Saturday, September 15, 2012


July 26, 2012

This is my last column from the South Bronx, at least for a while. I’m heading off to Europe for a couple months. My departure at this time is not — I repeat, not — to avoid having to experience and write about the national election campaign. Really.

I came to New York from L.A. in the fall of 1990 for graduate studies at Fordham University, located in the better-off Mid-Bronx. I chose to live in the South Bronx partly because the rent was cheap and partly to defy its worldwide reputation as Hell on Earth: Presidents posing for photo-ops amid the rubble; Howard Cosell at Yankee Stadium during the 1977 World Series, declaring "The Bronx is burning"; Tom Wolfe painting his apocalyptic picture in Bonfire of the Vanities.

I found that all of the above was true, and none of it.

By the time I arrived, there were no big fires, mostly because there wasn’t much left to burn. But there were always little ones — the bomb thrown into a numbers joint, the tires ignited on an abandoned lot, the torch stuffed down a street-corner mailbox — small-time stuff. But memories of the big-time stuff haunted the survivors’ dreams. Mable Gray, a single grandmother turned community activist, told me early on, "I’ll never get the smell of smoke out of my nostrils."

It was people like Mrs. Gray that saved the South Bronx. Stalwartly committed to her church and her neighborhood, refusing to budge in the face of the chaos surrounding her, hoping against hope for a better future, she was for me a prophetic model. Worn out from her battles, she died a decade ago, just as things were beginning to turn around. Standing like Moses on the mountain-top, she saw the promised land but was not able to enjoy it herself.

If she can indeed survey the earth from heaven, she’s undoubtedly pleased with the fruits of her labors. The South Bronx today looks remarkably different, with thousands of new housing units, higher-quality food stores, bustling commercial activity, well-maintained streets and parks.

It could have been otherwise, were it not for the role of the churches. The preserver of dignity and solidarity among African-Americans since slave days, and the second home to Latino immigrants in this strange land, the churches were the only truly viable social institution left here — and most of their pastors knew it. In the mid-1980’s, a couple dozen churches banded together under Saul Alinsky’s community-organizing model to form South Bronx Churches, which for two decades was a thorn in the flesh of New York City public officials, prodding them for decent housing, quality education, responsible police protection, clamp-downs on drug-dealers. SBC mustered thousands of their members for rallies and City-Hall protests which even the likes of Mayor Rudy Giuliani could not dismiss. Vast numbers of vacant lots were appropriated for new apartments and community gardens; some of the housing was built by SBC itself. The corrupt city educational system was reformed. The streets were cleared of drug-traffickers. Money poured in for infrastructure and for incentives to commercial development. Gradually, the downward inertia stopped and the upward inertia began. It’s building to this day.

Most impressive was the determination and the staying-power of the clergy, many of whom spent their entire ministries here. This was particularly true among the Catholics. A good number of their pastors grew up in the South Bronx when the area was largely Irish and Italian, and when they were ordained in the 1960’s, inspired by the Second Vatican Council and the civil-rights movement, they requested parishes in their old neighborhoods. Priests with names like Gavigan and Gigante led parishioners with names like Gray and Gonzalez to agitate for justice. They worked without stint to make Jesus’ message of good news to the poor a living reality.

What has most touched me over my years here is the riches of those who are poor. Having so little, they gave so much; having nothing but each other, they shared their lives. Their spirit of community, mutual love, and genuine joyfulness is something I’d rarely seen before and may never see again.

So it’s off to the Old World for me. I’ll send reports.
July 26, 2012


July 12, 2012

Late on a sweltering Saturday night, the parents of a twelve-year-old South Bronx girl hurried in panic to the Tremont Division police station to report their daughter missing. That afternoon, they said, she’d gone to confession at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church on Webster Ave. and 171st Street, telling her family she’d meet them later at the ballfield in nearby Crotona Park, where local teams were playing. She did not show up; maybe, they thought, she’d gone straight home. Towards dusk, they returned to their apartment on Third Ave. near 172nd Street, but found it empty. Bewildered, her parents knocked on the doors of neighbors and friends, but turned up nothing. They went back to the big, wooded park — perhaps she’d gone there and got lost — but as they walked the trails in the dark, calling out her name, they were assaulted by a gang of thugs and fled in fear.

"We don’t know where else to turn," they told the precinct captain. "Could you please help us?" "I have no one to send out," he replied. "Go and look for your own child."

She was found early the next morning, in a vacant lot on Third Avenue near her home. She was barely alive, her naked body riddled with stab wounds. Neighbors rushed her to the hospital, but it was impossible to save her; the knife had pierced her lung and heart.

The girl’s name was Julia Connors. That Saturday night was July 7. The year was 1912.

The South Bronx of that time was a rough-and-tumble place, densely populated, with wave after wave of immigrants jostling for space — not unlike what it is today. First came the Germans in the mid-nineteenth century, then the Irish, then the Jews, all seeking to escape the reeking tenements of lower Manhattan for a better life in the Bronx. Last to arrive before World War I were Italians fleeing famine in Sicily. Into this ethnic patchwork Julia Connors was born in 1900.

Just a few doors from the Connors’ home, police found the site of the murder — a vacant apartment on an upper floor. The bathtub was awash in blood; the girl’s rumpled clothing lay nearby. A bloody trail led to a dumbwaiter, into which the perpetrator had stuffed the mangled girl and lowered her to the ground floor sometime before dawn. He carried her to an empty lot across the street, covered her with a blanket, and vanished into the night.

At her funeral Mass at Our Lady of Victory on July 9 — with the church and the street packed with parishioners, friends, curiosity-seekers, reporters, photographers, and police — the priest, Rev. Thomas Kelly, sternly warned all parents that "children are not safe in the parks and streets and nickelettes of this vicinity," and cautioned them never to allow their children to walk the neighborhood unchaperoned.

The "nickelettes" — the most recent name for the movie-houses that were springing up all over the city — were the particular target of Father Kelly’s wrath, "the source of the worst iniquity. In spite of the warnings parents may receive, they continue to allow their children to go to these places."

Curiously, on the night before the funeral, the proprietors of one nickelette set up their operation in the very lot where Julia’s body was found. A New York newspaper covering the story, the Evening World, did not mention what movies were shown, only that "the following announcement was repeatedly flashed last night upon the screen ...: ‘Anybody in this audience who knows any facts which might lead to the apprehension of the murderer of Julia Connors will kindly call at the box office without delay.’"

Many people called at the box office. Among them was a Mrs. Cohen, who told a World reporter that she’d recently confronted a man who had offered money to her eight-year-old daughter: "He spoke with a foreign accent, I would say he was a German and not an Italian." Another was Anna Levinson, described by the paper as "a good-looking girl of sixteen years," who said that "an elderly man with a mustache ... ran after me, and catching my skirt, tried to drag me down on the sidewalk. ... His eyes were big and wide, I judged him to be an Italian."

The police took all these stories lightly, except for one. Florence Molz, a schoolmate of Julia’s, told police that she had seen Julia walking in the park the day of her murder with "a foreigner with dark whiskers." Two local men were immediately arrested, and Florence positively identified one of them. When that news hit the press, mayhem erupted all over the Bronx. As David J. Krajicek, who wrote about the murder two years ago in the New York Daily News, describes it: "No unshaven man with an accent was safe in the Bronx. An Italian immigrant was beaten by a mob .... Another was nearly lynched .... An Armenian sleeping in Crotona Park became a suspect, police said, ‘because he had whiskers and no home.’"

After two days of questioning, little Frances broke down and admitted she had made everything up. "The child proved herself a prodigy in deceit," reported the World, having "led the detectives on a merry chase." The suspects she’d fingered were immediately freed.

After many fruitless leads, police finally tracked down the culprit, Nathan Swartz, age 24, whose parents lived in the apartment adjoining the scene of the crime and had hurriedly moved away. On July 18, 1912, he was found in a flophouse on the Lower East Side, dead, with newspaper clippings of the murder scattered about the room. A rambling suicide note, written in the margins of the clippings, read in part: "I am guilty and I am insane. It was caused by the beautiful makeup of women. I am sorry I done it, but I get crazy, as I often do and you can’t blame me or anyone.... I was born with a weak will and power only for love."

The tale of Julia Connors so resembles the ones people in the South Bronx see almost daily on the news and may even have experienced personally that it could have happened on July 7, 2012. Murder, gang violence, racism, and the indifference of law enforcement are no strangers to this place.


June 22, 2012
Jeff Dietrich is Horatio Alger in reverse. He’s the self-unmade man. While his peers were getting their MBA’s, he was getting arrested at anti-military protests. While they were making money, he was making soup. Last year, as he approached age 65, the Social Security Administration informed him that his total lifetime taxable income was $2,553.82.

He’s the guy the flower-children thought they’d always stay, until they hit 30 and figured they’d better buy life insurance. Jeff Dietrich’s insurance policy was drawn up by his Agent on the Mount: "Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself."

He’s the Man Who Came to Dinner. Over forty years ago, fresh out of college and dodging the draft, he dropped in at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen on L.A.’s Skid Row — and never left.

Fortunately for the world, the leaders of the Catholic Worker community saw talent in the lad and immediately made him the editor of their bimonthly eight-page tabloid, the Catholic Agitator. He’s been at it ever since. Now, from hundreds of articles written for the paper over the years, he has collected almost 80 of them into a book, Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

Brilliantly written, combining pathos, outrage, and scholarly analysis with bracingly biting humor, Dietrich’s essays reflect and amplify the vision of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, two radicals who rejected Marx’s social analysis for Jesus’, and Lenin’s brutal Communism for gentle communitarianism in solidarity with the poor.

His great awakening came In 1970. While hitchhiking across the country, he chanced on a meeting of the Milwaukee Catholic Worker, some of whose members were headed off to prison for burning draft files. "As I listened to their story," he recalls, "a light suddenly went on in my head. This is what Jesus would be doing if he were around today. He’d be feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and burning draft files!"

That was his satori, the Zen flash of insight when all reality falls perfectly and permanently into place. In an instant, Catholicism, whose dogmatism and institutionalism had suffocated his spirit as he grew up, was revealed in its essence: "We were not supposed to worship Jesus," he writes, "we were supposed to practice Jesus."

Taken as a whole, these essays confirm that primal experience. From the earliest ones to the latest, his basic beliefs remain unchanged; they do not evolve, they deepen.

He is an autodidact, and often states he is not a scholar. But his writings reveal a breadth of knowledge and intuitive insight greater than many academic professionals’. Interwoven with citations by a wide array of thinkers and theorists from Jacques Ellul to George Will, his analyses of social problems and the institutional structures he believes cause them make for compelling, contrarian reading.

For Dietrich, Catholicism is all about food and its transubstantiation. Bread is not just bread, it’s the substance that unifies humanity. The ritual of the altar and the ritual of the soup kitchen are two dimensions of the same Eucharist: "Just as Christ ... feeds us with his body," he writes, "so we also ... feed the poor." There is "no distinction between our daily lives of service to the poor and our communion with Christ in the Eucharist."

Most impressive is his eye-opening exegesis of Scripture. As always, his focus is on food, particularly why some grow fat while others go hungry. The Hebrew Scriptures, he argues in many articles over many years, consistently point to "big agriculture" and its ensuing mercantilism and militarism as the central problem. In Dietrich’s view of sacred history, after the expulsion from the self-sustainable Garden of Eden, the human trajectory of exploitation runs in pretty much a straight line from the farmer-murderer Cain and the hybris of the Tower of Babel right up to today’s global agribusiness: Those who grow the food hold power over those who don’t. The mission of Jesus, especially as depicted in the Synoptic Gospels, was to liberate the hungry from the institutions, religious and secular, that work to keep them that way. It’s not by chance, he shows, that Matthew’s Gospel juxtaposes King Herod’s banquet, where the main course is John the Baptist’s head on a platter ("not a typical dinner party arranged by, say, Martha Stewart") with Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. Thus the "power lunches" of Washington, where "decisions are made that consign the poor, the immigrant, and the homeless to death" stand opposed to the soup kitchen at the Catholic Worker: "When food and hospitality are shared outside the money economy, the kingdom of God has come near."

Again and again he insists that the fundamental message of Jesus has been hijacked by institutional Christianity, from Constantine painting the Cross on the shields of his soldiers to the religious empire-builders of the present day. (Cardinal Roger Mahony’s multimillion-dollar cathedral, built overlooking Los Angeles’ Skid Row, is a particularly easy target.)

Dietrich despises the political co-optation of religion, as in "Christian Family Values." The Jesus of the Scriptures, he points out, is no poster-boy for this movement, having rejected his family ("Who is my mother?") and demanded that his disciples also leave theirs to follow him.

Read Jeff Dietrich, and you’ll never read the Gospels the conventional way again.

All this heavy thinking, mind you, has been done in the spare moments when he wasn’t chopping celery, breaking up skid-row fights, and pouring blood on the steps of City Hall (though his 40-some stints in jail for civil disobedience did give him larger blocks of writing time).

Inspiration for his writing comes from the streets, and most of these essays are intertwined with stories of the alcoholics and addicts, the down-and-out and desperate, the incarcerated and infected that he deals with every day.

"The poor are not nice!" he writes. "The poor are a pain in the neck." Yet "without the poor, there is no cross, there is no Resurrection, no Easter, no Christianity." For Jeff Dietrich and his fellow Catholic Workers, the victimization and liberation of the poor lie at the center of the Mystery of Faith.

Like his mentor Dorothy Day, the Old Testament prophets, and Jesus himself, Dietrich’s is a voice crying out in the food desert, from the periphery of the System, calling those deep within the System — politician and prelate, capitalist and consumer — to practice justice, to practice Jesus.


June 22, 2012
"I’m healthier than I’ve ever been in my life," a friend of mine told me recently. "I take care of myself. I eat right, I exercise, I keep a positive attitude, I trust in God. I’m going to live to be a hundred."

Such a wonderful spirit, I thought to myself. Her contagious optimism never fails to cheer me. She’s 63 years old, and forever young.

Still, I was troubled by the context in which those words came up.

I was asking her about health coverage.

My friend has been unemployed for over a year and can’t afford to buy insurance. "I won’t let it bother me," she said. But it bothers me.

No matter how careful you are, stuff happens. Some drunk runs a red light and plows into your car. You know the exact way to lift heavy boxes, but your back goes out anyway. You go to your doctor with the flu and find out it’s leukemia.

All this is obvious, but I will belabor the obvious here because it does not seem to be obvious to politicians and even to significant numbers of the citizenry. It’s obvious to my friend, though — she’s as practical as can be — but she knows that dwelling on things like accidents or illness will in fact make her sick. She refuses to allow herself to imagine not only the physical suffering involved, but — and perhaps even more shattering to her peace of mind — being reduced to indigence, a lifetime of the savings she hopes to lavish on herself and her children wiped out by medical bills.

She’s almost 64. If her luck holds for a little over a year, Medicare will cover her. That’s a relatively short time for luck to hold, but what about those who are younger?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 50 million American adults under age 65 lacked health coverage in 2010. Each one of these individuals, particularly the middle-aged and those with dependent children, faces either the anxiety over, or the reality of, losing everything in a medical crisis. In 2014, the provision of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. ObamaCare or National RomeyCare) mandating taxpayers to purchase health insurance if their employers don’t provide it, and subsidizing their premiums based on income level, is scheduled to take effect. It will not help those 50 million right now, but once implemented, it will go a long way towards making health coverage available to all.

Excuse me. "Once implemented" is at this moment not correct; it’s "if implemented."

Sometime this month, the United States Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the ACA, particularly the mandate. The constitutional issue at stake seems ridiculously unrelated to the care of the sick: the Commerce Clause. >
The question as framed by opponents of the law is this: The Constitution gives Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce, but does that include the authority to force citizens to purchase things, including health insurance?

During the arguments before the Court in March, Justice Antonin Scalia, no foe of the flippant, reprised the worn-out green-vegetable hypothetical bandied about for months in state houses, lower courts, and the libertarian media: If Congress can make people buy health insurance, can it also make them buy broccoli?

Actually, it’s a good question, and the mandate may fall because of it. Under the present system, health insurance is a commodity to be bought and sold, really no different from broccoli.

The legal arguments on the question are exceedingly arcane, and it will be interesting, if not entertaining, to read the justices’ opinions. But the problem that the Obama administration and the Congress would not or could not address in the ACA, the problem that has brought us to this pathetic juncture, is the very concept of health coverage as a commodity. By refusing to eliminate insurance companies from the health care business, the ACA has asked for and got the broccoli argument. Had Congress simply extended the existing Medicare program to all ages, health coverage would no longer be an item of commerce but a public responsibility.

What troubles me most is not that politicians wouldn’t do this, bought as they are by the insurance business, but that so many ordinary citizens would be swayed by the old "socialized medicine" scare (while at the same time vigorously defending Medicare for the old!), when each and every one of them knows people who face, or face themselves, the possibility or reality of financial devastation from an accident or illness. It is equally surprising that businesses of all sizes would not lobby forcefully for universal health care, which would relieve them of the administrative burden of selecting health plans for their employees and the moral burden of dropping health benefits altogether, as many are now doing.

I keep thinking of my friend and the 50 million like her. Shouldn’t she, and they, and all of us be allowed to flourish in the knowledge that no matter what bad luck may befall us, our economic security will remain?

Health care, like education, infrastructure, and fire and police protection, is a universal need. How can it not be considered a universal public commitment?