corresponding inmate’s name on the paper and shelving for pickup.
Visitors found lockers again to store anything remaining: photo ID, cash, belts. I, along with two others in the group of 12, was selected for drug testing, my palms swabbed for trace illegal substances. The man ahead in line failed and was instructed to wash his hands and return. He failed again.
We were shepherded one or two at a time into an alcove of a room. I was asked to turn out my pockets front and back, remove my shoes, show the bottoms of my socks, shake out my bra, run my fingers inside my belt line, pull up the legs of my pants, each move visually traced by two corrections officers. Three hours through security, faces were stern, my niceties dismissed.
Chris and I waited outside a grey metal door, one that slid open to reveal a small chamber. The door eased closed behind us, a voice through one-way glass commanding us to show our hand stamps. The forward-facing door slid open to reveal a large rectangular room set with several dozen child-size circular tables stamped with numbers. Most tables separated one chair facing another. Some had two chairs across from a single, while still others had a row of three opposing one.
We were pointed to table 26, and faced a wall. Beauty appeared behind us, face angling quickly around the room before alighting on her visitors. When recognition came, she elicited a wail. “Why did y’all come visit me? I thought you was my husband.” Between hugs, her level of upset became clear: her boyfriend-pimp hadn’t come to see her, the man who the neighborhood said beat her, the one who, after she became locked up, told her friends, “don’t worry about her, she’s chillin’,” the one who had a new girl working the streets the day after Beauty’s arrest. We were a far cry from second best.
Once seated, the 22-year-old righted, speech falling back into the street-level cascade. She wore a grey jumpsuit fastened with velcro (two bras and underwear underneath), her hair pulled back with frizzed pieces escaping, faded salmon beach-type plastic sandals partially enclosing bare feet. Her eyes were an abnormal K2-less clear.
She spoke of how she missed Bishop, her boyfriend-pimp, and begged us to relay how much she loved him if we saw him on the street. On her phone allowance she called him, expressed how much she wanted him to wait for her so that they could be together, perhaps running off to Oklahoma, her home. She told him through voicemail how she wanted him to visit her in jail, or come to court. A week in lock-up and no visit, no plans.
In jail, she spent her time watching basic cable, on suicide watch for “anger issues and depression.” Her mind remained fastened on her street skills for barter, angling for better treatment and possibly a lesser sentence by offering sex to one of the Rikers employees.
Of her charges, one, fairly serious for assisted robbery, she adamantly refuted. “You know I suck and I fuck. I don’t rob. Y’all see me. Ya’ll know me.” In her mind, she stood by while a former pimp, Trigger, stole something small from one of her dates. The others, she admitted to. Yes, while enraged at arrest for the robbery charge she kicked out the window of a police transport van. Yes, she prostituted.
She spoke of Rikers with mouth curled down, eyes slitted. By comparison, Hunts Point, where she slept in the hallways of buildings or inside empty Mac trucks in exchange for sex, was idyllic. She missed being what she called a street renegade. “Rikers Island is somewhere you don’t want to be. You piss and shit on their time. It’s a hell hole for motherfuckers that don’t need to be here,” a short-term jail and place where new inmates awaited sentence.
Memories of jail, though, were much better. She spun happy childhood threads of visiting her incarcerated mom in Oklahoma jail, a smiling mom who would braid and clip her hair. She looked forward to visits, to the queue lines. While she spoke, a happy dark-haired toddler toyed the lap of her young mom at the table next door.
She knew little of what her mom went through in jail, as little as she knows about her own future in incarceration. She had no insight as to who her lawyer might be, or what sentencing options could look like. She just knew her court date was the next day and that, because of it, she had to get up at 4:30 a.m.
Throughout our hour visit allowance, she warmed, glad to see us despite her initial disappointment, standing up at times to hug me and cry, thanking us through sobs, asking for coloring books and crayons (colored pencils were contraband) for our next visit. “Y’all actually care. About me. Y’all care about me. When you leave, I don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s so hard. I just want to go with y’all.” Sadness and urgency. It’s been two years since she’s been in contact with her family — her boyfriend-pimp was all.
After exactly an hour, at 3:35 p.m., we were handed a slip of paper to leave, and, bereft, haltingly walked away and replayed our waiting-room-to-bus-to-lockers journey, a slow methodical efficiency. Five hours after we entered, we left. On the ride away from the island, through the wide windows, planes serenely landed and departed from La Guardia airport. People clutched poles on the lurching, crowded bus, tight against one another in union, gaze set back on who they had left behind.
Tomorrow, Beauty’s court date would come.
"There are over 13,000 people sitting on Rikers Island. Eighteen percent of these people are already sentenced to City jail time, with an average length of stay of 38 days, and the rest are detainees awaiting trial or prison bound. Fifty seven percent of these people are African American, 33.7% are Latino, and 6.9 percent white. In comparison, NYC’s population is 26.6% African American, 27.0% Latino, 44.7% white. Seventy to eighty percent of people on Rikers have substance abuse histories, 75% are in on drug-related charges, 32% are illiterate, 40% percent require mental health services and 11% suffer from serious and persistent mental illness. Over 5% of these people are released to NYC homeless shelters, while many more wind up in our shelter system within months of release. In addition, according the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 8% of males and 18% of females on Rikers are HIV positive. There we approximate 58,000 discharges in FY10, including 19,500 to Brooklyn, 15,200 to the Bronx, 9,600 to Queens, 9,400 to Manhattan, and 2,200 to Staten Island. Statistics show that 45.5% will return to Rikers Island within a year. For those under age 21, approximately 8000 people, 48% will return in that same time period."
Taken from a NYC Council Budget Committee Meeting
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Photos courtesy of Chris Arnade
Beauty’s found seated atop a post or other makeshift higher ground cushion, on a street jutting a crooked angle from a main drag of parked and mobile semis. On happier days, her legs, clad in neon orange or green leggings, swing in circles. Spotting a friend, she tucks her smartphone into her bra with a soprano-pitched “hey, girl,” a palms-on-thighs leap down and spring up for a hug. These days have been happier — she’s left her boyfriend, her pimp.
Like many young women new to Hunts Point, Beauty, a 22-year-old sex worker, relied on her pimp to provide protection, guidance, and, ultimately, companionship, which twisted into a full-fledged relationship of sorts. In the arrangement, Beauty worked the streets, paid her “boyfriend” part of her earnings, watched his children when he disappeared for hours, sometimes days, dealt with his cell phone usage rules and outing guideline whims.
For Beauty, freedom has become increasingly important — freedom in when she walks the streets and how she spends her time, to go shopping and spend money how she chooses, to silence her phone instead of answering it on the first ring, nervous rabbit-like. She rides the metamorphosis from dependence to independence with ill-suppressed glee, the high of acting on her own.
On the South Bronx peninsula, the crevice dividing novice and adult prostitutes deals largely with the having of a pimp. Whisper-thin teen girls settle on street corners, life-size leaves collecting near storm drains. They talk to one another or speechlessly hold cell phones to their ear, eyes careening from one car to the next, magnetized poles to sidewalk pedestrians. These girls are fresh, missing the picked skin markings and clouded irises of their older counterparts. The young to late adolescents wait for aural direction amidst passing families clutching toddlers and roving groups of young men, acting automatons of street cool. When cued via phone, they enter a passing sedan, sometimes containing a pimp, sometimes a client.
Hands waving, words trip and collide when Beauty updates on her last days: a 48-hour stint in Riker’s veering near her twenty-second birthday, the thrill in release hours before her birthday began. This brief imprisonment, though, is much better than being confined to a one-bedroom abode watching five kids not her own.
Since leaving her boyfriend-pimp, she’s been dating her loosely-termed “husband,” now for a month. She’s poised to move into his talked-about apartment, a place she’s never seen, about which she’s only heard rumors. This guy has things going for him — crisp style; no gaggle of kids to look after; his own income apart from the neighborhood; housing. She makes her own rules, though she’s not quite yet on her own, straddling the pimp-no pimp fissure.
Older women at the Point scoff at the notion of pimps, though many a seasoned sex worker started her career with a similar keeper. Pimps are company, often treating young girls slightly better than the dysfunctional family unit from which they’ve fled. Later, though, once the sultry charm of instant adulthood the business offers wears off, splitting income with a man who can’t accompany her in a stranger’s backseat offers a woman little luster.
Tiring of the dangers and the fools gold-promised lifestyle, Beauty fans dreams of leaving Hunts Point, but only vaguely, something she might do someday on good days, something she really might do on unhappier days.
On worse days, the normally chatty girl folds into a post or pallets on an adjacent street, head bent, eyes heavy-lidded, strung out, a creased packet of “Scooby Snax” K2 in hand. Now, unhappier days happen less, but K2 happens more. Her boyfriend-pimp started her on the bodega-housed “potpourri” to help her relax, and as a reward for doing well, a common measure pimps use in molding and controlling their girls.
Now on her own, she sports the liberty to buy the sweet-scented wind-down smoke at her leisure and puffs it regularly, her speech and eyes slower, her mind moving to a place beyond Hunts Point, something more, something free, something that, alone in her skin, becomes more and less real.
I write on culture, poverty, and addiction in New York City, recovering from stints as a chemist and interactive TV producer. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg; find me on the web; or contact via email.
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I’ve been working with photographer Chris Arnade to document stories in Hunts Point, Bronx and often-ignored areas of New York City. Over the course of the last year, we have noticed the impact the city’s Stop and Frisk policy has on the neighborhood. Recently, we made the decision to start documenting that in action should we see it. This Sunday, we did:
Maria was standing against the brick of her Bryant Avenue apartment in Hunts Point, Bronx when police car 4643 pulled over, and two young female officers stepped out, palms on weapons. A black sedan idled in the rear, containing two more officers masked behind darkened windows: backup. Close to 7:30pm on a Sunday, much of the neighborhood milled on the sidewalk, despite the looming storm and 90 degree temperatures. A young officer with blackened mascara eyes and glittering blue nails asked Maria to remove the lid of her Styrofoam cup and upon seeing the amber-colored liquid, charged her with open container, ignoring the explanation of juice. The officer then aggressively gestured at the grasping-at-calm, sober Maria, and dumped the cup’s contents, tossing it off the curb and into the street, where it washed and caught in a corner storm drain. While the officers wrote her citation, an action that took upwards of 15 minutes, during which she was supposed to stay against a wall, Maria dropped a gum wrapper on the sidewalk. She was ticketed for littering as her brother Vinny paced, hands clenched behind his head, and the neighborhood voiced calls of disbelief. The empty apple juice-bearing cup drifted out of the storm drain and continued its journey, rounding the corner on Seneca Street. The gum wrapper blew away. Littering was only illegal for one.
Nearby, with the snap of a photo at the scene, Chris was ticketed for parking with a wheel on the curb, and we were peppered with non-disguised threats of more “play.” He tells, and shows, what happened here.
I’ve been going to Hunts Point routinely, days and nights, for the past six months, and I’ve never been afraid. I’ve been told by colleagues and friends to be careful. “There are drug dealers.” “There’s gang violence.” Only now do I have a tight gut, realizing in a twisted turn of logic that if I am to be hurt in Hunts Point, it’s more imminently to be by the police. By taking pictures and writing, talking to those stopped on the street, legally (and respectfully) documenting police encounters, I pose the risk of being frisked, ticketed, arrested or beaten with wild card reasoning: antagonizing the situation, obstruction of justice. By continuing to comb the neighborhood, I nearly guarantee myself a forceful police encounter.
On Sunday, the block’s strain impeded my quiet stance against the parked car, the heat rising in the already sweltering summer scene, neighborhood onlookers drifting ever closer. There was a sense of desperation as the policewomen scribbled notes, avoiding contact with the people, propped behind the glaze of their cruiser doors. With every flick of the pen, every use of “fuck” — “stay the fuck over there,” “I wasn’t fucking talking to you” — every repositioning of a finger on a hip holster, I worried. Worried that someone would make a wrong move on the sticky summer afternoon in the “Central Park of Hunts Point,” as Vinny called it. Worried that I, by raising my iPhone, by talking to those around me, would tip a reactionary domino.
This danger is the closest I’ll know of the near certain brutality of life in the neighborhood — the fear of being stopped for no reason, ticketed, beaten for no reason. Here, I risk my ability to say no, to defend my basic rights. I risk the unease and mortification of having someone run his hands over me, asking me to empty my pockets and purse, spreading my belongings for all the world to see, of having to keep my tongue in a vice even while I know it’s wrong. I risk the helplessness and dismay of knowing that I can’t help a friend being hassled and abused mere feet in front of me, and that if I do, I’m in for worse.
This time, I was — we were — lucky. Lucky that Maria kept her cool. Lucky that the officers weren’t men. Lucky that the lines violated weren’t physical. This time.
The people of Hunts Point don’t get lucky that often, and I may not get that lucky again. But I’m not the one on my front porch, spending a weekend on the cracked cement lawn of my family home. I’m just visiting.