Sunday, December 26, 2010

Living for the City

Editor’s Note: Giving and giving back is a common theme this time of year. But many people give to (and live for) their cities and communities everyday. This moving and inspiring piece is excerpted from a photo documentary of Carlye “Ras Ujimma” Parris. Ras Ujimma is a musician and community organizer in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a place he’s called home for over 30 years. A Caribbean immigrant, he came to New Brunswick to study engineering at Rutgers University. Since then he has lived for the city developing mentorship programs for Black youth and other needed community initiatives. Here Ras Ujimma talks about the organizations he’s been involved with and the other unsung heroes of his community, who just like him, live for their city.

Posted by Christian Oliveira and Nataly Patino, NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ -- Even presently today, I’m involved in so many organizations that I never imagined myself being involved with. In my first year at Rutgers, I was involved in the formation of an organization MEET. MEET stands for Minority Engineers Education Task. That still exists today. To me, that’s most profound because it lets me know that things we can do as a young person really can make a difference in society. That’s most profound because I realize: Wow, that guy, Paul Robeson, a black guy like me… He did things in his life that we still talk about years later, but yet still he’s not honored. I am amazed that people have really honored me while I’m living.

I remember a couple years ago I got honored two nights in a row, and it made me cry because I know how many elder black people have never been honored for all the things that they have done. I’m looking at my short, little life to know that some non-profit organization can have me be their guest of honor sitting in a chair in front of—it was the Quaternity Institute, right at the outs of Livingston Avenue. The room was packed with people, and I was the number one guest of honor. I’m sitting there with entrepreneurs who are millionaires, and the founder of the Quaternity Institute is telling these wealthy people that I’m the most important person in the room. I’m sitting there, and I’m looking at this young lady and I’m like “you’ve got to be kidding.”

She’s telling them why—because of my volunteerism. This young lady had witnessed me volunteering in the community with what I do. She didn’t know that I had gotten a New Jersey volunteer award from Governor Christie Todd Whitman and Secretary of State DeForest Soaries -- she had no idea. So that night I had to cry in my own silence, in my own internal. Why? Because someone had recognized something of value in me—a black man in New Brunswick—for what I had done. Why did I cry? Because I know that there were probably lots of other black men who were probably more worthy of that award than me. I mean, sure, I’ve done quite a bit, but I know there’s others who have probably done a lot more than I have.

The MEET still exists, so when I go on Rutgers campus and I see those young kids and they have on their little red and white emblem, I feel really proud because I realize, “Wow, this is some little endeavor I did with other people that got institutionalized.” Institutions are important because they’re almost like a force in itself with its own machine that makes it continue into the future. That’s why I really like working with young people to instill in them some of things that were instilled in me. To motivate young people to excel, because we all know the value of nerds. Nerds become the scientists. Nerds become the engineers. They propagate ideas of thought patterns that motivate communities, citizens, families, even you two for meeting me on the street here tonight. I know if I hadn’t said something of value to you, you’d be like “Yo man, leave that black man alone.” You would never be here with me today. I mean, that’s my opinion. I could be wrong, but I think—I think I’m right. I think I’m right.

For you two, out of your young minds, to meet me on French Street, New Brunswick, Route 27, and then follow up so that I can be here today doing this interview—I realize that you saw something of value, too. I don’t even have to think twice about it. It’s a fact. I mean, you’re talking to a person who has performed three and four times at the United Nations. So, when somebody sees me walking the streets of New Brunswick, and they look at the cover, and they don’t know the inside, or they don’t investigate the inside. It’s their loss. It’s their loss.

For more on Ras Ujimma and other New Brunswick residents log on to

Christian Oliveira and Nataly Patino are the creators of The Healthcare City and seniors at Rutgers University. Christian studies Sociology and Political Science and you can see some of his other projects at Nataly studies Biology and French. View more of her work at

Sunday, December 19, 2010

City of Bicycles

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS – There are 700,000 bicycles in Amsterdam, a city known as one of the most bicycle-friendly in the world. That’s one bike for every two people living in the city, posing smog-free traffic congestion challenges unheard of in car-centered urban America. Pictured here is the very crowded fietsenstalling (bicycle garage) at the city’s Centraal Train Station. For a small fee bicyclers can park here, and over 100,000 do every day. With four stories full of bicycles crammed together in seemingly endless rows, let’s hope forgetting where you parked is not a common occurrence.

Deirdre Oakley is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University and Editor of Social Shutter. You can contact her at To view more City of Bicycles photographs, log on to our Facebook page.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

American Hustle

Xphaqtor, ATLANTA, GA -- Meet “Low Key”, a nine year-old rapper from Atlanta. Rapping since he was just four years old, Low Key seems to already have developed a strong sense for how to promote his music. This photo was taken outside a local Atlanta record store where Low Key was selling his mixtapes. Although his aunt and sister were nearby, Low Key did not need any assistance interacting with passers-by—most of whom walked away with five fewer dollars and Low Key’s latest music. Low Key exemplified “hustle”, and he is a great example of someone using their talent and limited resources to chase a dream. Let’s hope he makes it.

Xphaqtor is a photographer based in Houston, Texas, specializing in music photography, portraiture, and editorial photography. He has photographed a myriad of music artists, including Common, Lupe Fiasco, Rhymefest, Raekwon, Bun B, and Fantasia; and been featured in such venues as and You can view more of his work at

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Pittsburgh's Hill District: A Portrait of Economic and Geographic Isolation

Posted by Angie Luvara, PITTSBURGH PA -- Recently, I spent two weeks in Pittsburgh’s South Hills, a rather affluent area with shops, restaurants, parks and beautiful hills. One morning, I set out from the comfort of the South Hills to venture into the city. I had decided to take myself on a tour of all the “bad” neighborhoods. I drove through Oakland and East Liberty, and then made my way to what my South Hills relatives unanimously described as the “worst part” of Pittsburgh: the Hill District. I began with the Upper Hill, and worked my way through the Middle Hill and Lower Hill.

The transition driving into the Upper Hill was fairly abrupt. I drove past the University of Pittsburgh (“Pitt”), up a fairly steep, wooded hill, and came out surrounded by intermittent signs of urban decay. It was difficult to identify much difference between the Upper and Middle Hill Districts—both geographically and environmentally. Each had its fair share of seemingly decent housing, dotted with abandoned buildings here and there. However, when I reached the Lower Hill, I noticed significantly more abandoned buildings and empty lots and got my first glimpse at some of Pittsburgh’s public housing. The most shocking point was when I reached the crest of the hill. There I stood in the middle of a street, sandwiched between abandoned buildings, empty lots, and public housing looking at a beautiful view of downtown Pittsburgh glittering with all its revitalized prosperity.

I was almost done with my “tour” by then and set out to find the nearby restaurant where I had planned to eat lunch. The restaurant was located just a few streets over, yet I had to drive almost all the way back to where I entered the Hill District to connect to the street where it was located . It was like the Hill District was deliberately cut off from the rest of the city. Curious, I decided my tour wasn’t over yet. I walked back to the far side of the public housing community to see if perhaps there was another street connection I had missed. There I found yet another surprise: a stone wall overlooking a hill filled with overgrown brush and several very steep, long staircases leading to the road below, and the rest of the city. Not only were the residents here experiencing extreme forms of poverty and geographic isolation, but ironically they had a great view—in two directions—of the economic prosperity that surrounded them as well.

Residents have to use the stairs to get to the bus stops on the main thoroughfare below. This makes for frequent trips up and down these long staircases for those dependent on public transportation. There is no grocery store in “the Hill”, despite “plans” for one to open dating back at least eleven years. The lack of retail establishments not only means residents have to travel outside this area to shop, but also to work. I can’t imagine climbing those stairs day in and day out, let alone with groceries, or in the dark, or during the rough Pittsburgh winters. I also can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up surrounded by such economic depression with a wonderful view of the prosperity just blocks away and yet totally unattainable.

I’ve done more research on the Hill District since I left Pittsburgh, and found it has quite a rich history. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the Hill District was a hub for African-Americans, known for great jazz, great food, great Negro League baseball, and the largest African-American weekly newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. Yes, the Hill District had run down buildings, but it was bustling with cultural activity. Then, in 1956, the government decided to begin an “urban renewal” project in the Hill District. After relocating homes and businesses, wrecking balls destroyed much of the neighborhood. Due to poor planning, the “renewal” portion of the project was never completed. It appears that interest in “renewing” the Hill District rises and falls every few years, but never enough to actually make significant progress. In fact, the only newer developments I saw throughout the entire Hill District were at the very bottom of the Lower Hill, closest to downtown.

I’ve been pondering the connection between the economic and geographic conditions of the Hill District since my visit. Much like the “chicken and the egg” debate, I’m not sure whether the geographic layout of the area, which was further compromised by botched urban renewal efforts, contributes to its current economic condition, or vice versa. But I do know they are related. In the same respect, I’m convinced that the underground economic activity and violent crime that “the Hill” is known for is a direct product of its isolation. Rather than spending millions investing in housing developments that displace residents, I’d like to see two things happen in the Hill District: first, attract legitimate economic opportunities for residents; and second, provide easily accessible methods to get to the rest of the city. I feel those two actions alone could bring significant positive change to the residents of the Hill District.

A main thoroughfare cuts through the side of the mountain. To the right, up the mountain, is the Hill District. To the left, further down the mountain, is part of downtown Pittsburgh.

One of the few housing developments that was actually followed through to completion sits at the very bottom of the Lower Hill, directly adjacent to the beautiful skyscrapers of downtown Pittsburgh.

From the back of the public housing that sits atop the crest of the hill in the Lower Hill, one can see clearly the various Universities, hospitals, and other businesses and residential areas. However, the geographic isolation makes these entities difficult to access.

Public Housing in the Lower Hill District.

This was one of two roads that would take you off “the Hill” without having to backtrack completely out of the Hill District. The road, though in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh, appears to be surrounded by forest. It is barely wide enough for two cars to pass at one time, and has no sidewalks.

A man sits on a guardrail at the bottom of a long staircase tumbling through the woods from the Lower Hill District to the main thoroughfare below, where he can access public transportation.

Angie Luvara is a photographer and Managing Editor of Social Shutter. She has a Master's Degree in Criminology from the University of California at Irvine. You can view more of her photography at And for more photos of the Hill District log on to Social Shutter's Facebook page.