By Joe West
Picture this: a place where almost half of the population lives below the poverty line, that’s infested with rats, is battling with a major AIDS epidemic, and home to the worst food insecurity in its country. Some of you might immediately picture a region or city in Sub-Saharan Africa or one of the many slums in South America.
Not Nigeria, not the Congo, not a favela in Rio. This place is right here in the United States.
Just a 10-minute drive from Yankee Stadium, actually. The South Bronx.
In 1995, Jonathan Kozol, an award-winning educator/writer/activist, published yet another incredible work on schooling and poverty in America, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation.
Amazing Grace puts a spotlight on Mott Haven, one of the poorest areas of not only the South Bronx but the United States. Kozol describes schools, hospitals, and the often rat-infested homes of Mott Haven…all of which are dangerously overpopulated and drastically underfunded.
Much of what Kozol details is tough to read. Between the drug addiction, violence, sickness, depression, and death, it is hard to picture Mott Haven as anything but a dark and hopeless neighborhood.
However, there are still some bright spots in Amazing Grace. This bright spot comes from the children of Mott Haven. Throughout Amazing Grace, Kozol befriends several of the youngsters of the South Bronx. Many of them would defy the typical urban stereotype we have come to correlate with the ghetto. Bright, hopeful, generous, God-fearing, and sometimes quite funny, the children of Mott Haven are the lone face of resilience in this often destitute place.
Although Amazing Grace was published nearly 20 years ago, it bears just as much relevance now as it did then. As of last year, the South Bronx had around 260,000 of its residents living below the poverty line. That’s 40%, making it once again the ‘poorest neighborhood in America.’
Kozol, though stopping short of offering a specific solution to the problem, does plenty by telling the stories of the teachers, students, ministers, and even drug dealers of Mott Haven. If anything, Kozol seeks to answer the question: how long will we stand idly by while a quarter of a million of our own people rot away in poverty?
Here we are, 20 years later, still awaiting an answer.
“I have seen a generation die. Some of them was killed with guns. Some lost their minds from drugs. Some from disease…I’ve been here in this building 24 years and I have seen it all.” ~Mrs. Flowers
For further reading on the South Bronx:
Kozol’s “Education Action!” fund: