(Author's note: After I wrote this first short essay about Mott Haven, I realized that there was much more that I wanted to say. So I wrote a second essay inspired by Amazing Grace and the poverty of Mott Haven. Both essays were conceived and written independently, so there is some redundancy between the two pieces. But I hope you will read them both.)
My JustFaith study group has been reading Amazing Grace by Jonathan Kozol, a harrowing account of life in New York City's most poverty-stricken neighborhoods during 1993 and 1994. Kozol centers the book around Alice Washington and her son David, who represent the most exploited class of victims in the South Bronx slums. Alice separated from, and eventually divorced, her unfaithful and abusive husband; his parting gift to her was the HIV virus. She survived cancer, but her illnesses left her too sick to work. She and her son became wards of the City of New York, and ended up in its poorest ghetto.
Much of Kozol's narrative takes place in Mott Haven, a community once known for its striking turn-of-the-century architecture and iron work. But the Mott Haven in Kozol's book is infested with prostitutes, drug dealers, junkies, violent crime, and rundown, overcrowded public housing. The hopelessness, despair, and powerlessness of the residents of the South Bronx is heartbreaking and, at times, difficult to absorb without shedding tears.
The downward spiral of New York's ghettos is not traced by Kozol, but here is their sad history. New York City's controversial urban planning of the 1950's, managed in an almost totalitarian fashion by architect Robert Moses, resulted in entire neighborhoods being razed in order to build expressways and highway overpasses. The displaced populations of those neighborhoods were crowded into old tenement apartments that were already in poor condition before they were leased by the city. Mott Haven was darkened and isolated by the massive bridges of the Major Deegan and Bruckner expressways, which were designed to safely bring throngs of suburban workers into and out of Manhattan. Middle class families and small business moved out. Building owners turned to arson in order to reclaim the remaining equity in their properties. Mott Haven became the thriving center of New York City's ugly crack epidemic during the 1980's. Its residents became deeply impoverished and drug-addicted, with no realistic opportunities for jobs and no foreseeable way out. Sadly, the drug business was the only source of revenue to move into Mott Haven over the span of nearly three decades.
Also, as a result of decreasing city revenues and rising civil unrest, the city reduced the number of police officers patrolling the streets in the South Bronx and adopted a "see no evil" approach to prostitution, street corner drug dealing, and other misdemeanor offenses.
In 1997, Mott Haven was rezoned in order to encourage small businesses to begin populating its outskirts once more. Crime fell considerably (PDF file in link) throughout New York City in the late 1990's, and today Mott Haven's parks and street corners are generally free from drug dealers and prostitutes. Many housing projects still occupy a good deal of Mott Haven, but real estate bargain hunters have discovered the neighborhood's scenic hundred-year-old brownstones, and have begun buying them up and refurbishing them. Construction is slated to begin soon on a new $235 million school for the neighborhood.
Long-time Mott Haven residents are fearful that the influx of white, urban, middle-class residents will push rent and other cost of living expenses out of their reach. There is also resentment from the borough's predominately minority residents, who wonder if their new white neighbors are just exploiting the neighborhood's current low cost of living, only to move out again when living in Mott Haven is no longer chic. But more rezoning is slated for the neighborhood, and soon more of the old industrial and warehouse district will be converted into more residential and retail areas.
Still, life in NYC's housing projects is difficult. Residents are continually plagued with mold, lead paint, rodents, and roaches. Asthma is far more prevalent among children who live in public housing, and recent studies show that heart disease, cancer, and diabetes also claim a higher number of victims in these neighborhoods. Environmental problems, particularly pollution stemming from the disposal and recycling of hazardous materials that occurs in facilities rejected by wealthier and more powerful neighborhoods, are still painfully evident. And even though crime has been drastically reduced, NYC's housing projects still see appreciably more murders and robberies than surrounding neighborhoods.
Perhaps the fundamental lesson that we can learn from New York City's problems is that poverty and isolation often result from a long series of policy decisions and events that, individually, seem insignificant. But as the effects of these decisions incrementally build up over time, the results can be devastating.
Where do we build the expressways that carry us from comfortable suburbs into our cities? Where do we build waste incinerators? Where do we build landfills? Are we concentrating public housing, and are we building these concentrations in isolated locations? Are these locations poorly served by public transportation? Which neighborhoods have the greatest number of police patrols? In which neighborhoods are the police more or less likely to make arrests? Which neighborhoods have the best public schools? Which neighborhoods have the worst public schools? Are students given the opportunity to attend schools other than the ones in their neighborhood? Which neighborhoods have the best city council representation?
Humanity seems to be absorbed in the pursuit of luxury. We strive to build societies that continually offer more and more "value" to their residents. Often these values are embarrassingly superficial: designer clothing, cutting-edge technology, exclusive neighborhoods, access to the cocktail party scene, celebrity status ... yet we continue to believe that the more of this stuff we have, the greater our relevance becomes, and the more entitled we are to belong to the ruling class.
It is natural for those with the most money to be the ones who pay the most taxes, and it is natural for the top taxpayers to expect the most in return for their contributions. But the Bible clearly teaches that when we forfeit the quality of life for others in order to create a luxurious community for ourselves, we spit in the faces of those whom God loves. We will be held accountable for these choices.