Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Prince Street Projects

This is a rant. The children I once bled and sewed and shot full of antigens deserve better.

If you look up Stella Wright Homes on Google images, you will see photos of explosive demolitions.

"My late mother (left) came up from Monmouth County with my sister Sue Ann (right) to witness the festive demolition of the last four buildings of the Stella Wright Homes (background) on a bright spring day."

That's the caption to the second picture that comes up when you Google "Stella Wright Homes."

A couple of ladies from out of town, both with dust masks, are standing two blocks away from the neighborhood, minutes before it was destroyed.


I spent years working here on a mobile medical unit, the "Big Blue Bus." We parked in the center of the projects, surrounded by 7 buildings, 13 stories each. Stella Wright Homes officially held 1206 single-family units, though the interpretation of "single-family" gets stretched a bit in areas with scarce resources.

I saw people shot. I saw grandmothers doing everything they could to keep their clans together. I saw rats the size of Kansas. I saw a child with Apert's syndrome cared for by a father who made sure my falafel was ready at lunch time, but not because I asked him.

I saw a fireman run into a building with the child's father trying to rip off the fireman's jacket so that he, the father, could charge into the monstrous smoke to save his children. The firefighter wrestled the father off, and charged into the same smoke devil I could not force myself to enter.

The child came out limp, lifeless. I went with the child to the ER, covered with soot, soaked from the firehoses. The child survived. I believe in miracles.

I saw mothers die of AIDS, gallantly holding together their clan until they could no longer hold on.

I saw neighbors share asthma inhalers, food, clothes, furniture, money.

If I am ever in a position where I truly lose everything, I pray to God that my neighbors are as generous as those in the Prince Street Projects.

I heard laughter more raucous than any heard at a burlesque, and wails more heartworn than those of King Lear.

We pushed vaccinations, lanced boils, pushed vaccinations, treated strep, pushed vaccinations, diagnosed AIDS, more vaccinations, discussed various OTC treatments, shot some more vaccinations, asked some not to call us "motherfuckers," pushed vaccinations some more, cleaned out ears, sewed wounds, and spent a lot of wasted breath telling people things Medicaid insisted we tell them.

We got paid to do this.

In return we got food and love and stories and love and hugs and love and trust and love and pictures and love and invitations and love and love and love and love and love.

I used to ask pediatric residents if they could imagine white people living in the projects. If you cannot, you are racist.

Turns out most of us are racist. This surprises my paler friends.


I do not like Arne Duncan, our Secretary of Education. OK, I really, really dislike him, and I am not one used to disliking people. While I can be an annoying crank, I am not good at bearing grudges.

The dislike is more visceral than cerebral, though my cortex is slowly finding him every bit as unlovable as my limbus.

My instincts are usually pretty good, but this one puzzled me. Yes, Duncan's positions annoy me, but it was more than that.

I think I get it now.

Mr. Duncan prides himself on his history of ending a few neighborhood schools. I am not going to argue the particulars here. A school can become a disaster. Neighborhoods can spiral out of control. Our sense of order in a well-financed suburban neighborhood defies the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

Maybe a school deserves to die, maybe not--but anyone who can cut the financing to a neighborhood school with more pride than sadness deserves scorn.

We cannot continue to pretend that inner-city children are just the victims of poor schooling. We cannot continue to pretend that everything can be fixed with education, that we all can be princes and princesses.

I met a lot of decent, hard-working parents in Stella Wright Homes. I met a lot of decent, hard-working teachers in schools that served Stella Wright Homes. A few were cooked, true, but they did not head to Newark for that reason.

You tell me how to teach a child that cannot breathe because she is wheezing, that could not sleep because of lack of heat, that has moved to 4 new schools in two years so the clan can keep two steps ahead of the landlord, that has pain from an ear infection that cannot be treated, that is hungry.

Try teaching on an empty belly.

And the amazing thing? Crushing poverty does not crush kindness. Crushing poverty does not crush curiosity. Crushing poverty does not crush hope.

It does, however, crush the snot out of standardized test scores.


Louise Maine said...

Nice post. This and so many other things cannot change unless we deal with poverty. The mess this planet and humanity is in is atrocious and the divide between the haves and have-nots is a chasm. Have you heard the study done some time ago with Rat park? That rats who have all that they need will not touch drugs even when give unlimited access? Make one wonder who wants to keep people down in the world? I know, it is not cut and dried but no one wants to talk about that.

Jenny said...

You have so eloquently said something which many of us have attempted to put into words.

I think it is also more powerful coming from you, with your background and experience, than it seems to be from many others.

Kathryn J said...

Please don't delete this post. It contains much that needs to be said.

The rhetoric which blames teachers for all of society's problems needs to stop. We all need to recognize the problems and work for change but none of us can do it alone. Recently a 14yo shot a police officer in my city, the mayor immediately said that the schools needed to make a better effort to keep these kids in school. As if...

lucychili said...

Thinking thoughts about adaptive curriculum, community, prejudice.

They were lucky to have people who cared locally, believed in miracles, and could hear them, but bad structure is the underlying framework.

Like growing grapes on a Godzilla trellis. Grapes might be fine but the monster is hardwired in.

It feels like an economics of extortion rather than of reciprocity and balance.
Human costs of an economics in which power and possibility gravitate towards banks and international 'wealth'.

Species which live in ecological 'projects' share the same interminable pressures on their diversity, health, sustainability and local beauty.

John Spencer said...

Nice post. You put it real eloquently.

This is how I feel so often at my school. How does someone who just moved here from Juarez, where he saw classmates shot by a drug cartel, pass the standardized reading test? How does a girl who is sleeping in the carport every night to avoid her step dad pass any test? How do children who have to play the role of mother or father (because mom or dad are working thirty-five hour a week minimum wage jobs) get any homework done?

If I bring this up, I am told that I am making excuses. I'm told that I don't believe all children can learn. I'm told that learning and passing a test is the same thing.

Kate T said...

In the 60s, writer James Baldwin famously dubbed Urban Renewal "Negro Removal."

Imagine having to show and ID card just to go home. That's the CHA.

Thanks for writing this. Please don't delete it.

doyle said...

Dear Louise,

Thanks for the warm words.

I used to believe that most of our disparities were caused by, well, evil people.

Jacques Ellul wrote a marvelous treatise on technique/technology about 50 years ago--the cult of efficiency propagated by the western world does not require conscious input from an elite class. The book is well worth reading (though, alas, it is peppered with some cultural racism of the late 1950's).

I liked it better when I thought all I had to do was hunt down the bad guys.

Dear Jenny,

Thanks. I may have buried my background a bit my last few years. Even when I was living it, my brain would get warped by the transitions from home to hospital to desperate neighborhoods to hospital then back home. I have a whole lot hiding in the cortical gyri.

Not sure why it's flooding out now--blame Arne. More folks made more money in Newark than I can shake a stick at--and few of them lived in Newark, even fewer of them ever changed anything. I left, and maybe that reflects cowardice. I know exhaustion played a role.

Talking about it now seems to disparage a few fine folks who I worked with who are still fighting the good fight. The least I can do is to make invisible people visible.

Dear Kathryn,

I'm going to leave it up. Eventually I will follow it with more specifics and less rant.

The rhetoric does need to stop. We all need to speak out more. The kids deserve better.

Dear lucychili,

Like growing grapes on a Godzilla trellis. Grapes might be fine but the monster is hardwired in.

You summed up Ellul's hundreds of pages in a tiny poem, one I may borrow. We need to stay focused on the "local beauty." It defines what matters. It is impossible to know things beyond our immediate world, though we all believe we can.

Dear John,

One reason I enjoy reading your blog so much is that you are not afraid of using an ethical laser in a very gray world.

Duncan, alas, confounds learning and passing tests as well.

Dear Kate,

I need to go read James Baldwin.

I remember that we'd see things happen in the neighborhood. The news never got it right. Stories got twisted inside out.

There were days when I saw some pretty awful things that got so distorted by the time the news hit my home neighborhood that I had trouble remembering what I truly saw.

20 years ago I'd have been fit to serve on a jury. Now I'm not so sure. I understand why jury nullification happens.

Charlie Roy said...

This is a great post. I think you've summed up the thoughts of many urban educators in an eloquent respectful way.

This Brazen Teacher said...

A garden in June? I am humbled in your presence! Thank you for your commentary... I am grinning from ear to brazen ear.

momomom said...

You help me to understand things by putting words to feelings that I just notice as an off kilterness.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what you say. Kids need to feel safe, need food, need shelter, need love. You do an excellent job of bringing to the limelight that the world is not perfect. But what are you suggesting? That your “paler” friends are racist because they don’t choose to move to and live in poverty, hunger, poor health, and poor education? Was that a trick question? Should they feel guilty because they are not in or choose the predicaments you suggest?
What I wish I could read in your comments are ideas for real solution, rather than the application of guilt with no answers. Does every inspiration to build genuine compassion need to come from a basis of guilt?
Perhaps I am missing the point altogether. Perhaps this is merely meant to be a diatribe of Arne Duncan. Perhaps you are merely trying to effect change either in the Secretary of Education or for a new appointment. Or perhaps to save the education jobs eliminated with the razing of a series of project buildings.
Your point is a little lost on me, because I usually find there are two sides to every coin. Stella Wright was the last of the high rise projects built in the 60’s. From what I have read there were tenant groups in favor of new housing options. I understand funding to develop a $137 million mixed-income rental and homeownership community with new streets and utilities and two new community centers has or is underway, including a $35 million Hope grant. It seems to me that real change is taking place. I couldn’t tell you whether this change came about through guilt or through compassion, but I would like to think the later—and for the better.

doyle said...

Dear Anonymous,

It is with some trepidation that I bother to engage in a discussion with "anonymous" on a blog post written over 2 years ago, one clearly labeled as a rant.

I'll take your point in turn:

I suggested that anyone who cannot imagine the projects largely white is a racist. I stand by that. You draw conclusions from that, well, make my point. You suggest that people choose to live this way.

They do not.

I didn't introduce the "guilt thing," you did. I worked for years in the projects because I wanted to, because I felt it was important, and because, frankly, I enjoyed it. Guilt does not save children.

Compassion is compassion. Guilt is ultimately destructive and leads to exhaustion. Compassion feeds the soul.

I did not delve into solutions here, but I've had over 800 posts here--feel free to peruse them. Since you asked, though, here it goes:

--a liveable minimum wage
--a liveable minimum wage
--a liveable minimum wage

Education cannot fix what troubles areas of extreme poverty. THe problem is not caused by education, nor will be cured by it.

Yes, it was an anti-Arne diatribe. Until he gets this, I will continue my anti-Arne diatribe. And yes, I have an anti-bornwithsilverspooninthemouthdictating policy.

If you would like a tour of the area, announce yourself, and I will gladly give you one.

Unless it would make you feel guilty....