I’d set my alarm for 4am, so I could make it to Santiago’s apartment by 5:30am. My assignment was to document his morning commute to school — one that takes him two-and-a-half hours each way. The story was part of a larger project called Journeys to School, which chronicles students’ commutes through adverse conditions all over the world. There was an exhibition of the different stories that opened at the UN Headquarters at the beginning of March. As the newspapers and TV affiliates were covering the opening, Santiago’s story received a lot of press. So much, in fact, that a housing authority found out about his situation and moved his family into a new apartment in a more central part of Brooklyn last week. And Veolia, a transportation corporation, bought the family new furniture. It’s nice to see that photos actually can make a difference every once in a while.
This is Santiago’s commute followed by an essay I wrote for more context.
Santiago Muñoz hugs his father Julio and makes the sign of the cross before stepping out his apartment door. Still dark, a mist hangs over the courtyard of the public housing unit where he lives with six other family members in Far Rockaway, a spit of land in southern Queens. The bodegas are still shuttered at 6 AM, and the sodium-vapor streetlamps reflect off the wet pavement as Santiago walks to the bus stop. Fourteen years old and a freshman at Bronx High School of Science, he makes an extraordinary commute through the bustle of New York City’s public transit to reach the magnet school of which, much to the pride of his family, he received high enough test scores to be accepted.
Forty-five minutes after boarding the first of two buses, Santiago gets off at Rockaway Boulevard, swipes his green student Metrocard, passes through the turnstile, and waits for the A train. Before Superstorm Sandy hit last October, Santiago used to take the A train from nearby Beach 44th Street stop. But the storm destroyed parts of the track—a repair the city says won’t be completed until summer—forcing Santiago to take the Q22 to the Q53 to reach a functioning subway station.
From the A train’s elevated platform he can see hints of pink in the sky, though the sun won’t emerge until he’s underground. In a scrum of passengers Santiago grips the rail and tries to hide a yawn. For the hour or so he’s on the A train, he stands, so those that really need it will have at least one more spot to sit. The train snakes from Queens through Brooklyn and under the East River where it emerges at Fulton Street, in Manhattan. Santiago slides out and runs upstairs to make his final transfer to the 4 Train.
Just a stop away from Wall Street, Fulton Street Station spurs an underground socioeconomic mix. The working poor and immigrants—much like Santiago’s family who emigrated to the United States from Colombia when he was one—are suddenly mingling with men in tailored suits carrying briefcases and women sitting cross-legged in Prada heels. The Daily News and Spanish-language Bible pamphlets are supplemented with the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker. But as the 4 train escapes Manhattan’s financial district, demographics once again shift, and minorities return to the majority.
Santiago’s commute is a testament to his dedication to a good education. He has hopes of becoming a doctor, and he’s willing to sacrifice sleep, convenience, and time with his family and friends to pursue the path most likely to lead him to his goal. However, his commute is also representative of greater inequalities that exist in New York City. Santiago must trek through one of the densest cities in America for hours, passing scores of high schools, to receive a free, quality education. Due to unaffordable housing, segregated neighborhoods, and lack of attention and social services in certain communities, the New York City Department of Education oversees some of the best and worst schools in the country. Some engaged parents would rather pay private schools upwards of $40,000 a year to educate their child than try to reform public schools in their district. While extremely academically gifted students, like Santiago, are fortunate enough to test into the system’s few renowned magnet schools, there are hundreds of thousands of students that aren’t.
At 125th Street, the 4 train crosses from Manhattan into the Bronx, effectively taking Santiago through four of five New York City boroughs. (Staten Island’s only means of public transportation to Manhattan is a boat.) After standing for an hour and forty-five minutes, the train car finally thins out enough that Santiago feels comfortable to take a seat underneath an advertisement for the New York Lottery. Within minutes his eyes close and his head drops forward as he drifts into a state of half-sleep, though he always manages to hear the train stops being called, at least in the morning. With only two stops left until the end of the 4 line, Santiago startles up, rubs his eyes, and exits the sliding doors.
Outside the station, it’s light but a haze pervades the Bronx landscape. Santiago walks the final 10 minutes in the crisp air passing a street lined with tall trees. At two hours and twenty minutes, 33 miles, 46 stops, four boroughs, three transfers, two trains, and two buses, he arrives at the Bronx High School of Science. It’s 8:20 AM and Santiago is a half-hour early. A traveler and a scholar, and perhaps one day a doctor, Santiago walks through the school’s outer gate eager to learn, having earned his right to this education, not only with his test scores and academic record, but with his journey across the far ends of New York City and back.