by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
June 15, 2009
A HIGH-RENT DISTRICT WITH A LOW FIXED RENT
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Immigration is in the news again, or is it "still?" There is a big difference between what I see here on St. Simons and what I see when I visit my friend in Queens, New York.
Here, the roadsides and medians are freshly groomed, flower beds weeded, leaf-blowers clearing the roads of fallen leaves and cuttings from freshly mowed grass by a work force made up of hard-working immigrants.
I can't determine for sure their countries of origin but there's no doubt they work diligently whether alone or in a group. Because of their labors, our island is a spotlessly groomed gem off the southeast coast of Georgia.
I can't say if these men are here legally or illegally but I would hope these men do not face deportation. I would like to see these somber workers moving more freely among us, enjoying the fruits of their labors. As it is, I see many with the hangdog look of someone who is homesick and worried.
About two years ago there came a day when there were few workers in the class I describe coming across the causeway from the mainland. I was told a tipster called the local radio station saying there was to be an unannounced roadblock set up for a police checkpoint to ask for proper identification for all incoming vehicles and passengers crossing to the island.
That was the day I noticed how many immigrants worked here and suspected many of not having visas or green cards. The roadsides were empty of workers. We heard later that some instant deportations took place.
In New York, it's quite a different story. I lived there the first few decades of my life and there were always immigrants from somewhere - even from different sections of the city - moving to the outer boroughs where we lived or being sucked in deeper as the old residents moved out to escape the blitz of the newcomers moving in next door.
Some longtime residents do not move away, resignedly accepting the changes immigration brings while continuing to enjoy their local parks, public transportation routes, the neighbors ... until, like my friend, Rosalie, you're the last one standing.
Rosalie moved into the apartment she continues to rent in 1960. She and Carmine raised three children in what you'd call a row house with three small bedrooms, one bathroom, an ample kitchen, large living room off a front porch. It was very typical of a house converted into two apartments side-by-side and with an apartment upstairs over each. These houses had no garages but, then again, you didn't need a car. Just 100 yards from the front door was the 74th St. station of the elevated line leading directly to Times Square one way and Shea Stadium the other.
That station and those tracks are over Roosevelt Avenue and Rosalie could walk down the Avenue under the El to handle the day's business: go to the bank, shop for food, go to an afternoon movie, buy fresh vegetables from the vendor, stop in for coffee and a bagel and fresh gossip, too, with all the neighbors along the way.
I've talked to Rosalie almost weekly for over 50 years since we moved away and she steadfastly stayed put. Her late husband, Carmine, had never wanted to move, either. This was "the neighborhood."
Yet, there comes a time when the handwriting on the wall says "move." I used to meet her in New York City when I went in occasionally. My time was always short so we'd have brunch, a late lunch, a matinee show and some catching-up time.
It was just never convenient to visit her at home what with taxis and weather conditions. and she never minded taking the public transportation almost at her door. I didn't know the old neighborhood had changed to any degree.
Then Carmine died. When we spoke on the phone she was bemoaning the fact that now her daughter wanted her to move in with her and her family in Maspeth, about eight miles away.
"'No,' I told her, 'I don't want to move.'" Rosalie was adamant. "Why should I move? I have everything I want is right here, the stores, the bank, the dry cleaner, the library, my church, the YMCA where I exercise - why should I move?" But her next wprds jolted me: "Anyway, why should I give up what I have - the rent is only $247.00 a month."
"You're kidding, Rosalie, $247.00 a month?"
"Yes, it's fixed. I'm a senior - they can't put me out, the rent can only be raised at the time a lease is renewed, and they have to renew it so it could go up 10% or, if he installs new appliances, or a fuel cost adjustment, or what not."
Rosalie didn't really know or care about all the details, she only knew her landlord could do nothing. New York has strict laws and the only way her lease would not be renewed would be her failing to return a signed renewal lease. Then she could be evicted. The first landlord never kept anything up so he never got the annual increase. This landlord does the upkeep and gets his 10% but the increases add up slowly.
Her landlord is Iranian-American and he's rather casual in renting the other three apartments. There are about 16 persons in each, some children. "I don't hear when they move in or out; must be in the middle of the night, I never hear them."
Rosalie's friendly to everyone coming in and out as she walks her dog. All her old neighbors are gone but she feels secure and comfortable in her surroundings. Her son visits a time or two a week and his presence is evidence to others she's neither alone nor vulnerable.
I visited her at home last time I was there; I wanted us to take the bus to Rockaway Beach "for old times' sake." Here was another jolt. Each corner of 74th street and Roosevelt Avenue had 15 to 20 young male immigrants, their ethnic origin perhaps Honduran, perhaps Dominican, probably Haitian.
I asked Rosalie if they were indigents. "Oh, no, they're waiting for day labor. They stand there for about two hours and usually someone will pick them up for work out on the island - you know further out into the suburbs where there are yards, lawns, country clubs that have to be maintained without hiring full-time maintenance people. Only half of these guys get picked up."
We sat on a bench waiting for the bus to Rockaway. I felt so peaceful; I was in a comfort zone. This is where I grew up, a mile or two away, nearer to LaGuardia Airport. It was much more crowded this day but the storefronts were lined up as they always were - just the wares were different.
There used to be Italian pizza places, German bakeries, Chinese laundries and Greek restaurants. The proprietors all spoke with accented English, unlike the many languages I hear today. Yet, I understood the neighborhood and I knew why Rosalie was content here.
The sidewalks were almost as crowded as Times Square, and still they come. One look at the number of cemeteries abounding the borough of Queens and you can understand the truth in the saying "there are more dead people in Queens than live ones." That can no longer be said; the population has swelled; unfortunately, citizenship has not.
I turned toward Rosalie, my reverie having held me somberly silent.
"And you're comfortable here? Wouldn't that fully paneled basement apartment at Lauren's house tempt you?"
"Naah," and she laughed. "My landlord used the same argument last week. He even offered me $30,000 if I would move. He could get $2,000 a month for my place and cram 16 people into it."
"What did you say?"
"I told him to come back when he had $100,000."
"Would that be enough to have you move?"