Living Hell

Living Hell

by Eleanor J. Bader

DEEP IN THE BELLY OF AMERICAN POVERTY lies the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, and although it is one neighborhood among many, the truths about urban indigence that Jonathan Kozol uncovers there resonate from Watts to East St. Louis, from New Haven to Newark.

Amazing Grace looks at America as it approaches the millennium, and Kozol’s shock over the conditions he sees is palpable. He is an outsider, someone who is unfamiliar with the day-to-day grind of economic want, and he wants his readers – people he assumes are similarly unfamiliar with the scenario he chronicles – to view what he views, hear what he hears, and feel the desperation and fury that he feels. It is as if Kozol is letting us in on a long-maintained and ugly secret.

Amazing Grace is anecdotal and self conscious. For the most part it allows neighborhood residents to speak in their own sometimes angry, sometimes depressed voices. Children receive particular attention, since Kozol is concerned with what it means to grow up deprived of material comforts and despised by society. “You don’t have to be in jail to be in prison,” a teenager named Malcolm X quips, and statistics bear this out.

Although Kozol is judicious in his use of numbers, those he includes pack a solid punch. He writes, for example, that the area’s median income is $7,600; that only seven of the 800 children attending the local elementary school are over-income for free school lunches; that one quarter of the women who are tested for HIV in obstetrics wards are positive.

Indeed, the illnesses most readily associated with poverty – among them AIDS, asthma, and anxiety – are rampant in Mott Haven. While the overall rate of hospital admission for asthma is 2.5 per 1,000 city wide, in Mott Haven the ratio is 6 per 1,000. One overcrowded public hospital serves the area, and private doctors are few and far between. Making matters worse, local health problems are exacerbated by the presence of a medical waste incinerator that spews noxious fumes into the air from “red bag products,” the amputated limbs, bandages, bedding, fetal tissue, and syringes that are dumped in the South Bronx by 14 New York City hospitals.

“If you weave enough bad things into the fibers of a person’s life: sickness and filth, old mattresses and other junk thrown in the streets, and ruined people, a prison here, sewage there, drug dealers here, the homeless people over there, then give us the very worst schools anyone could think of, hospitals that keep you waiting for 10 hours, police that don’t show up when someone’s dying, you can guess that life will not be very nice and children will not have much sense of being glad of who they are.”

So says 16-year-old Maria, who, like Malcolm X and other school-aged children, speaks to Kozol with an eloquence, righteousness, and passion that underscores the dichotomy between the haves and have-nots.

The few who transcend their birthright – factory worker-cum-poet Juan Bautista Castro and his 13-year-old student Anthony; David, just accepted into the City University of New York; Charlayne, finishing her associate’s degree at a community college; and Mrs. Washington, a community “mother” whose kindness and wit provide balm for many a dispirited resident – are presented as the anomalies they are, small miracles in a world of abomination and tragedy.

Other miracles, the community agencies that provide advocacy and aid to area residents, and the many churches that offer material and spiritual comfort, are presented as oases of relief, part of the “life force” that sustains optimism and hope in an otherwise bleak landscape.

Yet for all the positive values that Kozol presents – the human strength, fortitude, resilience, and pluck of many in Mott Haven – he also depicts the raging drug use, alcoholism, depression, and despair that run rife in the community. Death – from drug overdoses, AIDS, arson, physical violence, illness, and alcohol abuse – is presented as a commonplace reality, and Kozol rails at the frequency with which loss of life enters his conversations.

“Nothing works here in my neighborhood,” shrugs a lifelong resident, Elizabeth. “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.”

While Amazing Grace would have been stronger if Kozol had told us more about why he chose Mott Haven and how he made his first forays into the community as a white, Jewish, educated, economically stable male outsider, the book nonetheless vibrates with understated rage at the intentional neglect, racism, and indifference that allow poverty to fester.

“How does a nation deal with those whom it has cursed?” he asks. How do we allow one Wall Street money manager to earn $1 billion a year, a sum that “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 to buy many safe new elevator doors and hire several good physicians for the public schools that serve the neighborhood.”

Such talk about the redistribution of wealth, once routine, has become rare. Like The Other America that Michael Harrington depicted 30 years ago, Amazing Grace is heartbreaking and enraging, a plea to take off our blinders and enter the fray. A button from the late 1970s conveyed the right spirit: // the people lead, the leaders will follow. Closing Amazing Grace, one can only wonder: If not now, when?

ELEANOR J. BADER is a freelance writer and teacher from Brooklyn, New York.