You who turn justice into bitterness
and cast righteousness to the ground ...
... you hate the one who reproves in court
and despise him who tells the truth.
You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
You oppress the righteous and take bribes
and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.
Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the LORD God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is. (Amos 5:7; 10-14 NIV)
Mott Haven was described in 1991 by the New York Times as "one of the city's most forlorn neighborhoods." An epidemic of drug trafficking, drug addiction, murder, assault, robbery, and HIV/AIDS had so ravaged the neighborhood that New York City officials tagged the area around Beekman Avenue as "the deadliest blocks in the deadliest district" of the city. Police officers only drove around the outskirts of the neighborhood. Social workers handed out clean hypodermic needles and free condoms in an effort to stop the spread of HIV. In 1991 there were 84 murders in Mott Haven, one every four days.
Writer Jonathan Kozol visited the neighborhood in 1993 and 1994, and soon after published his interviews and observations in his powerful memoir Amazing Grace. Kozol chronicled the hopelessness that suffocates the neighborhood's residents. Most of the families living in Mott Haven's housing projects were headed by single mothers or single grandmothers (if the mothers were in prison) and the suffering endured by these women is heartbreaking. The combination of depression induced by the gloom of their environment, anxiety from the constant gunfire and killings, asthma fueled by anxiety and the vermin and insects that infest their apartments, and AIDS contracted from using contaminated needles or from sexual partners, had utterly devastated their lives.
"You have to struggle to get through the afternoon. You have to drink a lot of coffee and you smoke too much to keep from crying or exploding at somebody. You feel nervous all the time and can't calm down."
"Nothin' works here in my neighborhood ... Everything breaks down in a place like this. The pipes break down. The phone breaks down. The electricity and heat break down. The spirit breaks down. The body breaks down. The immune agents of the heart also breaks down. Why wouldn't the family break down also?
"If we saw the people in these neighborhoods as part of the same human family to which we belong, we'd never put them in such places to begin with. But we do not think of them that way. That's one area of 'family breakdown' that the experts and newspapers seldom speak of."
"... Keepin' a man is not the biggest problem. Keepin' from being killed is bigger. Keepin' your kids alive is bigger. If nothin' else works, why should a marriage work? I'd rather have a peaceful little life just with my kids than live with somebody who knows that he's a failure. Men like that make everyone feel rotten." (Kozol, Amazing Grace, pp. 180-181)
The only sign of optimism witnessed by Kozol in the Mott Haven projects was in the eyes of its children, who nonchalantly spoke of murder and drug dealing and prison in the same manner that a suburban child might speak of pizza or cheerleading or Thomas The Tank Engine. The concepts of good and evil strongly resonated in the minds of these kids, along with the deep conviction that their circumstances were clearly the result of the evils done to their people by the wealthy elites who lived on the other side of the island. Their belief in God, deeply instilled in them by mothers and grandmothers, was also strong, particularly their hope in the promise of Heaven. Sadly, these children had little else to hope for.
"What do you do with some of these realities? ... Here is a city in which nine out of ten children born with AIDS are black kids or Latinos, many of their mothers or fathers IV users. You have 14-year-old girls who are crack users. If you don't believe in God and don't believe in family or society , and don't believe you'll ever have a job, what do you have? Even when a good political leader speaks to them, his rhetoric has no effect. It's like walking into an intensive-care ward in a hospital and saying, 'Rise!'" (ibid, p. 174)