On Basic Needs: A Brooklyn-Based Reflection

This past Friday evening I was walking with a friend in Brooklyn and our walk took us deep into a Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg. It was about 10PM and the Jewish men were taking their post- Shabbat dinner walk around the neighborhood. The men walked in pairs and triplets talking amongst themselves and paying no attention to the two black women walking in their midst. My friend and I observed them, the occasional women and children, and the general peacefulness of the neighborhood. There were no cars whizzing by, no police officers on the street, and of all of the closed stores and shops we saw within a 15+ block stretch they were filled with necessities. It was a community seemingly focused on basic needs and each other.

Before long we crossed over a block and landed in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, a predominantly black area that was once known as the largest ghetto in the US. No more peace, parked cars, closed stores, and simply clothed families. Instead we were met my police, whizzing car and sirens, extraneous stores, complicated clothing, the works. It was like day and night and the startling contrast hit me and my friend like a ton of bricks. We began to talk about the differences between the community we exited and the one we entered, not to generalize it or set up a binary, but to grasp the profundity of the shift we experienced in the span of a few blocks. My friend pointed out that nothing was sold in that Jewish community that wasn’t needed, I noticed that too. There were no random clothing stores, no junk and processed-food laden bodegas, nothing in that neighborhood that wasn’t of necessity to the people. Capitalism wasn’t king in that swatch of Williamsburg, community and G-d were. It’s a self-sustaining community that usually doesn’t permit the interference of external businesses. It is a community that thrives on basic needs. This got me thinking about the work a friend of mine is currently doing to raise the basic need averages of 1 billion people–a lofty but a worthy goal to strive toward. When he or anyone else talks about wanting to raise the basic need averages of people in under-served communities do the people even understand what basic needs are? This is a serious question.

When a community is flush with extraneous businesses pushing wants as needs are the people truly aware of what the needs are? Or are they thinking that basic needs are actually the extraneous? This question is driven by the move of capitalism that exists even in the poorest of communities. Consumer goods are sold to people in these communities under the guise of need when in reality they are wants or a subpar quality of needs at best. Given the proliferation of this system, people in the community build up an appetite for consumption based on everything they don’t need. Thus my concern is that when we talk about increasing basic need averages we have to gain understanding of what inhabitants of under-served communities believe those basic needs are through on-the-ground observations and direct engagement with inhabitants of said communities. Then we must educate them about what basic needs are and how & what they should be fighting for not only for themselves but for future generations.

I don’t say any of this to imply that black communities need to be more like Jewish communities–although I do think they can learn some things about their structure. I say this because I believe there is a disparity that exists in knowledge of what basic needs are that is endemic to under-served communities such as those inhabited by black people. This is all based on observation of not only the communities I walked through on Friday night but communities I’ve seen over the years. And the bit of community development knowledge I have tells me that working toward the increase of basic needs averages is important but so is education that increases communal awareness about what those basic needs are in the first place.

Nevertheless, I am willing to be corrected on this matter and certainly would love to discuss this further with interested parties.