When the photographer Melissa Bunni Elian looked at an aerial image of Yonkers, she saw two cities: Atop the New York suburb’s many hills were tree-lined streets and stately homes; beneath them lay a dense grid of buildings. “One area was basically a park, and the other was concrete,” said Ms. Elian, who grew up in Yonkers. “That really spoke to me of the inequality in America.”
Yonkers — the state’s fourth-largest city, with about 196,000 residents in the 2010 census — has a documented history of segregated housing. While much has changed, Ms. Elian said, it remains divided by its hills, with black and Latino families in the low-lying areas.
In few places is the divide as stark as around Park Hill, where a 300-foot cliff separates an affluent neighborhood from gritty southwest Yonkers. Residents of Park Hill have historically fought over Undercliff Street, which is used as a shortcut to a highway. “They didn’t want people from the lower-income area zipping through their area,” Ms. Elian said. “They cited traffic safety concerns, but there were racial overtones. In one letter they mention ‘ghetto blasters.’”
Ms. Elian spent part of this year documenting two families, each living on either side of that cliff. Her work was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
The Cohns live in a three-story Victorian home with their son and, sometimes, two children from a previous marriage. (The Cohn family did not live in the Park Hill neighborhood at the time of the disputes over Undercliff Street; they moved there in 2010.) Below, less than a mile away, Ms. Elian chronicled the lives of Angela Zimniak and her two daughters in their cramped apartment. Peter Cohn is a documentary filmmaker, and his wife, Ski Cohn, is a finance professor. Ms. Zimniak is an orderly in a special-needs home.
After photographing the two families, Ms. Elian realized she had captured them in parallel moments. “The dinner I spent with the Cohns, they were grilling steaks, really big juicy steaks,” she said. “The dinner I spent with the Zimniaks, they were making ground-beef tacos. The presentation was so different. One family had Dixie cups for the condiments. The other family had nice dishes.
“They’re so similar, they’re striving for the same things, they’re both so warm, so nice, but in one little detail you can see how the cards are stacked.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of years the Cohn family lived in their house in Yonkers, N.Y. The Cohns have lived there for six years, not nine years.