A Brooklyn Corner
In 1950, Marvel Cooke, an African-American journalist, wrote a series of stories for The Daily Compass in which she went undercover as a domestic day laborer. For the series, Cooke stood on 170th Street in the Bronx, just west of the Grand Concourse. This was in the neighborhood’s white, middle-class heyday, when Italian and Jewish housewives, daunted by the upkeep of their large Art Deco apartments, sought help beneath the click-clack of the elevated IRT, at the Woolworth’s five-and-dime.
A line of “Negro” women, the “paper bag brigade” (a reference to the sacks in which they carried their work clothes) could be found in front of the store. Cooke joined this line and became, she wrote, part of the “Bronx Slave Market.” One morning, she was picked up for a job and told “to get down on my hands and knees to scrub all the floors,” a lasting humiliation. Cooke regretted having to work for less than was recommended by the New York Domestic Workers Union ($1 per hour).
Today, through the efforts of successor groups like Domestic Workers United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, many more Americans recognize and value household labor—especially that of the nannies employed in upper-middle-class homes. Similarly, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network has mostly drawn attention to day laborers of the usual sort: Latino male construction workers. But the women workers at Marcy and Division fit neither mold.
Ana Luz Gonzalez, a PhD candidate in urban planning at UCLA, co-wrote a national report on day laborers in 2006. “Only 2 percent were women in the study,” she says. “We had a very hard time reaching out to women…. They’re just not as visible as the men.”
According to Sanchez of the Workers Justice Project, “the women going into these situations don’t have other options…. There are a couple that have been here for four, five…ten years, but every day there are different faces.” Patricia, a veteran of the corner, explains the flow: “If they come today and get hired, they won’t come back because they already got a job.”
This was the case for Rivera—except that the job that took her away from the corner was not in cleaning at all. A month after we first met, she explains, “I was having a nervous breakdown because I didn’t have anything steady in terms of work. And Brooklyn was somewhat of a journey—not knowing whether I’d get something that day.”
Rivera finally found work in nearby Jackson Heights, selling clothes at a store much like the one she owned in Colombia. Her teenage daughter had previously worked at the store part time; now, Rivera’s full-time income would support the whole family.
I ask how the new job compares with the hodgepodge of day labor. “I don’t know how good it is, but he pays me $70 a day and gives me breakfast and lunch,” she says. The pay is just above minimum wage, but the hours are long enough—10 am to 7 pm—to make it worthwhile.
How is she adjusting, I ask, to the unrelenting schedule? Allowing her to be home after school with her 7-year-old daughter had been one of the corner’s few virtues. “There’s a big change in my life,” Rivera replies. “I’m going to be sending my younger daughter to be with my parents in Colombia. It’s temporary, while I organize myself and my life.”
The news surprises me. Rivera seemed exceptionally attached and devoted to her girls. But life in America is more trying than she’d expected. “I’m responsible for myself and my daughters,” she says. “I need to be more on top of day-to-day finances. I need to cover that and get extra money, and once I get to that point, I can check with my daughter and see if she wants to come back.”
Rivera has no intention of returning to Marcy and Division. “I realized that that job isn’t going to support my growth as a human being,” she says.
Our blogger Josh Eidelson reports regularly from the labor front. His latest dispatch: “Striking McDonald's Guest Workers Headed to CEO's Chicago Home.”