Janelle and Trecoy Boyd are both in college.
But Janelle remembers a time when she didn’t even have her GED — sitting at the table more than 10 years ago, helping oldest son Trecoy with his homework.
Ma, why won’t you go back to school?
Because I’m busy taking care of you.
But you’re so smart. You should graduate from school, Ma.
Who is Janelle?
Janelle Boyd grew up in the Brooklyn housing projects. She remembers dropping out of high school at age 19, during her last semester, after giving birth to Trecoy at 17.
It’s not hard to tell she’s from Brooklyn. She talks fast, running from word to word. Her thick accent and loud voice bounce off the walls of the two-story house where she lives today with Trecoy and a second son, Emetri, 16.
“Growing up in New York City, you either sink or you swim,” Boyd says today. “Even as a child, it’s a fast-paced, growing-up environment, where your parent is constantly working. You become one of those self-help kids, kind of fend for yourself, know what to do while mom or dad is at work.”
Her kids have had it different in many ways. And many not.
She’s an African-American who’s traded the predominantly black public housing units of her first 30 years for a nearly all-white block in Syracuse’s Eastwood neighborhood. It’s a far cry from the housing projects of her childhood in Brooklyn and the public housing units from her 20s in Syracuse. On her block of Hillsdale Avenue, it’s just Boyd, her fiancé David, her boys, and another black man down the street.
Census data shows that Eastwood has just a little over 200 blacks among its total population of more than 2,000, not at all a surprise considering statistics that show Syracuse ranks as the ninth most segregated city in the country.
However, segregation doesn’t stop with where blacks in Syracuse live. Indeed, it starts with it. Syracuse residents more often than not are separated not by just where they live, but what they can afford to live in— a home, or a modest apartment where the rent can suck up 30 percent or 50 percent or more of a monthly income. Where there are good schools, or low-performing ones that sit only a few miles apart. Where there are good jobs to be had at the end of a short commute by car, or minimum-wage ones that dead-end at the finish of a bus route.
It starts with numbers. And the numbers are stark: In the city of Syracuse, African-Americans are 2½ times more likely to live in poverty than whites. Across all of Onondaga County, blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to live in areas of low economic opportunity; four times more likely to live in an area with low educational outcomes; and three times more likely to face low opportunity when standard measures of a healthy home and neighborhood are applied. Central New York Fair Housing, a local nonprofit, created these three “opportunity indices” in a new comprehensive report.
The report ranks each census tract in the county in one of five “quintiles” for each of the three indices. The quintiles range from “very high,” to “high,” to “moderate,” and then “low” or “very low.” The three indices are also combined for an overall “opportunity rating,” where race is consistently and persistently defining.
Eastwood boasts “very high economic outcomes” for its residents, according to the measures established in the Central New York Fair Housing report. Median household income is $46,964. But the neighborhood’s “very low educational opportunity” is a depressing counter to that: At Henninger High School, where Trecoy graduated and Emetri attends and plays basketball, the graduation rate is only 49 percent. For African-American students like Janelle’s sons, it’s only 36 percent.
Syracuse-wide, education is a challenge: 53 percent of African-American students in Onondaga County live in census tracts with “very low educational opportunity,” compared to only 8 percent of white students.
Boyd’s story is one of living the odds — and beating them.
On the first day of July 2000, Janelle Boyd packed up the apartment she shared with her two young sons and boyfriend in Brooklyn. They got on a Greyhound bus for Syracuse, to join her boyfriend at his aunt’s apartment in Eastwood.
But three days later, when others were celebrating the 4th of July with fireworks, picnics and parades, Boyd’s boyfriend and father of her then-2-year-old son, Emetri, abandoned them and went back to New York City.
Boyd can still remember standing out in the rain, pleading in vain with the aunt to let her inside to grab her belongings. A woman in the aunt’s complex saw Boyd standing out on the street with her kids. She invited Boyd inside. There, she cried.
Eight days later, she moved into public housing at Rolling Green Estates. She received a monthly $92 utility check from the government and did not have to pay rent.
Boyd remembers going to the store and picking up the essentials for her kids: paper plates, cups, spoons, forks, mustard, mayonnaise, cheese, bread, chips, juice and some comforters.
“We sat in our little apartment and (I) said, ‘This is ours.’ It looks like it’s nothing now but we will have so much in here if y’all give me a month,’ ” Boyd said.
Through that will, Boyd instilled values in her boys, particularly education. She knew the importance of having one, after dropping out of high school at 19, unable to pass the Regents Exams. Still receiving survival benefits from her deceased dad at that time, Boyd was going to be cut off soon and decided that dropping out would make the most sense financially for her and newborn boy, Trecoy. If she didn’t get a job, she would have to start receiving public assistance from the government, just like her sister.
Boyd said she already was seeing what it means to be an African-American male, decades before the national crises defined by Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. She knew she had to look out for her child, no matter what neighborhood they lived in.
“You know, being a mother of two young black men, you want to see your children be respected, as they become black men out here in this society. You can’t be judged incorrectly if you do not judge yourself incorrectly. People treat you how you carry yourself. They may not like you personally, but they will respect your character. That’s something I enforced, I embraced, I embedded,” Boyd said.
Emetri and Trecoy both went to Huntington, a Pre-K through eighth-grade school, and Henninger High School despite moving from house to house during their childhood. Both schools are racially diverse and many students come from a low-income home. About 69 percent of the students at Henninger, 1,207, were considered economically disadvantaged out of more than 1,700 students enrolled during the 2013-2014 school year. At Huntington, 70 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged.
Boyd thinks the education her sons received at both schools has been pretty good but notes it could be better. Through the years, she’s noticed how some kids are easily left behind.
“If you have a disciplined child, then you know how to stay on point. If you have kids that are just kind of laid back and slide through, those are the ones that can get lost.”
Not all of Trecoy’s friends made it to graduation day. Some of them ended up in jail, with a child, or working a low-income job.
“Failure is not an option in this family and that’s not the same in the other families out here,” Trecoy said. “I think it all starts at home, if you ask me. If your parents want to push you to be successful, they’re going to push you. My mom always pushed me since I was a baby.”
Job after job
When Boyd lived in her first apartment at Rolling Green Estates’ subsidized low-income units, she was barely making $5.25 an hour.
She didn’t know much about Syracuse. She didn’t have any friends. She learned as she went. She started on the bottom. Her old neighborhood is more than half African-American today and the median household income’s a grim $19,976, according to current census data.
“I moved here and I kind of BS’ed my way into the door,” she said. “You kind of analyze your area, your location, you start talking to certain people and you find out what’s the main jobs in the city. You just kind of feed off of people’s energy, where they’re working and how they’re living to know what direction to go into,” Boyd said.
She had no credit history to qualify to rent furniture from Aaron’s, a furniture business. But a man working there trusted Boyd and let her rent an entire living room set, an entertainment center and bunk beds for her sons.
Boyd’s constant search for a job started at an early age, and that helped in Syracuse. After dropping out of high school, she got jobs working at Chase Bank on Long Island and in Manhattan.
“Ask me how I got a job at Chase Bank with no high school diploma? I talked my way into the door,” Boyd said.
In schools, “opportunity gap” between races is extreme
Among Onondaga County’s 18 school districts, the Syracuse City School District has the most students: 20,000. The second largest, North Syracuse Central Schools, has 9,000. But despite the large number of students in city schools, the educational opportunities are much better elsewhere. And with 84 percent of the county’s black students enrolled in Syracuse City Schools, this means that many African-Americans are being raised in an environment with low educational opportunities.
To better assess the disparities between school districts based on race and ethnicity, CNY Fair Housing used the Educational Opportunity Index. It takes several factors into account: percentage of adults with a college degree, percentage of youths enrolled in school, student poverty, classroom size, and 4th-grade reading and math proficiency scores. The resulting data showed that 84 percent of African-Americans live in areas with low or very low educational outcomes, while Hispanics and Asians face the same obstacle. More than half of the white population, on the other hand, lives in areas of high or very high educational opportunity.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Homeownership: Racial, ethnic minorities fare worst
Non-Hispanic whites own homes at rates double that of blacks and Hispanics. After analyzing the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) for the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County, CNY Fair Housing found that minority applicants had significantly lower origination rates, which is the process for starting the loan process, up to the point where it’s approved or denied. Minorities were denied for loans double the rate of white applicants. Geography also influenced the number of minority home loan applicants. The city of Syracuse had 25 percent of minorities account for applications for home loans in 2012. Outside of the city, minorities made up 10 percent of all home loan applicants.
Minorities also experienced higher rates of denial based on credit history and debt-to-income ratio. Moreover, minorities were more likely to have a reason for denial listed compared to non-Hispanic whites. Non-Hispanic white applicants were more likely to be denied because of a lack of collateral and employment history.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Demographic patterns: Populations are concentrated by race and ethnicity
The Syracuse metropolitan statistical area is the ninth most racially segregated community in the country. As with other Rust Belt cities, suburban sprawl and white flight have left segregation in their wake here. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, Syracuse has a segregation index of 71, which means that 71 percent of blacks in the community would have to move to a different neighborhood to be distributed similar to whites. Using a different index, the average Syracuse non-Hispanic white resident lives in a remarkably unmixed neighborhood that is 90 percent white, 4 percent black and 2 percent Hispanic compared to the average black person who lives in a neighborhood that is 47 percent white, 39 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. The report concludes that such segregation can create isolation and discrimination.
— CNY Fair Housing Report
Shortly after moving to Syracuse in July 2000, she started working security at Syracuse Community Health Center, then moved in August to Coyne Textile Services, a laundry company where she worked as a temp, ironing and putting patches on uniforms.
Boyd was getting jobs through a temp agency and with each job, her income kept moving up: climbing from $5.25 an hour, to $7.25, to $11.25, when she got hired as a clerk at Upstate University Hospital. And with each push up the pay ladder, Boyd’s housing lifestyle improved. She moved into a three- bedroom apartment at Rolling Green Estates, where she received a $130 utility check, and went back to Aaron’s for more stuff, and would eventually make the big move to Eastwood, breaking out of the public housing and low-wage cycle that many others never escape in Syracuse.
Her life in Brooklyn
Boyd grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in the Brooklyn housing projects with her mom, brother, sister, and sometimes more. Her mom, Mildred, wouldn’t turn away anyone who needed a place to stay, sometimes housing at least seven people at once in their tiny apartment.
Her mom worked as a licensed practical nurse and wasn’t home much to look after Boyd. Mildred would get up at 6 a.m. and not come home again until 12 hours later. Janelle’s dad also wasn’t in the picture, having died when she was young.
With no one really telling Boyd what to do growing up, she figured it out on her own — something she later resolved would not happen to her own boys. She began cutting class and hanging out with guys.
“I start liking the guys that sold drugs, the guys that did a lot of robbing and stealing.”
Only 15, Boyd said she didn’t dress her age, or act it, gaining attention from men years older. She was attracted to the fast lifestyle, like the boyfriend who sold drugs and bought her brand-name clothing.
“I was young. I was pretty. I was short. I had a nice shape. If I can get a guy to want to take care of me, then why not?” Boyd says today with disarming honesty.
She began selling drugs alongside her boyfriends.
Trecoy’s father was 11 years older than 16-year-old Boyd when they had sex for the first time. She was getting into trouble at her local high school and decided to change schools, moving to Long Island to live with her cousin. She would go to Brooklyn on weekends.
She got pregnant.
“I went to the doctor. I was like ‘This can’t be happening. They lying, I’m not pregnant.’ I didn’t believe it. I really, really didn’t believe it.”
Fighting to survive
Ardena Harvey, 38, met Janelle at a picnic more than 12 years ago, when their children were involved in an early child education program called Head Start. The program is for children from low-income families.
They became fast friends, enjoying each other’s food dishes, Boyd munching on Harvey’s homemade cake and Harvey devouring Boyd’s Spanish stuffed peppers.
Harvey admires Boyd’s hard work and determination and has watched her mature throughout their years of friendship. “Every year she’s setting new goals to achieve them. She has always been goal-oriented. Her goals are what drives her,” Harvey said.
Harvey and Boyd shared more than children and food in common. They were also both in relationships with abusive men.
“Being in relationships with those controlling-type of people, we had to plan an escape. We couldn’t just say ‘Today, OK, I’m going to leave.’ We had to wait for the opportune time to leave the relationship,” Harvey said.
Boyd’s boyfriend came back from New York City in the fall of 2000, with his two daughters he won in a custody battle. They were now living in the three-bedroom apartment at Rolling Green Estates together. But Boyd said she wished he’d never come back.
Having become a provisional employee at Upstate in 2001 — and with her new-found income — she remembers being able to move into Kennedy Square apartments and pay the $500 per month rent later that year in November. It was another subsidized unit where rents were adjusted according to income.
On the outside, Boyd looked like she was doing OK. Her two sons were in school. She was able to pay her rent. She had upgraded from a three-bedroom apartment to a two-story townhouse at Kennedy Square. She remembers feeling proud of herself and thinking, “Look what I’m giving to my kids.”
But on the inside, Boyd was tired and feeling older than a woman still in her 20s. She was taking classes at Bryant & Stratton College, hoping to get her GED. And a new employer, Four Winds Hospital, wanted to see her high school diploma. “You mean to tell me after all these jobs, someone finally asks me?” she remembers thinking to herself.
They let her stay on, and she continued her schooling.
Janelle moves ahead
Boyd eventually got her GED in 2005, but wanted to go even further. She pushed on to get her associate degree. Some semesters, she said, were better than others. Emetri’s father became violent at home. She lost her focus.
“It was really, really hard for me to focus on school, work, take care of my kids. It was either, or. I started just working a lot, doing a lot of hours to provide for my kids.”
In 2006, she dropped out completely.
Boyd remembers how Emetri’s father could barely keep a job, not really providing for the family. She also remembers the day she left him and moved to Eastwood in 2005, just a year before she dropped out of school. He threatened to stab her with a knife until 10-year-old Trecoy jumped in front of her.
“He (Trecoy) has seen a lot. He’s my old soul. It took a lot for me to grow his trust back as a parent because when a child sees you being domestically abused like that, they lose trust in you,” Boyd said.
According to a 2014 report from Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, the high school graduation rate for African-American students is only 68 percent, compared to an 85 percent graduation rate for white students. Schott Foundation for Public Education reports the graduation rate for African-American males is lower than any other minority — 59 percent compared to 80 percent for white males.
African-Americans have the lowest rate of homeownership in Syracuse. Only 29 percent of African-Americans owned their homes in 2010 compared to 71 percent of whites, according to the Central New York Fair Housing Report. African-Americans also showed barely any homeownership growth between 2000 and 2010, with the percentage of African-American homeowners only increasing by one percent. Hispanics have the second lowest homeownership rate in Syracuse at 33 percent.
After Boyd escaped Kennedy Square for Eastwood, she left all of her old furniture behind and started the process of making a home all over again.
Her sons went to Brooklyn to stay with her mom that summer and Boyd worked seemingly endless 12-hour days, sometimes 70 or 80 hours a week just so her sons would come home to a furnished apartment.
Boyd’s new neighborhood in Eastwood provided her sons with a different atmosphere. With mostly white neighbors, they’ve experienced some moments they believe are tinged with racism. Boyd remembers having cookouts and neighbors calling the cops because the music would be too loud. However, she would notice her neighbors throwing get-togethers, cars lining the street, and no one would say a word.
However at Henninger and Huntington, Boyd’s sons became friends with a diverse group. They’ve lived in the same neighborhood now for almost 10 years, and people have grown accustomed to them. Trecoy remembers a white girl calling him a “n—–” on his way to school in 7th grade, but since then can’t remember another racial instance.
“I never kind of thought of it as a black-on-black thing. I always made friends regardless of what your color was,” Trecoy said.
“I don’t think my kids really had a problem,” his mom said, “because all their friends and the kids they grew up with were white in this neighborhood and they played sports with them and went to school with them. They’re known. This is their neighborhood.”
The Boyd family has lived in four different houses in Eastwood, moving first after Boyd got married and involved in another domestic violence relationship, then three more times after she met her now-fiancé David. With each house, Boyd paid more, and was able to afford more after she started working at Crouse Hospital, where she’s been since 2005. Her annual income is now more than $40,000. She’s always rented and doesn’t plan to own a home until she lives in an area where she wants to retire.
She started out as a clerk at the Crouse desk, greeting people and signing them in for their appointments. She just moved to the chemical dependency department, where she works with patients overcoming drug and alcohol abuse. Before that, Boyd worked in the business office doing authorization and verification forms for patients being admitted. She said she knew nothing about insurance before she started working at Crouse, but just picked things up quickly.
“I was young. I was greedy. I was hungry. I wanted to know.”
The next chapter
Some 41census tracts within the city of Syracuse have a poverty rate above 20 percent, compared to just one outside of the city. Forty percent of census tracts in the city report a poverty rate between 41 and 82 percent.
But the Boyd family doesn’t see the numbers. Trecoy’s excited about his future and knows how far he’s come from their tiny first apartment on East Fayette Street. He acknowledges their move from the affordable housing units to Eastwood could’ve possibly played a role in their success.
“Maybe we didn’t think about it then. Maybe it did give us a positive effect on life and helped us grow. Maybe if we had stayed in that area, things wouldn’t be the way they are now,” Trecoy said.
As a child of the projects, Boyd said she didn’t want that life for her sons. She believes parents play the determining role in a child’s success, more than any numbers, surveys or “opportunity indexes.”
“I lived on the worst side in Syracuse, on the Eastside to me, the lowest income and the teachers treated me and my children no differently than them treating us now living over here. It’s more of a parent being involved in their child’s education to receive what you need from the schools. It really doesn’t matter where you live. The teachers are not going to respond to you and your children if you don’t show participation,” Boyd said.
July 2000: Security Guard at Syracuse Community Health Center for $5.25 an hour
August 2000: Coyne Textile Services for $7.25 an hour
October 2000: Upstate University Hospital for $11.25 an hour
January 2001: Lifetime Health temp for $10 an hour
March 2001: Upstate University Hospital clerk for $15 an hour
June 2002: Rapid Response overnights for 2 months for $11.00 an hour
August 2002: Four Winds Hospital for $13 an hour
June 2004: Lifetime Family Medicine for $12 an hour
April 2005: Crouse Hospital temp for $12 an hour
September 2005 to present: Hired at Crouse starting out at $16 an hour and now makes more than $40,000
But the numbers do suggest in many ways that Boyd and her sons are the exception, not the rule.
In remarks last November, Sally Santangelo, executive director for CNY Fair Housing, saw the calculus of race, education, jobs, and housing in Syracuse.
“If you were to tell me a child’s address in Onondaga County, I could predict with pretty good certainty what that child’s race might be and what their life outcomes might be,” Santegelo said then.
Trecoy hopes to be a physical therapist and enroll in a local four-year college after he graduates in May.
“I want to go far,” he said. “I want the finer things in life and I know I gotta earn it. I know that they’re not going to be given to me. I’m making that clear to him (Emetri) as he’s growing up, and I’m letting it known to him that it’s hard for young black men. You gotta earn it. You gotta work for it. You can’t just go to high school and play sports and think that’s going to be your way out because it’s not going to be your way out. You gotta hit these books.”