A Brooklyn Corner | The Nation


A Brooklyn Corner

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Women day laborers wait for cleaning jobs at the corner of Marcy Avenue and Division Avenue during a winter storm in Brooklyn, New York. Credit: E. Tammy Kim

On the Thursday morning before Christmas, about fifteen women, mostly Latina but some Eastern European, stand scattered on a curved asphalt shoulder overlooking the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. As yeshiva school buses and somber men in black topcoats pass by, an older Hasidic woman comes close and asks a Latina, in Yiddish-accented English, “Clean today and tomorrow?” “No, sorry,” replies the worker, who is already booked for Friday. The Hasidic woman eventually hires a middle-aged Polish worker, who trails her home at some distance.

This article was made possible by the generous support of the Ms. Foundation for Women Fellowship. Special thanks to Karina Vasquez, Karen López and María Alexandra García-Sánchez of the Caracol Interpreters Cooperative.

About the Author

E. Tammy Kim
E. Tammy Kim (@etammykim) will soon join Al Jazeera America as a staff writer.

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Women who care for poor kids are often mothers living in poverty themselves.

It is thirty-six degrees and windy, but a patch of shifting sunlight warms Hellen Rivera, a luckless jornalera, or woman day laborer. Tall and fair-complexioned, Rivera looks so unlike the other Latina workers that I mistake her for Polish. She wears a long, black wool coat and orange beret and scarf—a contrast to most of the workers’ bulky, pragmatic garments. 

Rivera has been on the corner for only a month or two. I ask her what she thinks about the cleaning work so far. “They should pay fifteen, not ten,” she says. “And they don’t give you a mop. You have to get on your hands and knees!” Gladys, a bearish woman who lives in the Bronx, recommends buying knee pads: “You get accustomed to the way they want you to work.”

Two years ago, Rivera and her daughters—Laura, 7, and Honey, 19—arrived in New York from Cali, Colombia, where she’d studied broadcast journalism and owned a clothing and accessories store. The family now lives in an $800-per-month subdivided studio apartment with pale yellow walls and a knotty wood floor. When I visited in late December, a miniature lit crèche was on display (“It’s Jesus Christ’s birthday. There’s no Santa.”) and, owing to Rivera’s hectic, unpredictable work schedule, the refrigerator was empty.

In a short time, Rivera has worked a series of odd jobs, from selling holiday cards and a man’s self-published book on the streets of Queens to hawking Avon and Herbalife. Live-in domestic work was another option, but “with two daughters, it’s not a good idea.” 

When Rivera was suddenly, inexplicably fired from a job as a live-out nanny and housekeeper, her friend suggested that she visit a corner where “Jewish women come to see who they want to clean.” She found her way to Marcy and Division, where she was startled to see women day laborers and “men with curls” (referring to peyes, the sidelocks worn by Orthodox men). 

Rivera is still getting accustomed to the hiring process. “They look at you. They look at you. And then they say to one, ‘Do you want to clean my house?’ And then they take them.” 

She recites the English she’s learned: “Do you have mop? How many hours? How do you pay per hour?” The going rate, she and dozens of other Latina workers tell me, is $10 per hour. “In the bathroom, sometimes they don’t have the brush, so you have to clean inside with the sponge—for ten or twelve dollars!” And the different levels of need mean that some women on the corner work for less. 

“My Cuban friend today said, ‘We’re going to put up a big sign that says we demand a mop and this is the rate per hour.’… I don’t know how the laws work here, but I was thinking of something like that: organizing.” 

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Women day laborers have cleaned homes in Williamsburg’s Hasidic Satmar enclave since the 1990s. According to experts, this Brooklyn housecleaning corner, which the Latinas call La Parada, is one of only two known spots in the United States where women wait outdoors year round for occasional labor—the other being a corner in Manhattan’s garment district, which, like the industry itself, has a tenuous existence in New York these days. In August 2005, The New York Times’s Nina Bernstein described these corners, respectively, as embodiments of “the vast underground economy of domestic service” and “the scraps of a collapsed manufacturing sector.”

Even in the harsh cold of winter, upward of fifty women can be found on the Williamsburg corner. Some live nearby; others travel from deep in Queens and as far north as the  Bronx. Their ages, backgrounds and work histories vary. On a given day, only a fraction are hired, with the luckiest among them earning between $60 and $80. A day laborer named Rosario says, “Sometimes they hire you for four hours, but then cut it to only two and expect too much work during that time.” 

Because so few of the workers are hired on a given day, the vast majority actually lose money: round-trip subway fare plus, if they have kids, $15 to $20 on informal childcare—unless they have a network. “When I get work from the corner, I call a family member or a friend because I don’t have enough money for a babysitter,” says Cristina, a single mother with a green card.

Until the early 2000s, La Parada took place at the intersection of Hooper and Lee and was worked almost exclusively by “Polish” women—shorthand for Polish, Russian, Albanian and other comparatively white immigrants. When the South and Central American immigrants began showing up, the resulting gathering overwhelmed the corner and drew complaints from neighbors, despite the Hasidic community’s persistent demand for household labor. By community negotiation, the corner was relocated—first, unsuccessfully, in front of the nearby public library, and then to its current spot at Marcy and Division.

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