Suffolk is moving in the right direction

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 3, 2006

As a Manhattan tourist, I never cease to be amazed at the high cost of living in New York City.

As I gaze up at million dollar penthouse apartments, sleep in my $230 night hotel room, lunch on my $12 pastrami sandwich and $8 slice of cheesecake, take my 10-block $15 cab ride, and sit in my $80 Yankee stadium seat, I always find myself wondering, “How do the regular folks afford to live in this city?”

I am thinking of the maid who cleans that hotel room, the usher who takes my ticket at the stadium, the cab driver who picks me up at the curb for that 10-block ride, and the food handler in the corner deli. Of course, I am always reminded that they get by the same way my dad did when we lived in New York. They do not live in Manhattan.


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Perhaps like us, they live at the end of the subway line in Queens. Or maybe they live in Staten Island and take the ferry to work each day, or live in Jersey City and take the train.

Working in downtown Suffolk, I am likewise amazed at my willingness to pay $13 for lunch in a trendy eatery, and the tales I hear of renovated homes on Brewer Avenue fetching prices in excess of $400,000.

And again I find myself asking, how are regular people going to be able to afford to live and work in this city? Especially since, unlike New York, we do not have a train, subway, or ferry to transport workers in from affordable outlying communities.

Instead we have cars, commutes and crowded highways, making it all the more essential that we maintain a downtown where people can live, work, shop and play.

The new urban designers comprehend the need. But all too often, their visions result in gentrification at the expense of the working class — those who my dad used to call the glue of society.

A $400,000 Victorian home is great, but a decent $600-a-month apartment for the house painter would be nice. An upscale restaurant is wonderful, but a hot dog stand would be satisfying. A cultural arts center is fantastic, but a recreational center with ball courts would be fun.

Too often redevelopment caters to the well-healed while ignoring the existing stewards of the community who may be living on fixed incomes or earning modest wages. And, while the ladder of success is available to all, the rungs of that ladder are spaced a lot further apart for those at the bottom.

Examples abound of ways the rich get richer while the poor get left behind. While the “rich” have double-pane windows, water heater blankets, and insulated pipes to keep energy costs low, the “poor” have drafty houses and costly electric and kerosene space heaters to supplement their primary heating source.

While the “rich” have low interest, cash-back credit cards, the “poor” have pay-day lenders charging annual interest rates in excess of 350 percent.

While the “rich” have washer/dryer combos in their utility rooms, the “poor” have quarter-hungry laundry mats.

Add to this company paid cell phones, expense accounts, country club memberships, and paid board positions, and the rungs of that ladder get closer and closer for those at that top.

While the list of economic advantages for the well-to-do and the obstacles for those less fortunate is unending, one example really hit home with me this past week.

I stopped in a drug store for a candy bar and bottle of water on my way back to my office. The elderly gentlemen paying for his prescription in front of me, cane in hand and of apparent modest means, asked the clerk if she could call a cab to take him home. It pained me to think that on top of high prescription drug costs, this poor man was going to have to pay cab fare simply to get back home. It certainly made me feel guilty about complaining about that $15 New York cab ride of convenience.

For that gentleman, and others like him without private transportation, it is even more important that we provide communities where residents can work and shop without the need for a car.

While the concept may now be in fashion for the new urban designers and their yuppie clientele, it has been, and will continue to be, a necessary way of life for those of limited means. As we remake downtown Suffolk, we cannot forget the need to create and preserve affordable housing for these citizens. While architectural standards, historic preservation, and large lots with deep set-back lines are attractive, we still need multi-family units and other affordable housing options where those at that bottom of the ladder can hang their hat.

I am proud to see that Suffolk is moving in this direction with the Fairgrounds Project on East Washington Street. When complete, this $10 million dollar mixed-use project is supposed to have over 150 homes and apartments of varying sizes and price ranges. Portsmouth’s award winning Westbury development, which replaced the Ida Barbour housing project, is an example of a similar, inclusive redevelopment project.

Suffolk likewise must move forward in offering a downtown environment where people of all walks of life can work, dine, live, and play together. I am sure the Fairgrounds project is a step in this direction. And, without a Staten Island Ferry, we really have no other option for the future progress of our city.

Philip Infantino is an attorney with Pender & Coward, P.C. in the Suffolk office. He formerly served as staff counsel to Congressman J. Randy Forbes of the Fourth Congressional District of Virginia.