Among The Ruins
issue 178 - December 1987
Peter Martens / Camera Press
Among the ruins
The sociologists call it 'urban blight' - when once proud
communities scatter and the very physical structure of the
city begins to crumble. Marshall Berman travels back to the
neighborhood of his childhood, New York's Bronx district, and in
the process coins a new word. Urbicide: the murder of a city.
When I talk about ruins, I'm an interested party. The South Bronx, where I spent my childhood and youth, is the site of one of the greatest recent ruins today outside Beirut. The physical and social destruction of the area began with the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway in the late 1950s and early 1960s spreading gradually southward from the highway and northward from the emerging Bruckner Expressway in the late 1960s.
Then in the early 1970s the disintegration began to spread at a spectacular pace, devouring house after house and block after block, displacing thousands of people like some inexorable plague. Those were the years when the Bronx finally made it into the media, as a symbol of every disaster that could happen to a city. 'The Bronx Is Burning!' resonated all over the world.
My family had left the South Bronx several years before. But all we had to do was turn on the news and we could see our old neighborhood in close-up (City fires make great visuals) as it went down in flames. Every time I saw or heard about the destruction of another landmark (streets I'd played in, houses where friends lived: schools, shops, synagogues) I felt a piece of my flesh was being ripped away.
Whenever our family got together in the middle and late 1970s, we would talk about 'our house', the apartment building where we had lived for 20 years. Was it still standing? Were people living in it? No one had heard anything about the building since the fires, collapses and abandonments had begun. Maybe no news was good news, but during the plague years none of us could bear to go back and take a look.
Finally, one fine day in 1980 I took the D train, got off at East 170th Street and hoped for the best. As I came up from the subway I saw a dreadful sight: a row of splendid redbrick apartment houses with richly sculpted and beautifully detailed facades, houses that had meant 'class' far beyond our means not so long ago, turned into an enormous mass of ruins.
The facades were charred black, some of the upper walls had collapsed, the windows all were smashed (probably by firemen - this must have been one hell of a fire) and the sidewalks were still strewn with debris. As I turned onto 170th Street and walked downhill for about half a mile east I saw a great panorama of recent ruins unfold before me. Some had been sealed off with cement blocks. This might mean that their owner- (most likely the city) was planning to leave them standing in the hope they might be made livable again someday. Or maybe the city simply hadn't had time to tear them down yet.
Others in various stages of demolition or decomposition, presented jagged expressionist forms, far more arresting than the ordinary squares and cubes of people's homes.
The 'Apartments for Rent' signs hanging from the fire escapes suggested that services and maintenance had been cut to the bone, that tenants were scared and moving out as fast as they could before winter began. There were a couple of blocks, once dense and noisy with sidewalks too narrow for their crowds, that now contained nothing at all. Most of the rubble from their buildings had long since been carted away and they were as open and empty as the desert.
As I got closer to our old home, I began to sweat. A few smaller houses were, as ever, shabby but intact. On the other hand, the synagogue where I was bar mitzvahed was a ruin, burned and ready to collapse. On the block before the house I was eerily alone: the buildings were still standing, but sealed. Everything looked dead as a ghost town: not a good sign. What if, when I got to the spot, there was nothing there? At last I turned the last corner, and - there it was! Thank God! And there were people living in it, names on the buzzers, drapes, and plants in the windows, kids jumping rope in the courtyard. I relaxed with a sort of metaphysical relief: my roots were still alive.
In my family we take things very personally, as if the ruins were meant for us and us alone. In fact, in our sense of loss and violation we have plenty of company. In the South Bronx alone, more than 300,000 people fled in the 1970s as their homes were being destroyed. Many of these people were forced to run more than once, trying desperately to stay ahead of the blight that kept catching up with them. Thousands more in Manhattan and in Brooklyn went through the same ordeal. In fact something similar was happening in working-class neighborhoods in older cities all over the US. In New York, though, it happened on a far greater scale. Moreover, because this city is an international communications center, its devastation and anguish were transmitted instantly and vividly to the whole world.
No one has seriously tried to add up the victims of this latest wave of urban destruction. It wouldn't be easy. First, we would have to count all the people forced to flee instantly. Next would be a larger group, who fled the fire zones out of fear that they would be next. Finally, there would be all those who no longer live in the fire zones, but who still feel strong bonds with them and who are emotionally devastated to see their roots destroyed. An accurate national total could run well into the millions.
These stricken people belong to one of the largest shadow communities in the world, victims of a great crime without a name. Let us give it a name now: urbicide, the murder of a city.
The people caught in the fires, the urbicide victims, were so traumatized they simply couldn't grasp what was happening to them. They had no alphabet to 'read' it, to make it intelligible. They were prepared for grinding poverty, but not for the rupture and collapse of their rough world.
And while it was at its height, we, the educated public outside the fire zones, didn't understand it any better than the victims did.
It was only at the very end of the 1970s that analysts began to sort out the hopelessly tangled webs that connected landlords, bankers, insurance underwriters, welfare departments, junkies, thieves, real estate speculators, crooked politicians, 'finishers' (who picked up old buildings for a song, collected rents and stripped the buildings clean of all they could carry away), professional arsonists and the dazed, weeping people out on the street.
Business Week assigned an ace investigative reporter to find out how a particular building, splendid in 1958, had become a burnt-out ruin by 1975. Weeks of digging elicited an enormously complicated answer, full of labyrinthine paths and wheels within wheels. It was a brilliant story. But if it took all this full-time digging to penetrate the depths of urbicide, how were people on Charlotte Street or Avenue C supposed to grasp what had hit them? They couldn't grasp it and neither could we; they blamed themselves and we let them, and we should be ashamed.
Marshall Berman teaches at Columbia University. This article is reprinted with the author's permission.
FLAKING PAINT AND BAD AIR
Ella Schiff looks more like a flower-child than a 50 year-old nurse. Her long hair is in dreadlocks and her style is very much Sixties-activist. She works as a nurse-practitioner in an elementary school clinic buried amidst the rubble and abandoned buildings of an Hispanic section of the Bronx - one of the lowest per-capita-income electoral districts in the US.
According to Ella many who live in the slums around Community Elementary School # 64 are illegal refugees from Central America. 'The more the US squeezes the more they run up here looking for some tiny bit of security,' she says. The Salvadorean and Guatemalan children that come to the clinic suffer from chronic obesity (from an inadequate diet) and asthma - from the flaking paint and bad air in the old buildings where they live.
The clinic tries to teach the kids about their own bodies so they can take responsibility for their own health. But its an uphill battle in a community drowning in the plague of drug-related AIDS that is spreading through much of poor Hispanic New York.
For Ella poverty is not just an unfortunate condition, it is a business in which a few win and the vast majority lose. She points to slum doctors who run what she calls 'Medicaid Mills.' They process patients at a rapid rate so they can bill the government Medicaid program for thousands a day. Poor patients commonly walk away with shopping bags filled with prescription medicines.
In the Bronx corruption runs from top to bottom. Bronx Democratic boss Stanley Friedman was recently indicted for conspiracy. For those with a little power and leverage taking your cut is as normal as brushing your teeth before going to bed at night. Ella points to local community board officials who spent only $35,000 of a $125,000 federal grant to run an after-school program. One readily admitted to Ella that he had 'pocketed the difference'.
Even where the poverty business is not corrupt Ella believes it has some pretty bizarre priorities. She points to the competitive high-tech New York hospital system as a classic example. She cites the case of a homeless alcoholic admitted to Roosevelt Hospital because he had fractured his larynx. She estimates it cost $80,000 for his combined treatment including the use of an expensive respiratory machine and a hospital stay of some three weeks. The man was then sent back to the streets with no place to live and precious few social programs to which he could turn for help. Ella doubted he would live out the year.
Ella feels the only way the poor can escape traps created by the poverty business is to organize to help themselves. She points to some promising examples of tenants taking over their own buildings - to give themselves both a stable place to live and a bit of personal pride and responsibility. Unfortunately, this 'sweat equity' program that allows for this to happen, rapidly takes a back seat once a private developer shows even a modicum of interest in the property under question.
Ella Schiff lived in the Bronx as a child and she can still show you the abandoned building her family once called home. She uses the toughness and street-wise intelligence typical of the best of New Yorkers to do her part in making the Bronx a decent place for people to live.