The Journey Begins
Christmas Eve of 1985 was not a good time for poor women and their children to depend on public kindness or prophetic reenactments of the Christian gospel at the hands of civic and commercial leaders in New York. It was a time when opulence among the city’s newly minted rich and super-rich was flaunted with an unaccustomed boldness in the face of New York City’s poor and homeless people, thousands of whom were packed into decrepit, drug-infested shelters, most of which were old hotels situated in the middle of Manhattan, some of which in decades past had been places of great elegance.
One of the largest shelters was the Martinique Hotel, across the street from Macy’s and one block from Fifth Avenue. In this building, 1,400 children and about 400 of their parents struggled to prevail within a miserable warren of bleak and squalid rooms that offered some, at least, protection from the cold of winter, although many rooms in which I visited with families in the last week of December were so poorly heated that the children huddled beneath blankets in the middle of the day and some wore mittens when they slept.
I remember placing calls on freezing nights from phone booths on Sixth Avenue or Broadway trying to reach Steven Banks, a Legal Aid attorney who performed innumerable rescue actions for the families in the Martinique that year. The wind that cut across the open space of Herald Square at night was fierce, the sidewalks felt like slabs of ice, and kids and parents from the Martinique who had to venture out for milk or bread or medicines would bundle up as best they could in layers of old clothes and coats, if they did have coats, or sweatshirts with the hoods drawn tight around their chins.
Dozens of kids I knew within the building suffered from chronic colds. Many were also racked by asthma and bronchitis. Infants suffered from diarrhea. Sleepless parents suffered from depression. Mothers wept in front of me.
I had never seen destitution like this in America before. Twenty years earlier, I had taught young children in the black community of Boston and had organized slum tenants there and lived within their neighborhood and had been in many homes where rats cohabited with children in their bedrooms. But sickness, squalor, and immiseration on the scale I was observing now were virtually unknown to me.
Almost every child that I came to know that winter in the Martinique was hungry. On repeated evenings when I went to interview a family I gave up asking questions when a boy or girl would eye the denim shoulder bag I used to carry, in which I often had an apple or some cookies or a box of raisins, and would give them what I had. Sometimes I would ask if I could look into the small refrigerators that the hotel had reluctantly provided to the families. Now and then I’d find a loaf of bread or several slices of bologna or a slice or two of pizza that had gone uneaten from the day before. Often there was nothing but a shriveled piece of fruit, a couple of jars of apple sauce, a tin of peanut butter, sometimes not even that.
I continued visiting the Martinique throughout the next two years. During that time, a play about impoverished children of the nineteenth century in Paris, called Les Miserables, opened to acclaim in the theater district of New York. Some of the more enterprising children in the Martinique would walk the twelve or fifteen blocks between the hotel and the theater district in late afternoons or evenings to panhandle in the streets around the theater or in front of restaurants nearby. Homeless women did this too, as well as many of the homeless men, some alcoholics and some mentally unwell, who slept in cardboard boxes on the sidewalks and in doorways of the buildings in the area.
The presence of these homeless people was not welcomed by the theater owners. People were paying a great deal of money to enjoy an entertainment fashioned from the misery of children of another era. The last thing that they wanted was to come out of the theater at the end and be obliged to see real children begging on the sidewalk right in front of them.
The problem was resolved to some degree when police and private guards employed by local businesses developed strategies for cleaning out the homeless--sanitation terms like “cleaning out” were used without embarrassment--from the streets around the theaters. Meanwhile, on the East Side of Manhattan, another group of business leaders went a little further by employing people in the homeless population to drive out other homeless people from Grand Central Station, where they had been taking refuge from the cold for several years by sleeping in the station’s waiting rooms.
The ultimate solution, which required the removal of these homeless families from the midtown sections of Manhattan altogether, took a few more years to carry out successfully. In the interim, despite the efforts of the theater owners, many of the older children from the Martinique would manage to slip past the hired guards or the police and walk up to theater-goers, who would sometimes hand them a few dollars.
The younger children from the Martinique, however, did their begging for the most part close to home within the blocks surrounding the hotel, where they would run into the streets when drivers slowed their cars as the lights were changing and where a driver whose compassion overcame his irritation might roll down his window far enough to give the kids some money. Those who were inclined to castigate the parents of these children for letting them go out into the streets at night might have relented somewhat if they understood how rapidly the competence of many of these parents had come to be eroded by the harshness of conditions in that building.
Scenarios of broken will and loss of good decision-making skills were apparent everywhere. Some of the parents were emotionally ill when they arrived here; but those who weren’t would frequently succumb to the pervasive atmosphere of insecurity and high anxiety that suffused the filthy corridors and crowded living spaces of the Martinique. Many who had not used drugs before this time became drug users in a setting in which heroin and crack cocaine were readily available. (The sixteenth floor of the Martinique Hotel--there were seventeen floors in all, but the top two were unoccupied--was operated, with the knowledge and, apparently, cooperation of some of the guards, as an open market for drug users.) A number of people became HIV-infected under these conditions, although in 1985 the term was not yet widely recognized among some of the residents and many did not understand exactly why it was that they were growing ill.
The conditions under which these people had to live were not unknown to New York City’s social service system or to its political administration. Anybody who was able to get past the guards, as I did repeatedly with the cooperation of two sympathetic social workers who enabled me to get into the upper floors and visit families pretty much at will, could not avoid, unless he closed his eyes, the sight of overflowing garbage piled in the landings and of children who, for lack of other options, played amidst that garbage.
But physical unhealthiness, the prevalence of drug addiction, and the documented presence of widely known carcinogens (open containers of asbestos, for example, and asbestos-coated pipes in the lobby of the building) were not the worst of the destructive forces children and their families had to undergo. The Martinique, as I was forced to recognize when the social workers started talking candidly to me during the months to come, was not merely a despairing place, diseased and dangerous for those who had no choice but to remain there; it also was a place of flagrant and straightforward criminality on the part of management and ownership. A young man with a raw, salacious smile, to whom the social workers made it a special point to introduce me and who, they told me, was a relative of one of the two owners of the building, used the power he was thus afforded to induce young women to provide him with erotic favors in exchange for items that they needed, such as cribs and linens for their children.
“He boasts about it,” one of the two social workers told me. “He describes it to us openly, and gleefully. He goes into considerable detail. . . .” Some of the guards, the social worker said, took advantage of the younger mothers too, as one of those mothers, a smart and savvy woman who told me she had had to fight off their advances, reported to me at the time and has repeated since.
There was no need for secrecy, it seemed, because there was a sense that this was “a closed system,” where rules of normal law and normal governance did not apply. Complaint or protest would have no effect except to prompt the guards or manager to punish the complaining woman by denying her essential services or else, if the manager so wished, by calling the police and charging her with one of many forms of misbehavior that were common in a building in which almost every person had to break some rule or operate some petty scam in order to survive.
Cooking, for example, was officially prohibited because of fire dangers, but the city’s meager allocation of subsistence funds to purchase food made it unthinkable to buy it from a restaurant and forced the mothers in the Martinique to cook their children’s meals in secret, then conceal their hot plates when inspectors from the city came around. The management cooperated with the tenants by providing them with garbage bags to cover up the hot plates on inspection days while, at the same time, it pretended not to know that this was going on. When mothers were reluctant to provide the guards who were hired to protect them with the favors they expected, the guards could use the cooking scam or other scams much like it as a way to break down their resistance.
Children, of course, observed the humiliation of their mothers. The little ones, too young to go to school, might perhaps be sent out to the corridors; but most of the mothers would not dare to let them wander too far from the bedroom door. Even the kids who never witnessed these activities first-hand could not fail to be aware of them. I used to wonder what enduring influence all of this would have upon the capability of children in the building to believe in any kind of elemental decency in people who have power over their existence. Would they later find it hard to trust the teachers in their public schools? Would they develop an endemic wariness about investing faith in any older person of authority? Would they love their mothers all the more for having done the best they could to protect them from this nightmare, or would they harbor a resentment that their mothers were not able to avoid this situation in the first place?
One of the social workers who befriended me that year, a sensitive man who had studied early childhood development as an undergraduate at Yale, spoke of the Martinique in unsparing language as “New York City’s midtown death camp for the spirits of poor children.” He knew that I was Jewish and he asked me later if this choice of language had offended me. I told him it did not. I thought it was justified.
Two years later, I published a book about the Martinique Hotel. It appeared first in two successive issues of The New Yorker magazine, and this, in turn, attracted interest from the other media. The Nightline television program, moderated at the time by the journalist Ted Koppel, asked me to go back into the Martinique with a camera crew and do a documentary on the families I had known. The social workers and some of the mothers helped to get the camera crew and the producer past the guards and up into the building. The camera itself was hidden in a baby carriage by one of the mothers, who rolled it through the lobby without attracting scrutiny and brought it with her on an elevator to the floor where she was living. She then accompanied us into other bedrooms whose occupants had told me they were not afraid to answer questions.
By the time we had finished with the final interview, however, a guard on an upper floor had become suspicious, banged at the door, which we did not open, then notified the management. The manager, an unpleasant character by the name of Sal Tuccelli who carried a pistol in an ankle holster, confronted us with several other guards and insisted that the cameramen hand over the material they had just recorded. When they refused, the manager and guards reacted in the same way they routinely did with residents who defied or disobeyed them. I was slammed against a metal wall. One of the cameramen was seriously injured. The TV producer, an unintimidated woman, removed one of her high-heel shoes and used it to defend us. By this point, the police had been alerted. The cameramen got out of the building with the video.
I knew, of course, that journalists were not welcome in the building and that the social workers who had made my visits possible were taking risks in doing so. But until this time I had never witnessed so directly the extremes to which the management would go in the interest of concealment. It reminded me more vividly than ever that the city and the owners of the Martinique, with whom the city had contracted to sequester homeless people at a price tag of $8 million yearly for those 400 families, were determined to discourage any troublesome exposure of the social crime in which they were colluding.
It also left me with a visceral reminder of the terror mothers and their children would experience when the guards or, more frequently, the manager would hammer at their doors early in the morning if, for example, the rental check paid by the city, through no fault of their own, had not arrived on time. “Six a.m.,” one of the mothers told me. “He bangs on the door. You open up. There he is in the hallway with his gun. ‘Where’s your rent?’ ”
This is the way that one of the richest cities in the world treated the most vulnerable children in its midst a quarter century ago. When these hotels were finally closed in 1988 and 1989, not for reasons of compassion but because of the enormous damage the visibility of so much desperation was doing to the image of the city and its elected leaders, most of the several dozen families I had come to know, all but two of whom were black or Latino, were shipped en masse into several of the most impoverished and profoundly segregated sections of the Bronx, far from the sight of tourists and the media. These were communities that already had the city’s highest rates of HIV infection, the greatest concentration of drug-addicted people, of people who had serious psychiatric illnesses, women with diabetes, women with undiagnosed malignancies, and among the highest rates of pediatric asthma in the nation.
Excerpted from Fire in the Ashes by Jonathan Kozol. Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Kozol. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.