The early morning mist shrouded the East River bridges as I pedaled along the riverside bike-jogging path. I cruised past the tracks and ball fields, kids with private school uniforms were running sprints. Asian older folk were engaged in yoga under the Manhattan Bridge, the fisherman were casting for whatever fish ply the murky waters and as I approached the Battery the ferries dumped boatload after boatload from Brooklyn onto the shores of Manhattan. In the Union Square Farmers’ Market chefs clad in their whites perused the produce plucked from the vines hours before and fish fresh from the briny deep. I fill my backpack and pass shiny new buildings where million dollar plus condos are the norm. The new bike-share racks are already filled with brightly colored two-wheelers.
Life is good in Manhattan.
Brownsville is a half hour drive from the glittering streets of Manhattan. Once the landing place for immigrants moving out of the Lower East Side, the streets were packed with kids, the cacophony of languages and the aroma of ethnic cooking. In the postwar years the attraction of the suburbs drew immigrants and their children to Long Island and the migration out of the South changed the neighborhood from Southern and Eastern Europeans to Afro-Americans with roots in the South.
Fiscal crisis after crisis battered the city, housing deteriorated, schools were packed, and slowly jobs began to migrate around the world. The crack epidemic devastated neighborhoods, the “Bronx burned,” and other neighborhood suffered the same fate.
Finally, in the nineties Brownsville started to recover – new housing, the streets were cleaned up, small business began to return, schools were getting better – and “bubble burst.”
The recession of 2008 was a depression for the poorest neighborhoods – foreclosures, unemployment sky rocketed and the hardscrabble communities in the city slid back in the depths of despair.
We wove our way through Brownsville, the streets were virtually deserted, boarded up and abandoned buildings, empty rubble-filled lots, and an eerily silent.
A kid wearing a hoodie was slowly cruising down the street on a very nice bike.
“Wait till he passes,” said my passenger, a long time Brownsville educator, “… these days you gotta be careful. He may be a gang kid patrolling his turf.”
My educator passenger tells me, “During the crack years the gangs were highly organized and they battled over business, now there are cliques within gangs, crips fight crips, bloods fight bloods, teenagers, young teenagers, fight over turf, guns are commonplace, a sign of pride and importance, every kid needs a cell phone, the fights, the violence jumps out of a Facebook post or a video clip, parents and grandparents have gang connections. This neighborhood has a lot more in common with Afghanistan than Manhattan.”
“We used be a school district with a superintendent, we met with teachers and supervisors from neighboring schools, now, we’re in different networks, I never meet my counterpart two blocks away. The charter schools snatch up the families with social capital and chase away the kids who aren’t making it. We get a steady flow of charter school pushouts.”
Sadly, the range of city social services are fragmented, programs come and go, a phone call from a city agency, meetings, more meetings, planning sessions, a program begins with little support, stumbles and fades away. City agencies rarely coordinate services; the only constant partner is the local police precinct.
A frustrated principal told me he challenged a Tweed bureaucrat, “Spend a week in our school, walk the walk instead of telling us what will work, show us,”
He agreed to spend three days in the school.
“It’s a five block walk from the subway, is it safe?” asked the Tweed resident.
The principal jokingly responded, “Just wear the right gang flags – no one will bother you.”
The importantish Tweed apparachnick just couldn’t find the time.
Will the new mayor acknowledge that the Brownsvilles of the city exist?
The teacher union emphasis on community schools, clustering a wide range of health and social services within a school building is a beginning. The funding for the community schools did not come from the mayor, did not come from the department, the funding came from the City Council and private sector (Trinity-Wall Street was a major supporter).
Fifty years ago Michael Harrington wrote “The Other America,” frighteningly not much has changed.
…. tens of millions of Americans are, at this very moment, maimed in body and spirit, existing at levels beneath those necessary for human decency.� If these people are not starving, they are hungry, and sometimes fat with hunger, for that is what cheap foods do.� They are without adequate housing and education and medical care. (1962)
The Bloomberg policies of school closings and choice and charter schools may resonate in the aeries of the reform think tanks and the hedge funds market reformers, the life on the mean streets is unchanged.
David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core movement, at a recent Roosevelt Institute function called the problems of poverty “intractable” and with a snide ignorant comment,
“Those who believe that poverty is an insurmountable obstacle to improving student achievement should offer to cut teacher salaries and redistribute those funds to the poor.”
The anchor of poverty can be lessened by excellence in instructional practices, but not eliminated.
With the proper structures in place, a chancellor working with not battling the unions, superintendents leading principals and teachers in collaborative school environments, parents welcomed into schools, nothing dramatic but antithetical to everything we have seen for the last dozen years.
The next mayor must understand that no matter how thoughtful his/her educational policies without jobs, without a light at the end of the line, all school initiatives will founder.
The recent teenage immigrant riots in Sweden warn us that unless we create a route to employment we may be facing the same poverty issues for the next fifty years.
Before the bike-share program comes to Brownsville we could use supermarkets and employers.
Read wonderful The Nation “Resurrecting Brownsville” article by Ginia Bellafonte (http://www.thenation.com/article/173886/resurrecting-brownsville)