Early in 1994, eight-year-old Bernardo
Rodriguez, Jr. was playing in the halls of his grandmother's South
Bronx apartment building when he leaned on a set of elevator doors.
The doors collapsed, and the boy fell four floors to his death.
The city blamed the family for letting the boy play in the hallway.
Pointing out that the gang- and drug-related violence on the streets
made it unsafe for the boy to play outside, residents blamed the
city for years of cutbacks to safety inspections.
As Jonathan Kozol writes in his new book, Amazing
Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation,
"what some financiers and politicians see as nothing more than
fiscal prudence, other people see as social homicide."
Kozol, a Boston writer whose previous books include Savage Inequities,
Illiterate America and Death at an Early Age, went to the South
Bronx to find out what it was like for children to live in what
is one of the most violent, poor and racially segregated neighbourhoods
in the United States.
What he found amongst the children and young mothers he interviewed
was an understanding that what was happening to them was the result
of particular political decisions. While New York Observer columnist
Anne Rophie is quoted as writing "cruelty is as natural to
the city as fresh air is to the country" in a column rationalizing
her decision to buy a fur coat while in her words "someone
is sleeping on a grate ... white powders are served in contaminated
needles ... and the emergency rooms are full," the young people
of the South Bronx are not so convinced that fate had anything to
do with the conditions in which they live.
From interviews and supplementary research, Kozol discovers that
up until 1987, the city assigned thousands of poor families to live
in apartments and study in schools whose lead contamination level
exceeded acceptable levels set in 1960. He learns that amputated
limbs, fetal tissue, bedding, bandages and syringes from 14 New
York City hospitals are transported to this densely populated neighbourhood
because residents of the more well-to-do East Side of Manhattan
felt a proposed incinerator there would pose a risk to their children.
Kozol notes that election promises and programs announced by the
then-newly elected Mayor Rudolph Guiliani would represent a disproportionate
hardship for New Yorkers living in poverty. Medical, support and
security staff at the city's public hospitals were to be laid off,
programs promoting lead poisoning prevention, AIDS awareness and
rat control are to be cut, as well as programs to help the poor
obtain food stamps and drug abusers to rehabilitate. Kozol writes:
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 columnist 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 per cent of the population who have incomes higher than $100,000.
At best, these promises show a denial of the desperate circumstances
in the ghetto. At worst, they betray a systematic program to punish
the poor. Prefiguring Ontario Premier Mike Harris, Guiliani announces
in a speech to a group of school children that he wants all welfare
recipients fingerprinted. Later, one of the mayor's deputies muses
aloud about putting all 1,200,000 (by the deputy's own count, presumably
based on the collective population of South Bronx and the adjacent
communities of Washington Heights and Harlem) welfare recipients
in green uniforms and sent to the streets to "pick up papers"
and "clean up graffiti".
Despite the strong emotions Amazing Grace triggers, Kozol remains
a composed, engaging guide. He meets his first goal of discovering
and portarying how children in South Bronx view their situation.
He meets a second goal of exposing the ways in which political leaders,
bureaucrats, financial markets, the private sector, individuals
and the criminal element are responsible for the continued degradation
of over a million people, many of whom are children.
As the bright, teenaged son of a woman afflicted with AIDS told
Kozol: "I believe that what the rich have done to the poor
people in this city is something that a preacher could call evil.
Somebody has power. Pretending that they don't so they don't need
to use it to help people — that is my idea of evil."