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.