BRONX — When Ali Ahmed is not running the convenience store he owns in Queens, he is criss-crossing the city as an Uber driver.
The side job helps him to afford the mortgage and other bills on the house he bought two years ago in the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx. Ahmed happens to work and live in New York’s 14th congressional district, which could soon elect the youngest woman ever to Congress: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ahmed says he works hard to get his bills paid and try to create a better financial foundation for his children. It’s a struggle that resonates strongly among voters here who propelled Ocasio-Cortez, 28, to victory last week in the Democratic primary over incumbent Joe Crowley.
Their constituents are a mass of working-class families who hustle to make a good life in the shadow of the extreme prosperity in Manhattan. In Parkchester, New York natives with Italian or Puerto Rican roots live alongside people who have immigrated in past decades from Ecuador, Mexico, Bangladesh and other parts of the globe. Neighborhoods in Queens, including Jackson Heights, Astoria and Sunnyside, are equally diverse.
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The district offers a window into the modern economy. The financial recovery of the past decade has buoyed some Americans who feel flush from rising home values and a steady march up in the stock market. Yet despite record low unemployment across the nation, those who live on the fringes of a strong economy find they are working double time just to keep up.
Ahmed, 41, moved his family to the Bronx after more than 20 years in Queens because the rent on his apartment in Astoria, an increasingly trendy neighborhood, was becoming too expensive.
The move made some things better and other things more complicated. He used to be a few minutes from his store. Now it takes up to an hour to drive there. His bills are larger as a homeowner. But his family has more space. There is a yard. And his kids, a 4-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, are happier.
“My family is comfortable here,” he said, adding later that he thinks it will be better for his children in the long run. “I want to make my kids educated, I try to do my best,” he said in a phone interview from the park as his children played. “My hope is that I make something better for them. So they can have a good career.”
The business owner said that he has noticed a pattern among his friends and neighbors — many people are moving to more affordable places in New York City. Professionals who work in Manhattan are moving to Queens as they look for lower rent. That shift is pricing out families and immigrants like him.
“For any one-bedroom apartment, there are 15 people who want to move in so they put pressure on you,” he said. He watched as many of his friends moved from Queens to the Bronx or out of state.
Living costs are also creeping up around him in the Bronx. A cousin searching for apartments in the area was recently quoted about $1,500 for a one-bedroom, Ahmed said. The same place would have cost $1,000 just two years ago.
The Congressional district that Ocasio-Cortez would represent if elected in November has gone from being predominantly white in 1980 to being nearly 50 percent Hispanic, 17 percent Asian and 23 percent white in 2016, according to Census figures.
Some of the residents there have achieved the milestones considered staples of economic success in America, such as owning a home, sending a child to college and running a business. Others struggle more to make ends meet, toiling away as servers, drivers and cashiers.
For many, life is characterized by long commutes and even longer workdays. The district has the fifth highest percentage of workers with service-sector jobs out of all Congressional districts, including Washington D.C., according to Census data. It ranks seventh for having the longest average commute time.
It’s no surprise, then, that voters here were pulled over by Ocasio-Cortez’s platform of Medicare for all, free education and a livable minimum wage.
In Parkchester, which is a roughly 35 minute train ride north of Grand Central Terminal, people converse and do business in a mix of languages, including English, Spanish and Bengali. On Starling Avenue, which was renamed Bangla Bazaar, a long-standing pizza place shares the street with a Bangladeshi restaurant and a halal meat shop.
Within a few blocks of the busy Parkchester train station, residents can find a Starbucks, a hair braiding salon, a barbershop and Latino restaurants. A pharmacy with a “help wanted” sign on the window that says applicants must speak and write Spanish. A note on the awning, which labels the pharmacy in both English and Spanish, lets people know that workers also speak “Bangla.”
George Penn, who owns the Phase One barbershop on Westchester Avenue, said the neighborhood has changed a lot since he moved there from Harlem as a kid. It used to be much whiter. “There was a lot of racism,” he said. But that faded as more black and Hispanic people moved into the neighborhood — creating a more welcoming environment for his wife and children, who are black and Puerto Rican.
Penn, 44, said higher rents and luxury developments around the city are contributing to an influx of people from other boroughs who need an affordable place to live. “People come from Brooklyn, Harlem — they’re coming to the Bronx,” he said.
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But many people who live in the area feel squeezed. “The only thing that’s affordable around here are the clothes,” said Elsa Luna, 60, who moved to Parkchester from Ecuador two years ago so that she could be close to her daughter and two granddaughters.
Their apartment is blocks away from a busy street with a Macy’s, Marshall’s and other retailers. “Everything else is expensive,” Luna said in Spanish.
The family’s budget is tight since she is unable to work because of a back injury. But they pass the time taking trips to the park and going to church. There are so many languages spoken in the neighborhood that it can be hard to communicate.
“My neighbor is Indian. She likes me and she knows that I like her, but we can’t really say more to each other beyond ‘hello,’” Luna said.
Affordability has been a major theme of Ocasio-Cortez’s platform. In an interview with Vogue this month, Ocasio-Cortez noted that the median price of a two-bedroom in New York has increased by 80 percent in the past three years.
“Our incomes certainly aren’t going up 80 percent to compensate for that, and what that is doing is a wave of aggressive economic displacement of the communities that have always been here,” she told the magazine.
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After her father died from cancer during the financial crisis, Ocasio-Cortez took on three jobs to help her family fight off foreclosure.
“In a modern, moral and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live,” she said on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Thursday night.
People in her neighborhood know all too well.
Rezwana Parvin, who moved to Parkchester a year ago from Bangladesh, said her family is struggling to save even though her husband works 60 to 70 hours a week as a cashier at a grocery store in Queens.
“He pays the rent and there’s nothing left,” she said, sitting on a bench with her two daughters at a small park with a fountain, just blocks from the apartment where Ocasio-Cortez lives.
Her husband is usually off on Sundays, but they typically spend the time doing laundry, grocery shopping and preparing for the week. “It’s work, work work,” she said while feeding her nine month old.
With the changing makeup of the neighborhood, crime levels ebb and flow over time, Penn said. He no longer sees as many smashed car windows, but he worries about incidents of violent crime. Some other residents in the area echoed his sentiment, recalling stories of fights on the subway or of people hit by stray bullets.
But generally, people said they felt safe here Bad things happen everywhere, they say.
There is struggle, but there is optimism, too. Penn says he believes his neighborhood “is on the upswing.”
And maybe Ocasio-Cortez could help. Penn agreed to display one of the candidate’s bold blue flyers in his barbershop after a friend came in to talk about how she wanted to bring her young, vibrant energy to Congress.
“When you see nothing is really changing,” he said, “you say, let me try somebody new.”
— Andrew Van Dam contributed to reporting.