Time is telescoping now. It's been 20 years since I moved to New York. The day I arrived here is as fresh in my memory as yesterday; what has happened in between is becoming a blur.
Driving through the South Bronx to St. Augustine's Church that September afternoon, nervously checking and re-checking the directions given me by Father Jeffers the pastor, I had day-mares of getting hopelessly lost and in big trouble, like Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities. The crumbling housing projects on Webster Avenue, the burnt-out buildings, the blocks of vacant lots strewn with garbage and picked-over carcasses of cars — it was a social moon-scape, the world's symbol of the death of the American city. But the people I met from that very first day — struggling families, recover ing addicts, old men running numbers at the corner, children playing in the gushing fire hydrants — were among the warmest and most welcoming I've ever known. The Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
Thanks in great part to the tireless work of the churches and their heroic ministers, who over three decades of agitation built housing, cleaned up the projects, brought in businesses, chased out drug-dealers, and made the city improve the streets, parks, schools, and hospitals, the South Bronx has turned the corner. You'd hardly know how hellish this place once was.
My sister Jeannie and her husband Rob from California, and Rob's sister Marsha and her husband Rod from Oregon came to visit in October, a wonderful week of sightseeing in ideal autumn weather. One of our stops was Ellis Island, where many of the people who built the Bronx — Irish, Italians, Jews, Germans — got their first taste of America. Their descendants, pros perous from years of hard work, fled to the suburbs as the area deteriorated in the 1960's. Now, with the housing stock expanding, new waves of immigrants are settling here — Central and South Americans, Carib beans, and most recently, West Africans. Storefront mosques are opening up, next to storefront Holiness churches. Men in kaftans and women in long gowns and veils are everywhere now, an interesting parallel to the traditional habits of Mother Teresa's nuns and the Franciscan friars, who serve the poor here.
Venerable St. Augustine's Parish, the spiritual home for immigrants for over 150 years, has added many West Africans to its complement of cultures, including Ameri can Blacks, Hispanics, Haitians, West Indians, and the Garifunas of Guatemala. Talk about diversity!
Though the parish has been given a reprieve from closing by the Archdiocese of New York, St. Augustine School is now on the endangered list. This year, enroll ment slipped below 200 because of the sagging economy and the allure of new charter schools opening nearby. To demonstrate their determination to save the school, the faculty voted to cut their already uncompetitive pay. To increase enrollment, the administration devised the most affordable tuition plan imaginable: 3% of family income. The median income in this area is only $16,000, so tuition for all the children in a median family would be only $48 per month. Since the policy was announced last month, over 50 new students have signed up. But the arch diocese wants a balanced budget, so the shortfall in revenue has to be made up by donors. If you're looking for a worthy cause to support, this is one. Visit their website at www.staugustinebx.com.
Food has always been a major issue in this impover ished community, but the dynamics sure have changed over my years here. One of the best things about the New Bronx is that supermarkets, once the dumping ground of turning meats and wilted produce, have been seriously upgraded. You still can't get arugula, a good steak, or sometimes even cottage cheese in them, but the selections are better and the perishables unperished. In addition, a farmer's market opened on McKinley Square right up the block last summer, run by students from a local charter school with an urban-agriculture theme. Set up to take food stamps, it did a roaring business, offer ing fruits and vegetables from small upstate farms and the school's own garden.
The St. Augustine Food Pantry serves over 400 people per week, and the days of dented canned goods and bricks of nasty surplus cheese are gone — now, thanks to the resourceful Food Bank of New York City, clients get fresh meats and produce and an often intriguing selection of products snagged from overstocks at Manhattan gourmet stores.
The chicken project at St. Augustine School continues. Last spring, Rafael, the school's custodian, who raised chickens in the Dominican Republic, slaughtered and dressed the aging first batch of 15 hens, which went to school families. The project has now expanded to 35 chickens, each laying an egg a day, distributed to the needy in the neighborhood.
Genesis Park, the community garden next to St. Augustine's rectory, welcomed several new gardeners this year, immigrants from El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, who had worked on farms back home and brought their skills with them. The garden yielded remarkable amounts of vegetables last season.
The bees did quite well too. Despite a six-week drought and heat wave that dried up the nectar sources in July and August, by fall I'd harvested 360 pounds of honey, still well above the average.
The South Bronx is still about immigrants, sharing their talents and industry with their neighbors. Part of the Christmas story tells of St. Joseph and his new family fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod's persecution. It's good to remember that the rolls of immigrants and refugees include the Son of God himself.