Volume 17 • Issue 18 | SEPTEMBER 24 - 30, 2004

Downtown Notebook

Rent sends a New York immigrant’s dream packing

By Ed Gold

Alicia has to leave New York, which is a big setback for her — and for me.

Alicia Harrison is a very special person who has been cleaning my apartment on a weekly basis for the past eight years. But she is now priced out of the market by high rents and is moving to Maryland.

She is special because, in addition to being dependable, creative and thorough all these years, she is erudite and well informed; she keeps up with the news, can discuss world affairs or national politics and reads biographies, including ones about John Kennedy and Barbara Jordan. She also listens on talk radio to, ironically, Rush Limbaugh, whom she calls “a fanatic,” but who amuses her.

She’s a single mother with a superior 10-year-old daughter, Shantaul, who has been a standout student and wants to be a lawyer.

Taking her daughter out of the intermediate honor school she was to begin in September is probably the saddest aspect of Alicia’s exodus.

“My daughter,” she says proudly, “served as a mediator in elementary school, solving student conflicts. And she’s just got accepted into Shellbank School, which has been designated by the superintendent as an honor school. A law firm is helping those students who want to become lawyers.

“Shantaul,” she gushes, “has received the Presidential Award for Academic Excellence at P.S. 217 in Brooklyn.”

I know about Shantaul’s early school achievements. Several years ago, she served as a mentor to new students entering her elementary school, so I sent her a gift for her good works, and she answered with a letter telling me how much she loved school.

But now she has to begin again in a new place, and she is very upset, her mother reports.

It’s all about money.

Alicia, now 33, whose family hails from the island of Jamaica, came here 10 years ago and moved in with a cousin who had a small two-bedroom apartment in Flatbush. Alicia and her daughter took the smaller room and paid half the rent, which now hovers around $1,000 a month. Alicia has never wanted to live in Section 8 housing and never applied. She has looked for years for her own place but hasn’t been able to find a one-bedroom in the current rental market for under $850, and some of those were in pretty scary neighborhoods.

But now she has to leave because three members of her cousin’s family are coming from Jamaica and taking her room.

The economics in New York don’t work for Alicia. She used to clean for four or five families in my building, but these people went away for long stretches, either taking trips or going to their other homes. She lost vital income when they were away. “I was losing maybe three months in wages from each of these apartments,” she estimates, “and I had to figure out another way to make ends meet.”

Since I was around almost all the time, she stuck with me, but she went into training programs so she could qualify for jobs in the personal-care field.

She has worked in a nursing home where sadly one of her patients recently died. She has also been a home aide in the projects — “although the gunshots scared me” — and she has been in a program teaching people how to read and write English.

People keep leaving Jamaica, she notes, “because it’s so hard to find decent jobs there, even if you’re well educated.

“My father was in the States for 17 years and was an expert mechanic here,” she says. “But he got diabetes and then glaucoma and became blind. He went back to the island and stayed with my three brothers and my sister.” Meanwhile, Alicia’s mother remained here as a cleaning woman, working for one family in my building seven days a week! But she had to return to Jamaica a few years ago to take care of her husband when Alicia’s sister moved away.

There’s another financial pressure on Alicia.

“I have a difficult time here, but I have to send money back to the island every month,” she says.

In Maryland, she will be staying with another cousin but hopes eventually to get her own place since, she has discovered, rents are about half the New York rates.

She has four years of high school but never earned a diploma. She mostly took business courses.

In Maryland, she will hunt for a position in geriatric nursing in a hospital “where I would have a chance to join a union.”

She would like eventually to become a nurse and is prepared to make the required sacrifices. “But most of all,” she says, “I’d like my daughter to have an opportunity to become a lawyer.”

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