excerpted from the book
by Jonathan Kozol
The 600,000 people who live [in the South Bronx of New York
City] and the 430,000 people who live in Washington Heights and
Harlem, which are separated from the South Bronx by a narrow river,
make up one of the largest racially segregated concentrations
of poor people in our nation.
What is it like for children to grow up here? What do they
think the world has done to them? Do they believe that they are
being shunned or hidden by society? If so, do they think that
they deserve this? What is it that enables some of them to pray?
When they pray, what do they say to God?
The following day, I visit a soup kitchen where more than
200 people, about two thirds of whom are children, come to eat
four times a week. The mothers of the children seem competitive,
and almost frantic, to make sure their children get their share.
A child I meet, a five-year-old boy named Emmanuel, tells me he's
"in kiddie garden." His mother says he hasn't started
yet. "He starts next year."
"You have to remember," says one of the priests
with whom I share my thoughts about these meetings, "that
for this little boy whom you have met, his life is just as important,
to him, as your life is to you. No matter how insufficient or
how shabby it may seem to some, it is the only one he has"-an
obvious statement that upsets me deeply nonetheless.
"Many of these children," says the priest, "get
literally nothing in the way of 'extras.' There are many children
here who don't get birthday presents, who never had a gift at
Christmastime and never even had a Christmas tree, which would
not be included in the welfare budget. It's particularly hard
here in December when so much of life in New York City has to
do with buying gifts and giving gifts. when everything-the music,
decorations, fragrances, the giant ribbons wrapped around some
of the stores-makes Christmas inescapable. You wish that you could
wrap one of those ribbons around certain of the children. I mean.
some of them have nothing. Their bedrooms are empty. They don't
hang up stockings. If they have food for Christ mas, they are
fortunate. It is a bare existence. "Sometimes, in front of
a wonderful place like FAO Schwarz, you wonder if poor kids like
these have fantasies of breaking in and stealing toys or games,
electric trains- whatever children play with nowadays. If they
ever did it. if they just went in one night and cleaned the whole
place out, you have to ask if they could ever steal back half
as much as has been stolen from them."
During these days I walk for hours in the neighborhood, starting
at Willis Avenue, crossing Brook, and then St. Ann's, going as
far as Locust Avenue to look at the medical waste incinerator
one more time, then back to Beekman Avenue. In cold of winter,
as in summer's heat, a feeling of asphyxia seems to contain the
neighborhood. The faces of some of the relatively young women
with advanced cases of AIDS, their eyes so hollow, their jawbones
so protruding, look like the faces of women in the House of the
Dying run by the nuns within the poorest slum of Port-au-Prince
[Haiti]. It's something that you don't forget. Seeing these women
in the street, you feel almost ashamed of your good health and
worry that, no matter how you speak of them, it may sound patronizing.
"The rich," said St. Vincent de Paul, "should beg
the poor to forgive us for the bread we bring them." Healthy
people sometimes feel they need to beg forgiveness too, although
there is no reason why. Maybe we simply ask forgiveness for not
being born where these poor women have been born, knowing that
if we had lived here too, our fate might well have been the same.
On a gray afternoon at Children's Park, I stand for a long
time looking at the Calderon memorial behind the little hut where
needles are exchanged. Nearby, scattered in the weeds and trash,
are several rusted 55-gallon barrels bearing "Toxic Contents"
warnings. The barrels are empty. Whatever residual poison they
contained has long since seeped into the soil. The cumulative
ugliness of things contains its own toxicity, however. It's hard
to think that any city that has love for children would allow
them to grow up in such a place.
Eight blocks north of St. Ann's Church, on St. Ann's Avenue,
a community organizer named Lee Stuart, who has worked in the
South Bronx for eight years and now directs a church-supported
branch of the Industrial Areas Foundation, points to a construction
site on which the city is about to build a new reform school-"a
real fort," she says, "right opposite a junior high."
Twelve blocks farther to the north, and slightly to the west,
she points to the future site of a court complex, a $460 million
monolith that will cover three square blocks, casting its shadow
on three public schools. She also shows me the prospective site
of a new police academy, which, she says, "may or may not
be built right now," depending on the outcome of a political
dispute. The Bronx House of Detention, she says, is nearby as
well, and she lists a number of other crime-related institutions
in the neighborhood, all of which she speaks of as "a law-and-order
These kinds of institutions, she concedes, do generate some
jobs. "The trouble is that jobs like these depend upon the
concentration of the poor within 'the service area.' It's like-one
portion of the population generates the crime to keep the other
part employed. So it's an investment in perpetuation of the ghetto,
a guarantee of endless misery that services like these may partially
alleviate but also need in order to be justified.
"When I was a young person," she goes on, "I
did not believe that we would ever come to this. A good society
had been defined as one in which the segregation of the races
was abhorrent. Even conservatives were saying this by 1968. Today,
at least here in New York, this is no longer so. The notion of
the ghetto as a 'sin' committed by society is not confronted.
You will never see this word in the newspapers. The abolition
of this sin is simply not on the agenda. I don't think we should
accept this, but I also think the powers that be are stronger
now than any counterforce that we can build. "Yes,"
she says, "there is real heroism everywhere within the neighborhood.
I think of a woman, Charlotte Smith, who this morning buried her
fourth child but remains a fighter, upright and unbroken. But,
good Lord! The miseries around her are so vast!"
Later, as the sun goes down, I search the faces of the people
that I pass, many of them tired-looking and some seeming scared.
A man who may be in his early twenties, and who looks as if he
has been crying, stands on 141st Street, staring into space. As
far as the eye can see on Beekman Avenue are uncollected piles
David's mother goes into the hospital again in February. This
time, she's held for four nights in a downstairs corridor before
a bed is free.
"I took her there on Monday," David tells me on
the phone. "It was one of those bad nights. We got there
at seven, but it was so crowded there was no place to lie down.
She sat up for five hours. Then at midnight I went to a nurse
and said she needed to lie down.
"The nurse got mad and snapped at me. She said, 'I can't
grant your request.' My mother had to sit there until three A.M.
At three they put her on a stretcher and a doctor looked at her.
He said she needed X-rays but he said that there was no one free
to do them. She didn't get the X-ray for two days.
"She spent another three nights down there on the stretcher
in the hallway. When they finally found a room for her, she suddenly
began to shiver and her hands were cold. They didn't have no blankets.
They ran out. I took a blanket to her today. No curtains. So they
put a sheet over the window.
"They said the diagnosis was pneumonia and a blood clot
in her lungs. She's on oxygen and an IV. It's six days since she
Alone at home, he mentions it's his birthday. I ask him if
she finally got approved for SSI.
"No, she was turned down again," he says. "Her
doctor said he was surprised."
"What was the reason that they gave?"
"They say she isn't sick enough," he answers.
The following week, when his mother has regained her appetite,
David and his sister take turns cooking food for her because,
as he explains, "the meals served in the hospital are not
too good." "You bring her food?"
"I wrap it in foil so that it stays hot," he says.
"I have to make sure that she eats."
In March, when she's been home for a few weeks, she sends
me a long letter. She doesn't speak of her health or of herself
at all but tells me of a child's accidental death near St. Ann's
"A little boy, an eight-year-old, who lived right near
Charlayne, fell in the elevator shaft of his apartment building.
This was a month or so ago. The little boy died. I think his mother
is in jail. Charlayne says he lived with his grandmother."
In her letter, which comes in an envelope with pictures of
blue geraniums and yellow daisies just over her name in the left
corner, she says that the death of the eight-year-old is being
attributed to a broken elevator door that opened when he leaned
against it while he had been playing in the hallway. "The
city is blaming the family," she writes, "for letting
an eight-year-old go in the hallway. But they got to go out somewhere."
Going outside for youngsters in the building, she explains, means
"going in the hallway" since "the real outside,
where they could get some air, is just too dangerous."
She encloses a clipping from the Daily News that speaks of
"garbage piled five feet high in an airshaft" of the
building where the child died and notes that the telephone company
has come to the building "ten times," in the words of
a woman who lives there with three children, because rats have
"eaten through the walls" and "chewed through the
phone lines." In another apartment, the clipping says, the
ceiling has fallen in upon a child's bedroom.
Mrs. Washington also tells me that there have been warnings
in the papers that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who took office two
months earlier, intends to cut back sanitation and inspection
services and programs for children and teenagers, the early stages
in what soon will prove to be wide-sweeping cuts in a variety
of services relied on by poor people, as a consequence of the
most drastic cutbacks in the city's budget since the Great Depression.
Subsequent announcements warn the public to expect reductions
in drug-rehabilitation programs-which al ready have a six-month
waiting list and offer care to only one in ten of the half-million
heroin and cocaine addicts in New York, turning away tens of thousands
of addicted people every year-as well as reductions in lead-poisoning
prevention programs and in the control of rats, elimination of
programs that help hungry families in obtaining food stamps, the
cancellation of AIDS services to 600 children and to 16,000 adults,
and reductions in the numbers of orderlies, janitors, security
guards, and lab technicians at the medical facilities that serve
the poor, which, says the head of the city's public hospitals,
is going to mean "more frequent" delays in care and
"dirtier hospitals" and longer stays in "waiting
Some people, says the Times, wonder why the city is planning
"to cut services, which would hurt the . . . poorest residents,"
while once again planning to cut taxes, "which would help
the city's richest." The paper notes that the AIDS services
the mayor intends to cancel were created to spare the dying from
being forced to "wait in long lines." In a strong editorial,
it calls the threatened cancellation of these services "intolerable"
A deputy mayor, however, says that these reductions in municipal
expenditures will be "a victory for everybody," and,
notes the Times, on Wall Street the reaction to the mayor's plans
is "generally favorable."
In all, the city intends to lay off 15,000 workers, nearly
5,000 of them in the agencies that offer social services, which,
says a political analyst in Newsday, "lends an unavoidable
racial tincture" to the mayor's decisions, since the majority
of those to be laid off in social service agencies are black and
Hispanic women. Caseloads of social workers, already as large
as 200 children to one worker in some instances, are certain to
grow larger, the newspapers say. Meanwhile, nearly half the cuts
in taxes will, according to Manhattan borough president Ruth Messinger,
benefit only the five percent of the population who have incomes
higher than $100,000.
The mayor tells a group of children from a segregated high
school that they'll have to learn to manage without public help.
"I think largely you have to help yourself.... Look at what
is there and take advantage of it," he advises them, but
cancels 11,000 city jobs for children of their age, as well as
afterschool programs in which younger children can be safe while
mothers work. He also announces that he wants to fingerprint welfare
recipients in order to be sure they do not file double applications
(which some do) but also, some observers feel, in order to comply
with the desire of conservatives to add a greater stigma to dependence.
One of the mayor's top deputies proposes that people on welfare
in New York-all "one million, two hundred thousand"
of them, he insists, which includes dependent children-be made
to wear "green uniforms" and sent out on the streets
"to pick up papers" and "clean up graffiti"-a
plan, as Mrs. Washington observes, that would place most of the
people of Mott Haven in the same position as the prison inmates
who already do some of these jobs in the South Bronx.
"It's going to make a lot of people feel like they are
criminals," she says, in reference to the plans for uniforms
and fingerprinting, both of which have been reported widely in
the news. Speaking of the promised cuts in hospital funds, she
adds, "There's going to be a lot more blood stained beds."
On the day after Easter, another little boy who lives in Bernardo's
neighborhood is killed, this time by a fire that consumes his
Mrs. Washington connects the deaths of both these children
with the cutbacks in inspection services and other public services
that have now begun in earnest. But the cut backs she refers to
are, in fact, not really new. In one form or another, these reductions
in the programs that defend the life and health and safety of
poor children have been taking place for over 20 years in New
York City. In 1970, for example, 400 physicians tended to the
health of children in the city's public schools. By the spring
of 1993, the number of school physicians had been cut to only
23, most of them part-time. Where once there had been 30 rat exterminators
on the city's payroll, says the Times, "now there are only
ten," only two of them in all of the South Bronx. Housing
inspectors, whose job it is to check on matters such as broken
elevator doors or five-foot piles of garbage, have also been cut
back repeatedly over these years-from 700 in the 1970s to 213
at the time Bernardo died. Now, in early 1994, the city announces
plans to cut their ranks again, this time in a way particularly
likely to be felt in places like Mott Haven.
Up to now, building inspectors, fearful of going into certain
buildings all alone, have been able to request per mission to
go out in teams of two in the South Bronx. Henceforth, according
to the city, "solo code enforcement inspectors" will
go into areas previously served by teams of two, and in "daylight
. . . only", allowing taxpayers "a reduction of 20 inspectors."
What's going to happen, says an official of the inspectors'
union, is that inspectors, who have the right to refuse to enter
a building where their lives may be endangered, will simply write,
"No access to building" on inspection sheets, which
means that hundreds of broken elevators, trash heaps in which
rats may thrive, and serious fire hazards like illegally barred
windows or illegally obstructed doors will be added to those other
hazards that already have gone undetected.
"It means more kids are goin' to die," says Mrs.
Washington. "I just wish that when the papers talk about
these 'cuts,' they'd put some pictures in of all the children
who got burned in fires or got killed in accidents, show some
pictures of the hallways in these buildings, so that folks would
understand what it's about."
"You don't think that they already know?"
"They know and they don't know," she replies. "What
can I say?"
As with many fatal accidents and fires in Mott Haven, it is
impossible to know for sure if better inspection and enforcement
would have saved Bernardo's life or that of the boy incinerated
in the fire; and city officials are at times reluctant to release
such information even when it is avail able. But, as Mrs. Washington
observes, if the function of inspectors is to save lives by detecting
dangers, then cutting their numbers by two thirds seems to assure
that you've increased those dangers several fold. "If that's
not so, then why have any inspectors?" she quite reasonably
asks. "Why not just fire them all?
"Drug dealers aren't the only people killing children,"
she remarks, the sort of statement one hears often in the South
Bronx and which sometimes causes great offense among the affluent
because it speaks so clearly of incendiary feelings of which most
of us would just as soon not hear But it may be important that
we hear these words because they make it absolutely clear that
what some financiers and politicians see as nothing more than
fiscal prudence, other people see as social homicide; and every
time another bit of mercy is subtracted from the public treasury,
feelings of this nature are compounded.
The mayor insists that "all the people of the city"
will be shouldering the human costs of his decisions; but this
is obviously not so. The costs of cuts in sanitation, for example,
are incurred and felt almost immediately in the South Bronx. Their
consequences are significantly diluted in those neighborhoods
where sanitation, like so many other basic services, is being
purchased more and more through private means by local business
and homeowners' groups, which have been granted semi-governmental
taxing powers to raise money locally and spend it locally, another
stage in the secession of the fortunate from common areas of shared
In midtown neighborhoods, privately purchased sanitation services
have made "a stunning difference," says the president
of the Times Square Improvement District, one of several dozen
of such districts, which have also hired private guards in order
to discourage beggars and drive out the homeless, sometimes gently,
sometimes forcibly, and have also paid for better lighting, additional
street signs, even cleaner trash cans. "When districts feel
clean, they feel orderly.... When they feel orderly, they feel
safer," the head of the Times Square district notes.
Calling this development an example of "reinvented government,"
an assistant to the mayor tells a reporter that "his goal
is to see Manhattan . . . blanketed with such improvement districts"-"at
least south of 96th Street," which is the point at which
the Harlem ghetto starts on the East Side.
Mrs. Washington asks me, as she will do many times this spring,
why there is so much pressure to cut taxes. I repeat to her the
arguments I hear downtown: Taxes are already viewed as very high
in New York City. If they are reduced somewhat, it is believed
that this may spur investment, which might generate some jobs.
If taxes, on the other hand, were to increase, it is feared that
wealthy people may abandon New York City.
"But," she says, "it seems, in a way, like
they've abandoned it already. Their kids don't go to the same
schools our children go to. They don't use the subways much. They
have their private cars and limousines. Most of them don't use
the hospitals we use. Now, if they have their own street cleaning
and their own police, it isn't like they're really living in New
York. How much more could they abandon it than they have done
I have had talks like this with friends in the financial world
and with some journalists, but never before with someone who is
truly poor. I carry the argument along, as I have often heard
it stated. "The fear is that they could abandon it completely
and go somewhere else that might have lower taxes."
"Where would they go?" she asks.
"I don't know. Connecticut? New Jersey?"
She sweeps away the argument impatiently. "All this is
a game the politicians play. People in New Jersey and Connecticut
could say the same until they cut us down to nothing. If you want
to solve the problem, raise the taxes everywhere in the United
States. Then the millionaires won't have no place to hide."
"That's a good idea," I say, "but I don't think
it's going to happen."
I tell her of the comment of a lawyer in New York, who told
me that a further flight of business from the city is quite probable
if taxes aren't reduced. "They're being killed by personal
income taxes," he had said, in speaking of some of his business
"There's killing and there's killing," Mrs. Washington
replies when I repeat this to her. "I don't think the '!
you talked to knows what 'killing' means."
"Do you want me to say that?"
"Write it down."
The year before I had this talk with Mrs. Washington, a Wall
Street money manager who had been extremely lucky, or had made
some very shrewd decisions, had had earnings of more than $1 billion,
which was just about five times the total income of the 18,000
households of Mott Haven. An extra 20 percent tax on his earnings,
if redistributed in the South Bronx, would have lifted 48,000
human beings-every child and every parent in every family of Mott
Haven-out of poverty, with enough left over, I imagine, to buy
many safe new elevator doors and hire several good physicians
for the public schools that serve the neighborhood. Dozens of
other investors in New York, ac cording to financial publications,
were making annual earnings of between $10 million and $400 million
during 1992 and 1993.
When the newspapers speak of New York City's lack of money,
clearly, they are referring not to private wealth but to the public
treasury. Still, the statements Mrs. Washing ton has made stick
in my mind. Ever since that time, when I have seen news stories
about "fiscal shortages" in New York City, I have read
those words with complicated feelings.
On the phone a few nights later, David spells out an other
consequence that he foresees from cuts in public services. "It
means we're going to see more rats in the South Bronx. I think
we have enough already."
"Where do you see rats?" I ask.
"You can't miss them," he replies.
"Rats or mice?"
"Rats," he answers. "Ugly rats. They're almost
every where. They come out even in the daytime."
I ask, "Where do they come from?"
"The biggest ones, the water rats, come out of the Bronx
River. At four P.M. or five P.M., when it's beginning to get dark,
you see them coming out in hordes. Very large rats. You see them
right here in the street outside our building. I don't like to
see them. I feel nausea when I see them.
"A supermarket close to the train station had to be shut
down because there were so many rats. They were tearing open the
food boxes. There used to be a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner
but they had to close it because it was rat-infested too. They
didn't reopen. There's nothing left there now except an empty
He speaks of the threatened cuts in children's pro grams and
AIDS services. "The mayor says that he needs to take these
things away from us, but we don't need to have these things taken
away from us. Once they're gone, a lot of us are going to go with
His distrust of the mayor is visceral, intense. "I don't
like him. I don't like his ways. I don't like the way he speaks
about poor people. I don't like his eyes. I watch his eyes. There's
too much coldness there."
I ask him if he thinks the mayor is ignorant of how poor people
view him and of what they're going through.
"I don't think he's ignorant. He seems to be well educated,
though you can be educated and still be ignorant, but I don't
think he's ignorant. I think he's cruel."
I say to him something that has frequently been said to me.
"There's always been unfairness in the world. There has always
been selfishness. This isn't something new to the United States,
or to New York."
"I don't think it's always been this way," he says.
"I don't believe it. I don't think that there was this much
selfishness in olden times, in Bible days. I think there was more
kindness and that people helped each other more. I would like
to see it again but I don't think it's going to happen. Not any
I tell him about Cliffie, whom I met last summer at St. Ann's,
and Cliffie's anecdote about the slice of pizza that he handed
to a man who asked for it, because "God told us, 'Share!'
I ask him if the teenagers he knows speak about God or heaven
in this way.
"Some do. But some are too embarrassed. They're afraid
to sound like children. But it isn't bad to sound like children.
Children sometimes understand things that most grown-ups do not
"I like to look at children on the train. You don't see
many people who look friendly on the train. But children do. Some
of them do. Some of them look joyful. Some of them say hello to
you, even to strangers. No one else does. They want to be loved."
David's troubled reactions to the cutbacks taking place now
in New York and his belief that they are linked to selfishness
or to a wish for punishment, as much as to necessity, stand in
contrast to the mood apparent in the words of many downtown financiers
and politicians when they comment on these shifts in social policy.
"In some ways this is a bit of a grand experiment,"
says the director of the state Municipal Assistance Corporation,
a powerful financial organization that has pushed hard for the
fiscal cuts that have, in turn, led to these cuts in public services.
New Yorkers are going to have to learn "to make more bricks
with less straw." says another official of the corporation,
an investment banker formerly at Lazard Freres.
The biblical experiment of which they speak does not seem
particularly grand, or wise, or in the long run even cost-efficient,
from the point of view of those who work among the poor; but the
reduction in taxes that the mayor has promised seems to be appealing
to the middle class and affluent, and he is, it seems, reading
the mood of the electorate adeptly.
"All right," concedes Anne Roiphe, a columnist in
the New York Observer. "Out there, someone is sleeping on
a grate.... Somewhere in the parts of town where white powders
are served in contaminated needles, someone is daring fate . .
. and the emergency rooms are full of people...." Still,
she says, "cruelty is as natural to the city as fresh air
is to the country.... I used to feel this cruelty was wrong, immoral....
Now I don't know. Maybe it's the fuel that powers the palace."
Encouraged by this state of mind, she says, "I like the
wicked clink of glasses, the light bouncing off the rhinestone
clasp . . ., the chandeliers glinting against the dark. ... Cruelty
is part of the energy, part of the delight.... I want to ... eat
good food till the millennium.... I am feeling full of nerve.
Nerve is what you need to get through. . . . What you must decide
is that shame is bearable."
The author, who calls herself "a cold old liberal"
in search of a fur coat, may be right in calling cruelty "the
fuel that powers the palace" of our satisfactions. Perhaps
this has been true in all societies. Tolstoi described a number
of people in St. Petersburg and Moscow who said things like this
100 years ago. Still, the note of self-congratulation in her voice
takes one aback. It sounds as if she views her new found power
to feel comfortable with shame as therapeutic. If this is what
a person who regards herself as liberal is thinking, what do conservative
New Yorkers feel? What will this mean for children in the Bronx?
As class lets out at three P.M., the sidewalk in front of
P.S. 65 is filled with mothers and grandmothers waiting to escort
their children and grandchildren to their homes. Some of the older
children slip loose from the other kids and enter a bodega on
the corner of the street. A toddler with a canvas backpack that
looks almost as big as he is says goodbye to another toddler,
hugs her awkwardly, then reaches up to take his grandmother's
As long as I have visited in inner-city schools like P.S.
65, I have always found the sight of children coming out at three
o'clock, their mothers and grandmothers waiting to collect them,
tremendously exciting and upsetting at the same time. The sheer
numbers of the children, the determination of the older women
to protect them, and the knowledge that they cannot really be
protected in the face of all the dangers that surround them fill
a visitor with fore boding. You wish that while they were in class,
someone with magic powers had appeared and waved a wand and turned
the world outside the building into fields of flowers.
Sympathy for these children, though movingly ex pressed in
some news stories, is not of the magnitude one would expect within
a richly cultivated city. One of the radio talk-show hosts who
broadcasts on the ABC affiliate in New York City, who refers to
African blacks as "savages" and advocates eugenics in
America, recently wondered aloud, during a monologue about black
people, "how they multiply like that," then answered,
"It's like maggots on a hot day. You look one minute and
there are so many there.... You look again and wow! they've tripled."
These are not unusual statements these days on the radio in New
York City. It often seems as if the hatred for black women in
particular is so intense that there is no longer any sense of
prohibition about venting the same hatred on their children.
"I didn't breed them.... I don't want to feed them,"
says a woman cited in the Times. The woman, who lives in Arizona,
is speaking of Mexican children who enter border towns illegally;
but the sentiment is not unlike the one you hear repeatedly in
New York City from a number of the talk-show hosts whose scorn
for children of black and His panic people, frequently conveyed
with searing humor, seems to stir the deepest, most responsive
chords among white listeners.
At five P.M., I stand at the corner of East 139th Street and
St. Ann's Avenue. Tall iron bars have been installed around the
space where Children's Park once stood. There is no one enjoying
the space inside the bars, which will re main an antiseptic fortress,
walled off from the public for most of the year to come; but it
is, for now at least, defensible against drug dealers. At some
of the local bodegas, store-owners are installing stronger, more
protective barriers to fend off bullets; bulletproof vests are
also becoming part of their work uniforms. So the bodegas soon
will be a little more defensible as well.
All the strategies and agencies and institutions needed to
contain, control, and normalize a social plague-some of them severe,
others exploitative, and some benign-are, it seems, being assembled:
defensible stores, defensible parks, defensible entrances to housing
projects, defensible schools where weapons-detectors are installed
at the front doors and guards are posted, "drug-free zones"
in front of the schools, "safety corridors" between
the schools and nearby subway stations, "grieving rooms"
in some of the schools where students have a place to mourn the
friends who do not make it safely through the "safety corridors,"
a large and crowded criminal court and the enormous new court
complex now under construction, an old reform school (Spofford)
and the new, much larger juvenile prison being built on St. Ann's
Avenue, an adult prison, a prison barge, a projected kitchen to
prepackage prison meals, a projected high school to train kids
to work in prisons and in other crime-related areas, the two symmetrical
prostitute strolls, one to the east, one to the west, and counseling
and condom distribution to protect the prostitutes from spreading
or contracting AIDS, services for grown-ups who already have contracted
AIDS, services for children who have AIDS, services for children
who have seen their mothers die of AIDS, services for men and
women coming out of prison services for children of the men and
women who are still in prison, a welfare office to determine who
is eligible for checks and check-cashing stores where residents
can cash the checks, food stamp distribution and bodegas that
accept the stamps at discount to enable mothers to buy cigarettes
or diapers, 13 shelters, 12 soup kitchens, 11 free food pantries,
perhaps someday an "empowerment zone," or "enterprise
zone," or some other kind of business zone to generate some
jobs for a small fraction of the people who reside here: all the
pieces of the perfectible ghetto, the modernized and sometimes
even well-served urban lazaretto, with civic-minded CEOs who come
up from Manhattan maybe once a week to serve as mentors or "role
models" to the children in the schools while some of their
spouses organize benefit balls to pay for dinners in the shelters.
All these strategies and services are needed-all these and
hundreds more-if our society intends to keep on placing those
it sees as unclean in the unclean places. "In reality, it
is a form of quarantine," says Ana Oliveira, who directs
an agency that serves ex-prison inmates who have AIDS, "not
just of people who have AIDS but of people who have everything
we fear, sickness, color, destitution- but it has been carried
out in ways that seem compatible with humane principles.
"We don't have 'pass cards' in New York. Black women
who have AIDS don't have to clip a photo ID to their dress. You
don't need a permit to cross over at the magic line of 96th Street.
We just tell you the apartment that's available is in Mott Haven,
or East Tremont, or Hunts Point. 'That's where we can serve you
best. Here's a referral number. Call this agency. They'll help
you to get settled....' That's what I mean by 'humane principles.'
For those who work within these agencies, as I do, it appears
benevolent. And, of course, once you accept the preconditions,
all these things are absolutely critical."
One of the humane principles of which she speaks is present,
it appears, here at the former site of Children's Park. The city
has apparently tried hard to make this into a "good"
corner. By smashing the benches and the shelter where drug needles
once were given out, and flushing out the last remaining symbols
of the age of Calderon, it has created something clean and modern-looking,
metal, geometric, which will someday be transformed into a pleasant
place for children. The part of the drug trade that once flourished
here has moved both up and down the street, a number of blocks
in each direction. The needle exchange is now in a new location,
just four doors from P.S. 65.
A few of the people who once frequented the park however,
are standing on the sidewalk looking through the bars. A woman
I have seen here several times and who, I am told, is HIV-infected
holds a pack of Winstons in one hand, a single cigarette in the
other. In a voice that is a bit peremptory and gruff, she asks
me for a match.
Lighting the match and holding it for her as she cups her
hands, I ask her something that, I realize, even as I say it,
must strike her as somewhat strange. "What do you call this
kind of place?"
She looks perplexed. "What do I call what place?"
"This place here-what do you call it?"
"This place here?" She shrugs. "This here is
When she sees me taking out my pen, she says it louder, "GHETTO,"
and then spells it.
I ask, "Why do you live here? '
She looks around her at the street and shrugs again. "This
is where poor peoples lives," she says. "Where else
you think poor peoples goin' to be?....
Rikers Island-"a 415-acre Alcatraz in the East River
" where, says the Times, "90 percent of the captive
population is black or Hispanic"-was erected largely on compacted
trash and stands less than 1,000 yards across the water from the
Hunts Point Sewage Treatment Plant and about two miles north and
east of the narrow water passageway called Hell Gate. Passengers
departing La Guardia for Boston on the Delta shuttle get a good
view of the island if they're sitting on the left side of the
plane, though few may know that what they see beneath them is
the largest penal institution in the world, serving some of the
most damaged human products of the largest ghetto population in
The city spends $58,000 yearly on each adult inmate, $70,000
on each juvenile-nearly ten times what it spends to educate a
child in its public schools.
"The cost is justified," says a woman who runs an
education program on the island, "in terms that go beyond
financial calculations. Without this island, the attractive lives
some of us lead in the nice sections of New York would simply
not be possible. If you want to get your outcasts out of sight,
first you need a ghetto and then you need a prison to take pressure
off the ghetto. The fact that it doesn't make financial sense
is not the point. Short-term terror and revulsion are more powerful
than long-term wisdom or self interest. That's why corrections
is one of the few growth industries in New York City now.
"Think of it in 'entrepreneurial' terms," she says.
"Our biggest 'area of opportunity' is the South Bronx, Harlem
second, and then Brooklyn. That may sound insensitive but that's
the way things really are. Guys who grow up in some of those neighborhoods
have two real choices: either to be our clients or else our employees.
"Well," she adds, "obviously they have some
other options. But those are certainly two of the big ones. We
employ more than 10,000 people, 8,000 of them guards. a huge employment
opportunity in a downsized economy."
As jobs have fled the city in the past 12 years, putting hundreds
of thousands of idle people on street corners, stronger and stronger
drugs have been imported into the poor neighborhoods and drug
laws have grown more severe, the population of the prison island
has skyrocketed. There were 6,000 inmates there in 1982. There
are 18,000 in the spring of 1994 while I am visiting Mott Haven-a
number that will rise to 20,000 one year later. This number, however,
which records the population of the ten jails on the island at
a given moment, fails to reflect the vast number of inmates who
enter or leave the system in the course of any year. In all, about
130,000 men and women are incarcerated on the island and within
the city's other jails in any 12-month period. Most are in pretrial
detention because they do not have the money to make bail.
After trial and conviction, those with lengthy sentences are
transferred to one of the 69 state prisons, in which an other
68,000 inmates now are held-more than a fivefold increase over
1973, when the prison system held only 12,500 inmates.
Nearly three quarters of the inmates of state prisons in New
York come from the same seven neighborhoods of New York City:
the South Bronx, Harlem, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, South
Jamaica, East New York, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan,
all but the last of which are deeply segregated ghetto neighborhoods.
Twice as many black men in New York are under control of the criminal
justice system as are enrolled full-time in all the colleges within
the state. In the city itself, they are 14 times more likely than
white men to be incarcerated-Hispanic men 12 times more likely.
Of children imprisoned in "secular detention" in the
city, 97 percent are black or Hispanic.
The national statistics parallel those of New York State in
most of these respects. Only 23,000 black men earned degrees from
colleges and universities in the United States in 1990. In the
same year, 2.3 million black men and black juveniles passed through
the nation's jail and prison systems.
Racial segregation, as a governing fact of life in New York
City, seldom surfaces in public dialogue about the problems faced
by children in poor neighborhoods. Even the word "segregation"
is not often used in local press discussions of the city's schools
and neighborhoods-or, if used at all, is handled gingerly. References
to "ghettos" or to "ghetto neighborhoods"
are generally circumvented too, although these terms are sometimes
used in writing about other sections of the nation. Semantic somersaults
are often undertaken to avoid the use of clear words on a matter
in which clarity is badly needed. One hears of underserved"
communities in New York City, of low-income neighbor hoods"
inhabited by people called "minorities," of "gritty,"
"bleak," "distressed," "hard-bitten,"
or "impacted" neighborhoods-rarely of "segregated
neighborhoods,' an apparently intentional omission that seems
to confirm Lee Stuart's feeling that the issue is no longer part
of the agenda. How segregated are the New York City schools?
For Hispanic children, according to a study carried out at
Harvard University in 1993, New York's public schools are the
most segregated in the nation. For black children, New York's
schools come third after the schools of Illinois and Michigan.
A new term, "hypersegregation, has been introduced to speak
of schools like these, where there are simply no white children,
or not more than token numbers; and similar schools are to be
found, of course, in almost every city of the nation. "Two
thirds of America's black children," notes the Times, "know
few, if any, white people." The civil rights momentum of
the 1960s, says Professor Gary Orfield, one of the authors of
the Harvard study, "is dead in the water and the ship is
School segregation in New York, moreover, notes a teacher
there, is not merely the result of housing segregation. "Even
when black and Latino children ride the bus or take the train
to go to school in a white area, white families often vacate schools
in their own neighborhoods." One of the classically segregated
high schools in New York, he says, is named for Justice Louis
Brandeis-"right in the middle of the liberal West Side."
Bigotry, he concedes, is not the only factor in the flight
of some white children from these schools. "Many of their
parents simply don't believe these schools are good for any child,
theirs or anybody else's. So they put their own kids into private
schools and try to raise some scholarships to pay for black kids
to attend them too. But it tends to be a triage operation. The
black kids who get into private schools like these are screened
quite carefully. So, in one sense, it simply makes things worse
in public school by pulling out the children that a teacher counts
on to keep class discussions going and to spur the others to succeed.
"Sometimes," he adds, "I walk by Brandeis High
School and I think of Justice Brandeis and I shake my head. I
mean-God help us! If you can't have racial integration at a school
in this community, where can you ever hope to have it?
"Many of the people in this neighborhood," he says,
were in the protest movements of the 1960s. They sang t he songs.
Some of them did more than sing. Some were in he integration struggles
in the South. They risked their lives. Now they feel they have
to flee poor children at a school in their own neighborhood. They're
not even being asked to put their children on a bus. The children
of color ride the bus into their neighborhood! And still they
flee. What does this say about New York today? What does this
say about America?
"A dream," he says, "does not die on its own.
A dream is extinguished by the choices ordinary people make about
all the things in their own lives. The choices that some of your
friends on the West Side have made may seem benign and innocent
and, in the short run, even logical. But the net effects are very
much the same as those we saw in Alabama and Virginia when white
people left the public schools after the first court orders. The
motive may be different, and I'm sure it often is; the consequence
Some of the West Side people he describes still hold to the
convictions of their youth; some tell me that they feel a sense
of disappointment-in themselves, in our society- when they withdraw
their children from the public schools, which guarantees their
segregation. Others have retired into a severe conservatism, masked
frequently by over stated references to youthful episodes of activism,
which are sometimes used like amulets to ward off any possibilities
of self-reproach. "I was on the bridge at Selma" is
a statement heard quite often from late-middle-aged conservatives
today in New York City, a claim that, whether it is true or not,
stirs caustic comments from some of the black adults I know.
"You see," says the teacher, "to the very poor
black children that I teach, who suffer more than any kids should'
suffer in a country like America, it doesn't matter much what
bridge you might have stood on 30 years ago. They want to know
what bridge you stand on now. And, every time they walk into a
hospital, or school, or simply ride the train, they see the answer;
and it isn't a good answer." The view of the United States
that children get in looking out the window of a school in Harlem
or the Bronx, he says, "is not one that is likely to affirm
a sense of confidence in human goodness."
P.S. 65, the elementary school on Cypress Avenue, with one
white child in a student population of 800, is, in its near-total
segregation, indistinguishable from almost any other public school
in the South Bronx, where racial isolation is nearly as absolute
as anything one might have seen in Mississippi 40 years ago. Six
months after the events described within this book, when I am
in the neighborhood and stop to visit at the school again, the
Russian boy who was the sole white student here when I first visited
will have gone on to junior high, but there will be a new white
student in the school, a German boy, also an immigrant. His third
grade teacher will point him out to me. "I've been at this
school for 18 years," the teacher says. "This is the
first white student I have ever had!"
Despite its racial isolation and the destitution of its children,
nonetheless, P.S. 65 is still sometimes a cheerful place in certain
ways. The "atrophy of childhood by physical and spiritual
night," of which Victor Hugo wrote in 1862, has not yet destroyed
the playfulness and trusting innocence of many of the younger
children, who may not yet be aware of what is happening to them.
Even in the older grades, some of the children, like Anabelle,
do not seem to lose their willingness to trust.
It is at the secondary level-in junior high and, more dramatically,
in high school-that the sense of human ruin on a vast scale becomes
unmistakable. Numbers cannot convey the mood of desolation that
pervades some of these secondary schools; but certain statistics,
even when you think that you already understand some of the problems
of poor children in New York, jump off the page and strike you
"I count the graduating class," writes City University
professor Michelle Fine, in speaking of one of these segregated
high schools-"a total of 200 in a school of approximately
3,200." Almost a thousand students out of these 3,200 are
officially "discharged" for poor attendance or a number
of other reasons, including violent behavior, every year. Studying
the fate of 1,436 children enrolled in the ninth grade during
one academic year, she finds that, six years later, a full 87
percent have been "discharged"-the term used by the
school-and that 80 percent of the original ninth graders have
yet to receive a degree from any 1 other academic institution.
"My job is like a pilot on a hijacked plane," a
school official tells her, "and my job is to throw the hijacker
off, even if it means bodily" and even if, as the visitor
observes, more than 80 percent of children in a given class are
seen as the hijackers.
"From inside the school," she says, the discharge
process seems "inevitable" and "necessary."
The overcrowding of the school and the "disincentives"
of teaching kids who don't show up for class or cannot understand
their work compel the school to carry out "this transfer
of bodies." But would it appear inevitable or necessary,
she asks, "if almost a third" of a middle-class white
school "were to disappear between September and June?"
In order to make the rate of failure less apparent, or to
placate students who have failed to learn enough to graduate,
officials at some schools have been prepared to make unusual concessions
to their pupils. At one Brooklyn high school, for example, where
only one in six of those who enter graduates in four years, the
principal allows the kids who cannot graduate, but who at least
have not dropped out or been ejected, to participate in the commencement
exercises if they pay $200-an arrangement, says a teacher, ~*
that is known as "pay to appear."
Many of the schools with the most devastating academic records
are also physically offensive places. At Morris High School, where
less than 70 of the 1,700 children in the building qualified for
graduation in the spring of 1993, barrels were filling up with
rain in several rooms the last time I was there. Green fungus
molds were growing in the corners of the room in which the guidance
counselor met kids who were depressed. Many of these schools quite
literally stink. Girls tell me they won't use the toilets. They
rush home the minute school is over. If they need to use the bathroom
sooner, they leave sooner.
At Taft High School in the Bronx, one of the grimmest schools
in the United States, the self-esteem of children has been crushed
to the degree that students ridicule them selves, as David Washington
has told me, by making a bitter joke out of the letters of the
school's name. "Taft," they say, means "Training
Animals For Tomorrow." The area around the school is heavily
patrolled so students can get from the subway to the school unharmed.
But the greatest harm that faces the 4,000 boys and girls who
go here may be what is done to them inside the building after
A few of the children from poor neighborhoods like Hunts Point
and Mott Haven, but not nearly enough, defy all expectations by
obtaining entrance to selective high schools, such as Stuyvesant
High, one of the city's two top secondary schools. To say that
not nearly enough succeed in doing this, however, is to understate
the matter. In a city where black and Hispanic children make up
75 percent of students in the public high schools, only 9 percent
of kids at Stuyvesant are black or Hispanic. Of the 32 elementary
districts of the New York City public schools, District 7, in
which P.S. 65 is situated, has the fewest students who get into
Stuyvesant and similar selective schools. The district serving
the children of Manhattan's Upper East Side has the highest number.
Admissions to Stuyvesant are based upon a child's score on
an exam. The numbers therefore testify to some thing far more
troubling than the potential bias that may skew admissions to
some other schools. They tell us of hundreds of thousands of black
and Hispanic kids whose power to compete with other children for
the high rewards that a good education might make possible has
been demolished at a very early age and in some coldly measurable
"Everything these kids touch turns to gold," says
the principal of Stuyvesant with the normal pride that any principal
of such a school would voice, a statement I have never heard,
and can't imagine hearing, from a principal in the South Bronx.
The school is housed in a handsome, new, ten-story building
in Manhattan with 12 science labs, five gyms, an Olympic swimming
pool, an elegant theater, a rooftop satellite dish that captures
data for meteorologic computations, 450 IBM and Macintosh computers,
"a dignified two-story library . . . furnished in warm woods"
that holds some 40,000 books, and "a penthouse cafeteria"
that offers students "peerless river views," according
to a story in the Times. The school's "sturdy masonry walls,
devoid of graffiti," says the writer, "refresh the idea
thatthe public school is among the finest flowers of America's
"While a billion dollars was cut from the city's school
budget between 1989 and 1992," Technos magazine reports,
and while 1,300 children in a school I visited in one Bronx neighborhood
did not even have a school but had been housed in an abandoned
skating rink that had no windows, affording its segregated kids
no chance at all of river views nor any view at all, "Stuyvesant
got almost everything it asked for...."
The $150 million spent to build the dazzling new structure,
which opened its doors in 1992, is almost exactly the same as
what the city spent in the same year to purchase the massive prison
barge that it has moored at Hunts Point in the South Bronx, where
it accommodates the graduates and dropouts of much less attractive
high schools on six floating floors of prison cells, one of them
"Through both public and private channels," says
former governor Mario Cuomo of the students attending Stuyvesant,
"we are serving this elite group rather well." The "quality
of these facilities speaks eloquently to the students" of
New York's "respect" for both "their work and their
ideas-a priceless boost."
"We deserve it," says a 1 7-year-old at Stuyvesant.
"We're supposed to be the best kids . . . ," and, he
adds, "there may be something to that." A Times reporter
describes the students as a "brainy bunch" that "deserves
every bit of indulgence a cash-strapped city can muster."
No one who spends time with kids from Stuyvesant, a school
whose graduates are said to earn more Ph.D.'s than those of any
other high school in America, can doubt that they deserve this
splendid school. The question that one wants to ask is: What do
other kids deserve and how is the whole idea of a "deserving"
or an "undeserving" person used to mask some of the
cumulative consequences of in justice?
"Some people are better than others," wrote conservative
social scientist Charles Murray several years ago. "They
deserve more of society's rewards." The coldness of this
statement offended many people at the time that it was published.
But Murray's views are not entirely different from what politicians,
business leaders, and the school board of New York seem to believe
and have embodied in providing the "best" kids with
the best building and best vista not just of the harbor, but of
their own future.
Why is it that so few black and Hispanic children in New York
or elsewhere get into top-rated schools like Stuyvesant?
Some advocates for children in poor neighborhoods emphasize
the cultural bias they believe to be inherent in some of the standardized
exams and also note that affluent parents often pay for private
"coaching classes" for their children in the weeks before
admissions tests are given. Others point to the initial damage
done to many of the poorest children by the virtual absence of
good preschool education in their neighborhoods. Less than ten
percent of children at P.S. 65, for instance, are accommodated
by the Head Start programs in the area or by any comparable programs-"probably
much less than that," according to the principal
Advocates for children in the South Bronx also speak about
the many elementary schools and junior high schools in which students
seldom see a certified teacher but are instructed, for the most
part, by "provisionals," or permanent subs, while more
experienced teachers are assigned to schools in less abandoned
neighborhoods. At one junior high school in the South Bronx, for
example, in which money was so scarce in 1994 that girls were
using pieces of TV cable as their jump ropes at the time I visited
the area, only 15 teachers in a faculty of 54 were certified.
The over crowding of children in these schools compounds the chaos
caused by staffing difficulties. At some schools in the South
Bronx, in the same year, classes were taking place in settings
like stair-landings, bathrooms, and coat closets, be cause the
population of poor children was increasing but there was, according
to the press, no money to build schools for them.
Many of the children who attend these schools also suffer
the emotional and physical attrition that results from chronic
illnesses like asthma and anxiety, as well as the steady and low-level
misery of rotting teeth, infected gums, and festering, untreated
sores. Many, like Anthony, have no bedroom of their own but sleep
on sofas if they're lucky, mattresses thrown down on the floor
if they are not.
It is also recognized that many children in poor neighborhoods
such as Mott Haven have been neurologically impaired, some because
of low-weight prematurity at birth, some because of drug ingestion
while in utero, and many from lead poison in their homes and also,
shockingly enough, within their schools. Although New York officially
banned the use of lead in residential paint in 1960, this prohibition
was unevenly enforced in ghetto neighbor hoods and never energetically
enforced in city-owned apartments. And, notes the Times, the city
"continued to apply 'industrial grade' lead paint" in
public classrooms until 1980. John Rosen, a well-known pediatrician
and lead-poison specialist at Montefiore Medical Center in the
Bronx, warned officials in 1987 that schools in the area were
"dangerously loaded with lead."
Between the apartments in which the city places them and the
schools to which the city has assigned them, thousands of poor
children, it appears, are sacrificing parts of their intelligence
to city fiscal policies and losing some of the capacity for abstract
thinking that might otherwise have rendered them sophisticated
critics of such policies. The damage done to the brain cells of
lead-poisoned children is, according to researchers, not reversible.
In the light of all these socially created injuries to intellect,
most of which could be corrected by a fair-minded society, it
may seem surprising that scarce research funds should be diverted
to investigations of "genetic links" between the IQ
deficits of certain children and their racial origins. There is
something wrong with a society where money is available to do
this kind of research but not to remove lead poison from the homes
and schools of y children in the Bronx. - Many of the liberal
intellectuals I know who are concerned with questions of unequal
access to good secondary schools tend to focus more on inequalities
that may be caused by our selection systems than on those that
are engendered by environmental forces and are neurological in
nature. In human terms, it's understandable that people would
prefer to speak about examinations than about brain damage. There
is a natural fear of the irrevocable in almost all of us; and,
if we know some of the children in these neighborhoods and also
know that they have lived in lead infested buildings, in an atmosphere
where poisons of many different kinds, both physical and spiritual,
are in the air, we do our best to shut these darker matters from
our from our minds. It is less painful to speak of an unfair test
than of brain damage since a test can someday be revised and given
to a child again, but childhood cannot.
So long as the most vulnerable people in our population are
consigned to places that the rest of us will always shun and flee
and view with fear, I am afraid that educational denial, medical
and economic devastation, and aes thetic degradation will be virtually
inevitable; and this, I am afraid, will be the case no matter
what the individual or even shared achievements of small numbers
of good human beings who are infused with the essential heroism
of the people whom I have described. So long as there are ghetto
neighborhoods and ghetto hospitals and ghetto schools, I am convinced
there will be ghetto desperation, ghetto violence, and ghetto
fear because a ghetto is itself an evil and unnatural construction.
I do not think these many self-help efforts, as important
as they are, can conceivably prevent these outcomes on more than
a very limited scale and always in quite special situations, and
I even feel a bit bewildered that a point like this needs to be
made in the United States in 1995. That it does need to be made,
however. may be one more added piece of evidence of just how far
the nation has regressed during the quarter-century that has transpired
since the death of Dr. King and of the dream that seems to have
died with him.
Some government officials argue that the violence and devastation
seen in places like Mott Haven are caused by only a small fraction
of the population. "maybe five to ten percent," and
that if these individuals, the bloodiest murderers, the top drug
dealers, the most ruthless of gang leaders, could somehow be "weeded
out"-"subtracted"- from the larger population,
those who remain could lead good, normal, peaceful, and productive
lives. Many residents of these neighborhoods are understandably
attracted to such strategies. The scenario, as it is usually laid
out, is to remove these men and boys from streets and schools
and place them in what would amount to ghettos-within ghettos,
so-called "boot camps," "shock-incarceration centers,"
to use two of the widely circulated terms.
One would like to believe that this might work; but I do not.
After one group of criminals is gone, as the experi ence of countless
neighborhoods makes clear, another group of lower-level dealers
and apprentice pimps and killers generally emerges very soon to
take their place, be cause the market of tormented people who
need drugs, or think they do, to face the pain of living, still
remains. Where, then, would the "weeding" process stop?
How many boys-and girls too, for that matter-would we ulti mately
need to "weed out" from the poisoned fields before we
end up with a happy ghetto? Exactly 30 years ago, in an influential
work, Dark Ghetto, Dr. Kenneth Clark spoke of the ways in which
a segregated population may be induced to satisfy the wishes of
the white society by claiming to desire, even to enjoy, a caged
condition that it has not chosen but knows no way to escape. "A
most cruel . . . consequence of enforced segregation," he
wrote, "is that its victims can be made to accommodate to
their victimized status and under certain circumstances to state
that it is their desire to be set apart, or to agree that subjugation
is not really detrimental...." The fact remains, he said,
that these forms of isolation "are not voluntary states."
Segregation, he concluded, "is neither sought nor imposed
by healthy . . . human beings."
Many of my white friends who live in New York City, I believe,
would probably agree but might insist that they are personally
"imposing" nothing on the people we have met within
this book. They might say that they have simply come to New York
City, found a job, and found a home, and settled into lead their
lives within the city as it is. That is the great luxury of long-existing
and accepted segregation in New York and almost every other major
city of our nation nowadays. Nothing needs to be imposed on anyone.
The evil is already set in stone. We just move in.
According to a zip code breakdown of New York shown to me
by Dr. Robert Massad, a family-practice specialist at Montefiore
Medical Center in the Bronx, the rate of hospital admissions for
asthma statewide in New York is 1.8 per 1,000 people. In New York
City, it is 2.5 per 1,000, but in Mott Haven the rate rises to
6.0 in the St. Ann's neighborhood and 6.9 in the adjacent zip
code. The lowest rate of pediatric asthma in the Bronx, according
to this breakdown, is in Riverdale, a predominately white section;
the highest rate, more than five times that of Riverdale is in
Mott Haven, where the rate of child pneumonia is also very high:
ten times that of Riverdale. The asthma mortal ity rate for people
in the Bronx, the borough with the highest concentration of black
and Hispanic residents, is nearly nine times that of Staten Island,
which is the whitest borough in the city.
One reason for the higher rates of death from asthma in poor
neighborhoods like the South Bronx is the relative absence of
preventive care. But the cost of asthma medication is a factor
too. Inhalers cost between $15 and $40 each and often last only
two weeks. Some children need three different kinds of medication
simultaneously, and par ents who aren't on Medicaid or who can't
get refills of prescriptions at the proper times because of long
lines at the hospitals may simply take a chance on using an inhaler
past its date of expiration. A heroin user who lives close to
the Grand Concourse tells me that one of the dealers he has known
for years "peddles asthma inhalers on Third Avenue,"
where, he says, "they are more valuable than her own,"
but, he adds, "nobody ever asks him if they are outdated."
Other asthmatics turn for urgent care to storefront medical
offices, which the press calls "Medicaid mills" and
where, according to one news account, doctors of unknown qualification
"grind through dozens of patients" in an hour, often
seeing each one for less than a minute, then writing prescriptions,
often for strong drugs, which are dispensed at pharmacies owned
by the Medicaid mills. "Eight of ten patients complain of
asthma," notes a congressional subcommittee that has been
able to obtain case records for some of the Medicaid mills of
the South Bronx. "Almost all" are given drugs that "potentiate
[i.e., intensify] the effects of cocaine."
Some of the Medicaid mills don't even bother with ex amining
rooms, says Dr. Massad, who tells me of seeing a line of men out
in the street one day and asking them what they were waiting for.
"They said, 'To see the doctor.' I went to the front of the
line and saw this guy behind a kind of bank-teller window. He
was sitting behind a bulletproof glass just writing out prescriptions."
"You can't call what goes on in those places medicine,"
says another doctor, who supervises the professional conduct of
physicians for the state Department of Health. "It's a continuous
obscenity.... No real doctor would spend a day there."
Partly because of the hiring methods of the Medicaid mills,
which advertise for doctors in "help wanted" columns
in newspapers, less than 13 percent of the doctors practicing
primary care in the Mott Haven area are certified by medical boards
to practice-an astonishing statistic in a city with a surplus
of well-qualified physicians in its wealthy neighborhoods. When
you ride on the Number 6 train from East 59th Street to the racial
cutoff point at 96th, you pass beneath an area in which 2,400
private doctors, most of them highly qualified, have their offices
and in which the ratio of doctors to residents is approximately
60 to 1,000. When you leave the subway at Brook Avenue, you are
in a neighborhood in which the ratio is two per 1,000.
A handful of good, publicly funded clinics, which are perennially
overcrowded, try to compensate for the abandonment of New York
City's poorest children by much of its medical establishment.
At one such clinic, on 162nd Street, overseen by Dr. Massad's
staff, I meet a Puerto Rican boy, a nine-year-old asthmatic who
has only recently begun to suffer from severe attacks. His mother
says that overexertion or emotional distress brings on the worst
attacks. "If you scold him or if anything upsets him, you
can hear the noise: a roaring sound, then wheezing." The
boy, she says, uses two drugs-Proventil and one other medicine,
the name of which is unfamiliar to me. "He brings the pump
with him to school. His younger brother has it too. Also, his
father does, and his grandmother, and his uncle, and his aunt.
I started getting asthma too, a year ago." She tells me that
she uses "the pump" also.
" I saw him itching and I heard the wheezing. I brought
him to Lincoln Hospital at four A.M. They took him right in, but
when they sent him home, he was still wheezing. Two weeks after
that, he caught a big attack at night. 'Mami, I can't breathe,'
he said. That time, the hospital kept him for four days."
I walk home with them after their appointment. Their apartment
is a fifth-floor walk-up. By the time we get to the top of the
stairs, all three of us are out of breath. I ask the child's mother
if I can use her telephone. "We don't have no phone,"
she says-a common situation in the Bronx, which, according to
the 1990 census, has the highest percentage of households without
telephones of any highly populated county in the nation.
Back on 141st Street in Mott Haven, Jesus Gilberto Sierra,
who grew up here and now runs the only reputable primary health
care center in the St. Ann's neighborhood speaks of the factors
that contribute to high rates of pediatric asthma. "Some
of it is obviously environmental-housing infestation, pesticides,
no heat in an apartment. But a great deal is emotional as well.
Fear of violence can be a strong constrictive force. If you moved
these families into a nice suburb, nine tenths of this feeling
of constriction, I'm convinced, would be relieved.
"My secretary's father lives in a little town in Puerto
Rico. Every time he comes here to the Bronx, he has attacks. He
comes out of the subwav at Brook Avenue-something hits him and
he's wheezing." He mentions, "I have asthma also."
The clinic, he tells me, after running through a number of
statistics on staff, finance, and admissions, "cannot meet
the needs" of the community. "We serve Mott Haven, but
we also get the overflow from Hunts Point since the city closed
the only hospital in that area some years ago."
He says it has been hard to attract American physicians to
the clinic. "Of the last 12 that I hired, nine were African
or Haitian. So, with the Haitian doctors for example, you've got
doctors who sometimes speak French or Creole or have very heavy
accents, patients who speak Spanish or else black folks who speak
English. So I try to find bilingual nurses." White American
physicians, numerous studies seem to indicate, often evince a
strong aversion to providing health care in such neighborhoods.
"What do you do with some of these realities?" Sierra
asks me, or himself, in the last moments of our conversation.
"Here is a city in which nine out of ten children born with
AIDS are black kids or Latinos, many of their mothers or fathers
IV users. You have 14-year-old girls who are crack users. If you
don't believe in God and don't believe in family or society and
don't believe you'll ever have a job, what do vou have? Even when
a good political leader speaks to them, his rhetoric has no effect.
It's like walking into an intensive-care ward in a hospital and
saving, 'Rise!' "
His words remind me of the tremendous sigh that Cliffie made
as we were walking in the neighborhood nine months before, and
of his ominous announcement: "The day is coming when the
world will be destroyed." Whatever the culpability of New
York City's health officials or its politicians in allowing the
incinerator to be placed within this powerless and ravaged neighborhood-an
installation to which radioactive waste has twice been brought,
allegedly by accident, this year-the truth is that the concentrated
and sequestered children of Mott Haven probably need no toxins
stronger than despair and fear and isolation to constrict their
bronchioles. The waste incinerator may as many people here believe,
contribute to the asthma suffered by so many children, or it may
be little more than a slow-burning metaphor. But people in every
era, as we know, want desperately to find a visible explanation
for their suffering. These ugly installations-burners, sewage
plants, and dump-sites-seem to offer one that many people in the
South Bronx find persuasive.
The following day, during a conversation with a nurse who
has been working in the South Bronx for five years, I ask a question
that has come into my mind before but that I've never posed to
anyone who knows the medical system from within.
"Why don't people in this neighborhood, when they get
sick, take their Medicaid card, get on the train, get off in Manhattan,
walk into the lobby of one of the nicest hospitals and ask for
care? I make that trip quite often and it isn't a long ride."
"Ah!" she answers, as if, after a lengthy and meandering
conversation, I have inadvertently come up with the right question.
"You see, it wouldn't be the same ride that you take. Geographically
it would, but not in other ways that matter more. For you, that
ride means coming home. It brings you to a place where you belong.
For them, it's more like heading out to sea. It's not 'coming
home' at all. It's the reverse."
"But, if they're really sick," I ask, "how
much would that matter?"
"It matters a lot. First of all, they don't feel welcome
in some of those hospitals. As bad as Lincoln or Bronx-Lebanon
may be, at least receptionists don't call a woman of color by
her first name. And some of the nurses and housekeepers talk to
you! If a woman's black, Hispanic, and on welfare, maybe a drug
user, or has HIV, she knows she ; isn't welcome in a first-class
hospital. This is not perception. It's a fact. If they wouldn't
want you as a neighbor, why do you think they'd want you in the
"People iearn this lesson very fast. It's like, They're
right. I don't belong in a nice hospital. My skin is black. l'm
Puerto Rican. I'm on welfare. I belong in my own neighborhood.
This is where I'm supposed to be.' In other words, they've learned
what we have taught them."
As it turns out, this is not always true, however. Certain
people refuse to learn these lessons and do not accept these arbitrary
borders. Many women from the South Bronx, for example, knowing
the problems of the hospitals that serve the area, do attempt
to gain admission to prestigious hospitals that serve the affluent.
Some are not successful in these efforts. Others, while they do
obtain admission, run into some of the same uncomfortable situations
that they face when they go into an expensive store and notice
that reflex ive "stepping back" that seems to indicate
a fear of getting close to them.
A heavily marked collection of clippings from the Daily News
that Mrs. Washington shows me one night in her home illustrates
one of these painful situations. On the fifth floor of Mount Sinai
Medical Center, a distinguished private hospital, according to
the paper, 17 newborn habies are placed in view in front of a
window in the obstetric ward. All are white. One flight down,
in the fourth-floor nursery, are 14 other babies-"all black
or Latino." The fifth floor, supposedly reserved for private
patients, offers "private and semiprivate rooms with bathrooms."
On the fourth floor, black and Hispanic women are assigned, four
each, to "overcrowded rooms" with ' peeling paint"
and "showers in the hallways."
Although officials of Mount Sinai claim that the segregation
of the wards is not by race, but by method of payment-private
patients on the fifth floor, Medicaid patients on the fourth-a
reporter interviews a woman vvho is not on Medicaid, but Hispanic,
who was placed on the segregated fourth floor even though she
was a private patient. Nurses, meanwhile, tell reporters that
they sometimes see white Medicaid patients on the fifth floor.
"The fifth floor," according to one of the patients,
a black woman on the segregated floor who had apparently walked
upstairs to see what she was missing, "had plants ... had
pictures.... It was brighter.... Even the bathroom was different."
When a white woman who was a friend of hers and had had her baby
on the fifth floor came to visit, "she couldn't believe it
was the same hospital." Patients on the fifth floor are given
classes in nutrition, exercise, breast-feeding, and infant care,
which, says a nurse, are not provided to the patients on the fourth
floor. On the fifth floor a nurse is instructed not to document
the fact of alcohol abuse in making out a patient's record. On
the fourth floor, in contrast, "nurses . . . note for the
records a mother's drug or alcohol abuse" and notify welfare
officials if a mother uses drugs.
When she first visited the hospital, says a black woman from
the Bronx, she was with her husband, who is white, and was shown
attractive rooms on the fifth floor. When she returned to have
her baby, however, she was not with her husband and was placed
on the segregated floor. "The whole attitude of people was
different.... You'd think it was a different hospital," she
says, describing the personal hurt she felt as "devastating."
"The de facto segregation" of the hospital, according
to the Daily News, "apparently has been in existence for
at least ten years."
"I didn't think you'd ever hear of something like that
in this city," David says when I discuss the story with him
and his mother in their kitchen. "Now I see that I was wrong.
It isn't right to separate people in a hospital because of race"-one
of those straightforward observations that well-educated people
often find it hard to state with an equivalent simplicity. The
hospital, he notes, says the issue is not race, but Medicaid.
"But black ladies with insurance had to stay on the same
floor as people who had Medicaid. So the hospital, it seems, was
not telling the truth.
"I don't think that this was a mistake," he says.
"White people must have known about it all along. They could
look around them and see nothing but white women on their floor.
Where did they think black women had their babies? Did they think
that they were having babies in their homes
like in the days of slavery? They must have seen black women
sometimes in the lobby. Where did they think that they had gone?
When I read this, I was thinking, 'Why did it take reporters ten
years to discover this?' "
I ask him if he means that they were purposely ignoring it.
"That's what I think. I think that they agreed to keep
this thing a secret to protect the reputation of the hospital.
I feel upset about this. I think of my mother sitting up all night
when she goes to Bronx-Lebanon. It makes me feel distrustful."
In a pointed reference to the name of the hospital, he adds,
"Mount Sinai was a sacred place. That makes it worse. The
Ten Commandments told us not to lie."
"Three years ago," says one of the grandmothers
who prepare the meals for the soup kitchen at St. Ann's, "I
was having bad pains in my breast and my right arm. I went to
Mount Sinai because I had had a bad experience at Lincoln."
'You live in the South Bronx. Your catchment area is Lincoln Hospital,'
they said. 'Why don't you go back there in your own zone?' I said,
'I have Medicaid.' They said, 'We can't help you.' "
"How far is the hospital from here?" I ask.
"Six stops on the subway," she replies. "You
get off at 96th. It's right there in that area...."
"Do you believe," I ask her, "that you would
have been accepted if you were someone"-I hesitate because
I don't know how to say this-"someone like Reverend Overall
"To tell the truth, I do. You see? They're going to be
paid. So I don't know what else it could have been except the
color of my skin. I don't like to think of that. I'm not a prejudiced
person but I cannot understand why else they would not let me
The woman, who was born and educated in the Virgin Islands,
suffers from depression and, the pastor says, cries easily. She
had worked for years as a household maid for several families
in Manhattan and had thought of going to Mount Sinai because one
of her employers had routinely used that hospital and she had
regarded it therefore with confidence.
"Were they polite to you?" I ask, a question I bring
up because I'm told that these rejections generally are presented
tactfully and with exaggerated friendliness that up sets people
all the more. "No," she says. "They weren't polite
at all." Mimicking the voice of the intake person at Mount
Sinai, she repeats the woman's words: " 'No, no! Oh no! You
have to go back to your zone.
"How did you feel when she told you this?"
"How would you feel?" she says. "You feel ashamed.
You feel inferior. You're angry. You feel tight inside your chest.
It feels like somebody has got his fist around your heart and
just keeps squeezing it. You do not want to think that this can
"Does it hurt when people look at you and see a 'colored
woman,' not a human being?" Elizabeth once asked in reference
to a similar moment of humiliation that she underwent in going
to a hospital in Boston. "It does. It sinks right in. It
stays with you. It eats you up inside. It stays and stays. You
think of it for years."
At home in Massachusetts, when I think about my conversation
with the woman who cooks for the children and the homeless people
in the kitchen of St. Ann's and her reaction to the way she was
turned down when she had asked for medical treatment at Mount
Sinai, it is the aching weariness within her voice that stays
the longest in my mind. Some of this weariness, I imagine, must
reflect the cumulative effect of many years of difficult encounters
like the one she has described; and some may be the consequence
of many other pressures and humiliations in her life. But weariness
among the adults in Mott Haven does not always call for complicated
explanations. A lot of it is simply the sheer physical result
of going for long periods of time with very little sleep because
of the anxiety that seems so common, nearly chronic, among many
people here. "Every little thing you have to do is painful,"
Mrs. Washington once said in speaking of the weariness she feels
in periods of time when there is trouble in her building or her
neighborhood and she is too scared to sleep. "You have to
struggle to get through the afternoon. You drink a lot of coffee
and you smoke too much to keep from crying or exploding at somebody.
You feel nervous all the time and can't calm down."
There is a great deal of discussion in the papers and on television
panels about "apathy" and "listlessness" and
lack of good "decision-making skills" among the mothers
of poor children. It seems that there is something like this al
most every evening on one of the cable stations. I rarely hear
the people on these TV panels talk about such ordinary things
as never getting a night of good deep sleep because you're scared
of bullets coming through the window from the street. In this
respect and many others, the discussion of poor women and their
children is divorced from any realistic context that includes
the actual conditions of their lives.
The statement, for example, heard so often now as to assume
the character of incantation, that embattled neighborhoods like
the South Bronx have undergone a "break down of the family"
upsets many women that I know, not because they think it is not
true, but because those who re peat this phrase, often in an unkind
and censorious way, do so with no reference to the absolute collapse
of almost every other form of life-affirming institution in the
same communities. "Nothin' works here in my neighborhood,"
Elizabeth says. "Keepin' a man is not the biggest problem.
Keepin' from bein' killed is bigger. Keepin' your kids alive is
bigger. If nothin' else works, why should a marriage work? I'd
rather have a peaceful little life just with my kids than live
with somebody who knows that he's a failure. Men like that make
everyone feel rotten."
Perhaps this is one reason why so much of the debate about
the "breakdown of the family" has a note of the un real
or incomplete. "Of course the family structure breaks down
in a place like the South Bronx!" says a white min ister
who works in one of New York City's poorest neighborhoods. "Everything
breaks down in a place like this. The pipes break down. The phone
breaks down. The electricity and heat break down. The spirit breaks
down. The body breaks down. The immune agents of the heart break
down. Why wouldn't the family break down also?
"If we saw the people in these neighborhoods as part
of the same human family to which we belong, we'd never put them
in such places to begin with. But we do not think of them that
way. That is one area of 'family breakdown' that the experts and
newspapers seldom speak of. They speak about the failures of the
mothers we have exiled to do well within their place of exile.
They do not condemn the pharaoh.
"Do you ever turn on C-SPAN? You see these rather shallow
but smart people, most of them young and obviously privileged,
going on and on with perky overconfidence about the values and
the failings of poor women and you want to grab them in your hands
and shake them!"
Elizabeth made a similar comment once about a government official
from the Reagan era, a particularly youthful-looking man who is
often on TV and is severe in what he has to say about black women:
"I'd like to take this little fellow on my knee sometimes
and spank him. He reminds me of the boys I used to care for when
I was a maid- pink and pretty, and too smart by half.
"Don't he remember," she asked, not with humor now,
but with tremendous hurt and bitterness, "who it is who wiped
his bottom when he was a baby?"
Mrs. Washington said it once in her own way. "I feel
like somebody beat me up." She was speaking of the way that
she was treated by welfare officials; but she and many other mothers
in her neighborhood could say the same of the repeated verbal
beatings they receive from less mature, Iess seasoned, and far
less transcendent human beings, most of them white, most of them
male, who sit on television panels from which people such as Mrs.
Washington have been excluded and say many things that are not
true, to which these women can't reply, and other things that
are in part the truth but to which these critics often add an
edge of venomous interpretation.
"Like Job," said the minister I have cited, With
whom I spoke at length about the tone of public criticism of the
poor, "many women could reply, 'What you know, the same do
I know also.... I am not inferior unto you.' " I later looked
up these words in Job and found them followed, in another passage,
by a question many women that I know ask almost daily in one manner
or another: "How long will you vex my soul and break me in
pieces with words?"
"We haven't been fair," says Harvard professor David
Elwood in speaking of the way we treat and talk about poor women
and their children, "and we still don't understand what we've
done to them." It's a beautifully quiet state ment; but I'm
just not sure that we don't understand. Many poor people think
we understand these things extremely well but acquiesce in them
without much personal discom fort. In other words, they don't
see innocence in our behavior. They do not think that what is
being done to them is a mistake.
The specifics of each issue-dump-sites, asthma, or waste burners,
or whatever else-soon begin to seem al most beside the point.
The search for explanations of the sadness heard in many of the
voices of the people I have met is not answered by the factual
questions one might ask about "environment" or "health
care" or "the public schools." The questions that
need asking seem to go beyond these concrete matters. One wants
instead to know how certain people hold up under terrible ordeal,
how many more do not, how human beings devalue other people's
lives, how numbness and destructiveness are universalized, how
human pity is at length extinguished and the shunning of the vulnerable
can come in time to be perceived as natural behavior. "The
poor frighten me," a rich lady told St. Vincent. "The
poor are frightening," he answered, "as frightening
as God's justice." What do we do to those who frighten us?
Do we put them off, as far away as possible, and hope, as one
of the students said to me during the previous summer, that they'll
either die or disappear? How does a nation deal with those whom
it has cursed?
One day in the spring, when Reverend Overall is driving with
me from Manhattan to the Bronx, she stops her car at 96th Street,
then drives one block more to 97th Street, in order to enable
me to see the cutoff point be tween the races in this section
of New York.
The sharpness of the demarcation line, which I have never
seen before at the street level, is more dramatic and extreme
than I anticipated. To the south, along Park Avenue, impressive
buildings stand on both sides of the street, pedestrian islands
with well-tended grass and flower plant ings in the center. ln
the other direction, to the north, a railroad line, submerged
beneath Park Avenue up to this point, appears from under 97th
Street and splits the avenue in two. The trains, from this point
on, run along the street for several blocks until Park Avenue
dips slightly and the tracks are elevated on a large stone viaduct
that shad ows children playing in the sun of afternoon.
The significance of 96th Street in New York is inescapable
and comes up time and again in conversations and in the newspapers.
Luxury grocers advertise their willingness to make deliveries
only south of 96th Street, and even liberal papers such as the
Observer print these ads. McDonald's announces "home delivery"
from 40 of its outlets in New York, but none of them north of
this point on the East Side. Maps in tourist books and maps accompanying
stories in the papers about leisure-time activities tend to stop
at 96th Street too. A church in Harlem that attempts to forge
religious links between the races calls the program it has started
"Crossing 96th Street." But casual conversations with
a sampling of people who reside just south of here, as well as
a ride on the Number 6 or Number 4 train almost any hour of any
day, will demonstrate to readers who may visit New York City just
how little crossing by white people actually takes place.
"South of here, and over toward Fifth Avenue," says
Reverend Overall, "is one of the wealthiest and whitest places
in the world. It's known as Carnegie Hill. North of here are several
of the poorest, most unhealthy places in America." The infant
mortality rate on Carnegie Hill, where average annual income is
$300,000, is, according to Ruth Messinger, the Manhattan borough
president, one of the lowest anywhere on earth: seven children
in 1,000. Just to the north and a little to the west, in Central
Harlem, it is 28 per 1,000, higher than in many Third World nations.
Every few years, amidst the news of murder and lead poison,
drug addiction, toxic waste, dysfunctional hospitals, and overcrowded
schools, a number of exciting stories about neighborhood renewal
and construction of new housing in the South Bronx suddenly appear
in several different magazines and papers almost simultaneously,
often with a certain number of familiar words that speak of architectural
and other piecemeal physical improvements as the metaphors of
cultural and spiritual rebirth. "Long written off as the
ultimate bombed-out wasteland," says New York magazine in
1994, "New York's poorest quarter is now undergoing an almost
astonishing recovery." A headline above the story promises
A SOUTH BRONX RENAISSANCE.
A similar, but better-balanced, story in the Times points
to a number of town houses with "wrought iron" gates
and the "suburban feel of vinyl siding" under construction,
or already built, approximately 15 blocks north of the St. Ann's
neighborhood, and speaks of a total of about 500 of such houses,
which, says the writer, have already been sold "at prices
from $90,000 to $165,000" to "qualified" home buyers.
An additional 4,500 houses are in planning stages or have already
been built for working-class homeowners elsewhere in the South
Bronx, says the paper.
The Times concedes that the area is not "a Garden of
Eden," that it has "among the worst-rated public schools"
and "highest crime rates" in New York, and that the
Mott Haven section, where "the ravages of crime and drugs
. . . have continued unabated," has been largely "left
behind" by these renewal efforts. Still, the writer tries
to offer a degree of hope. A priest says the feeling in the city
toward the South Bronx used to be, "Just let it die...."
Now, he says, "Maybe we are on one knee." Each time
one reads one of these stories, a brief sense of optimism stirs.
Sometimes it seems justified at first. If one has followed these
events, however, over the course of 30 or more years, one tends
to view these promises of neighborhood renewal through the medium
of architecture and design with a degree of wariness. At least
five times in my adult life, I have seen similar renewal efforts
in the Roxbury ghetto heralded by the press in Boston, almost
al ways in exactly the same kinds of headlines that we see now
in New York. When I have gone to visit one year later, the buildings
sometimes look quite nice. Four years, five years, six years later,
they begin to look run-down and over grown. Ten years later, as
if the physical erosion process common everywhere is somehow expedited
here, they have become another bleary section of the slum.
Perhaps this is one reason why so many older people in Mott
Haven read these stories in the papers with a good deal of ironical
detachment. It was, after all, only 20 years ago that the housing
in which Anabelle and Mrs. Flowers live and where Bernardo died
was being heralded by the New York City papers as "an innovation
in urban planing," a symbol of "resurgence," and
a "showpiece" of what was then known also as "the
South Bronx renaissance." The Diego-Beekman buildings, said
the Times in 1973, since being purchased by the Continental Wingate
Company of Boston, "have been transformed into sparkling
new apartment houses" with "elevators," "trash
compactors," and new "plumbing, wiring, and heating
"New hope" is "rising amid the desperation
of this slum," said another Times reporter. "New public
schools on concrete stilts," "the steel skeleton of
a new Lincoln Hospital," and plans for "garden-style
housing" are "signs of a vast program of public reconstruction
that is giving a new look to the South Bronx."
"The next ten years will see a new South Bronx,"
said South Bronx congressman Herman Badillo in 1972, in reference
to these and other signs of progress.
Visitors to Lincoln Hospital or Beekman Avenue to day may
have an opportunity to judge to what degree the optimism of those
years was justified. The new public schools of the South Bronx,
with stilts or without stilts, have proven, with a few remarkable
exceptions, to be sad repositories for the disappointed dreams
of children of dark skin. The newly built Lincoln Hospital has
proven to be another poorly funded and chaotic monument to medical
apartheid. The wiring in many of those "sparkling new apartment
houses" along Beekman Avenue has long since been eaten through
by rats. The new plumbing of 22 years ago sprays scalding steam
at mothers and their in fants. One of those brand-new elevators
heralded by the press in 1973 turned out to be Bernardo's tomb.
"If there is one thing more destructive and demoralizing
to poor people than to live in desolation," Reverend Overall
observes, "it is to have these false hopes reawakened at
these routine intervals. Do that to me enough times and I'll never
hope again. It's like shooting someone up with drugs. This is
how you turn poor people into zombies. '
There is another, entirely different issue that is being raised
about these promises of reconstruction and renewal. Even if the
efforts under way today should prove, unlike those of the past,
to be enduring, and even if they ever reach the St. Ann's neighborhood,
many of the poorest residents believe that they are not the people
who will benefit. They are convinced that those who benefit will
be "the least poor of the poor," for whom the city or
a nonprofit corporation may provide unusual security and private
sanitation, so that the immediate environs may become an island
of protected, if ephemeral, wholesomeness within a sea of suf
fering and sickness. And, if the South Bronx as a whole should
ever become a truly pleasant place to live, many here feel certain
that the very poor will simply be pushed off into another squalid
quarter somewhere else, perhaps one of the deeply troubled, segregated
suburbs that are now proliferating on all sides of New York City.
No one in New York, in any case, expects the racial isolation
of these neighborhoods to lessen in the years ahead. A demographic
forecast by the city's planning agency predicts that the population
of the Bronx-both North and South-half of which was white in 1970,
and nearly a quarter of which was white in 1990, will be entirely
black and Hispanic by the early years of the next century, outside
of a handful of de facto segregated enclaves of white people and
a few essentially detached communities like parts of Riverdale.
By that time, the Bronx and Harlem and Washington Heights will
make up a vast and virtually uninterrupted ghetto with a population
close to that of Houston, Texas, which is
America's fourth-largest city.
Whatever good things may happen for the children of another
generation are, in any case, of little solace to those who are
children now and will not have their child hood to live a second
time in the next century. This is particularly the case for those,
especially the very young, who are about to lose, or have already
lost, their mothers or their fathers to the epidemic that now
stalks the neighborhood. The rapid emergence in New York of thousands
of black and Hispanic children of low income who have lost their
parents to the plague of AIDS is, says the director of an organization
called the Orphans Project, a catastrophe that has no real analogy
within our nation in this century. " Only the great influenza
pandemic of 1918 . . . offers a partial analogy from diseases
of the twentieth century.... We are only at the beginning of this
phenomenon. We do not yet know its duration."
Already in 1993, when I began to visit in the South Bronx,
some 10,000 children in New York had lost their mothers to the
epidemic. As many as 2,000 of these children were believed to
live in the Mott Haven area and in three or four adjacent sections
of the Bronx. The Orphans Project estimated that, between then
and the year 2000, HlV-infected mothers in New York would "give
birth to between 32,000 and 38,000 HIV-infected babies" and
more than twice as many babies who would not have been infected.
If these projections prove to be correct, and if the city continues
with its present policy of channeling its sickest and most troubled
families, often addicted and quite frequently infected, into housing
in this area, it is likely that entire blocks will soon be home
to mourning orphans, many of whom will follow their own parents
to an early grave.
"The viral path" of AIDS, says Newsday, "has
crept through the family tree" in many South Bronx neighbor
hoods, "breaking branch after branch." By the spring
of 1993, 1,381 women in the area and 3,428 men had been diagnosed.
But thousands of people in the South Bronx "have no personal
physician.... Infected women still go undiagnosed, their life
spans significantly reduced" because they get no early treatment.
A specialist in pediatric AIDS says he's "seeing things
medically that I've never seen before and never thought I would
ever see.'? Speaking of people with "rampant TB and three
other types of infection at the same time" waiting at hospitals
as long as three days for a bed, he says, "It's like ~e Middle
"Right now at Bronx-Lebanon," says Mrs. Washington's
doctor, "a quarter of all our general admissions-not just
on obstetric wards-are known to be positive for HIV." The
area served by the hospital, according to a study of blood samples
tested at the hospital, "apparently has one of the highest
AIDS rates in the world."
According to the city's health officials, 91 percent of children
in New York who are born with AIDS are black or Hispanic, as are
84 percent of women who have AIDS. So the racial demographics
of Mott Haven, as well as the prevalence of intravenous drug use
in the area and an apparent increase in the rate of HIV infection
among adolescents here, tend to justify the somber language used
by doctors in Mott Haven as they look into the future.
At a walk-in center in Mott Haven, run by the Dominican Sisters,
which offers medical help and other services to families with
AIDS, a social worker who does "anticipatory grieving"
with the children of AIDS patients speaks of a 15-year-old girl
who is infected "but is afraid to tell her mother, because
her mother is already dying." The girl's ten-year-old sister
has AIDS also, says the social worker, "presumably because
she was infected perinatally," in which case it is remarkable
that she has lived this long. But, she says, "with a ten-year-old
you can't be sure exactly how she was infected."
The incubation period of AIDS in infants is, she tells me,
generally shorter than in adults-an average of three years. Most
subsequently die in 18 months. According to physicians, only five
percent live to be 12 years old.
In another family in the neighborhood, the social worker says,
the father died two years ago and the mother is about to die.
The four soon-to-be-orphaned children are being cared for by their
75-year-old grandmother. "One of the children, a nine-year-old,
is sick with full-blown AIDS. Another child, seven years old,
is less sick but he's been getting IV blood infusions. The six-year-old
may be okay. But it's the 13-year-old girl, who isn't sick, who's
causing the most worries. She's staying out all night, defying
her grand mother. She started to do this at 11, when her father
died. Recently, this girl had an abortion."
"Thirteen years old?"
"Yes," she replies. "Thirteen years old. You
can imagine the risks that child must be taking...."
All of the families she's described, she tells me, live in
approximately a 12-block radius of St. Ann's Church, and, she
adds, "we're barely scratching the surface of the families
in the neighborhood who need our help."
How do children living in this medieval landscape face the
losses that they must expect?
In my pocket I have a card I picked up in the subway that
announces what the president of the transit system has described
as the new "gospel" that New York will henceforth "preach"
in regard to subway beggars. "When you're on a train,"
the card instructs the passengers, "don t give money for
any purpose.... The best way to help end panhandling is not to
give.... Don't give."
I hand it to her and she looks at it awhile and seems reluctant
to react. At last she says, "I'm surprised that he would
dare to use a word like 'gospel.' "
The message on the card is cleverly constructed It does not
prohibit charity but recommends an arm's length version. If we
feel upset, it says, "Look in the Yellow Pages under . .
. Human Services."
I ask her, "Do you think that anyone will do that?"
"Not really," she replies. "I don't think that
that's the purpose of it anyway. I don't think the point is charity
but self-protection. I mean, emotional protection. Looking into
the eyes of a poor person is upsetting because normal people have
a conscience. Touching the beggar's hand, meeting his gaze, makes
a connection. It locks you in. It makes it hard to sleep, or hard
to pray. If that happened, you might be profoundly changed, the
way that Paul was changed. Writing a check to the Red Cross or
some other charity can't do that. What this card is really telling
us is, 'Do not open up your heart. Don't take a chance! Send a
check to us and we will do the touching for you.' That's why I
think that this is sacrilegious.
"The message of the gospel is unalterably clear. 'Give
to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee
turn not away.' Those are the words of Jesus." No exception,
she notes, is made for the stranger who talks too loud in crowded
trains, or who may be partially deceiving us about his actual
condition, or who offends us by his importunity or by his dirtiness,
"Do you think of this," I ask, "as a Judeo-Christian
"I wish I could say yes, but I don't know. If it were,
I doubt that we could lead the kinds of lives we do. I think that
we'd be asking questions all the time. 'Where does my money come
from? Who pays a price for all the fun I have? Who is left out?
Do I need this bottle of expensive perfume more than a child needs
a doctor or a decent school? What does it mean, in theological
terms, when grown-ups can eat caviar while Anthony eats oatmeal?
What does this say about a city's soul?' "
I look at my notes as the plane crosses Connecticut. I'm looking
forward to getting home and sitting at my desk and trying to make
sense of everything I've learned. But I don't really think I will
make sense of anything and I don't expect that I'll be able to
construct a little list of "answers" and "solutions,"
as my editor would like. I have done this many times before; so
have dozens of other writers; so have hundreds of committees and
foundations and commissions. The time for lists like that now
seems long past.
Will the people Reverend Groover called "the principalities
and powers" look into their hearts one day in church or synagogue
and feel the grace of God and, as he put it, "be transformed"?
Will they become ashamed of what they've done, or what they have
accepted? Will they decide they do not need to quarantine the
outcasts of their ingenuity and will they then use all their wisdom
and their skills to build a new society and new economy in which
no human being will be superfluous? I wish I could believe that,
but I don't think it is likely. I think it is more likely that
they'll write more stories about "Hope Within the Ashes"
and then pile on more ashes and then change the subject to the
opening of the ballet or a review of a new restaurant. And the
children of disappointment will keep dying.
I think that Mrs. Washington is right to view the years before
us with foreboding. I have never lived through a time as cold
as this in the United States. Many men and women in the Bronx
believe that it is going to get worse. I don't know what can change