home | links | contact

art by suzette chanjournalism by suzette chanradio hosted by suzette chanweb design by suzette chan

suzette chan > journalism > amazing grace


Timothy Findley
Rohinton Mistry
Anne Rice
Stacy Schiff
Carol Shields

Amazing Grace
Poverty's Bonds


amazing grace:
the lives of children and the conscience of a nation

By Jonathan Kozol
New York: Crown Publishers, 1995
256 pages, $31.00

For First Reading

  Amazing Grace by Jonathan Kozol - book cover


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. [p. 100]

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."



suzette chan | art | journalism | radio | web

back to top | home | links | contact