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