Review of UNEQUAL FORTUNES: Snapshots from the South Bronx
Snapshots from the South Bronx
By Arthur Levine and Laura Scheiber
Published by Teachers College Press, New York. 2010: 170 pp.
By Merri Rosenberg
Many of us (especially, I suspect, those of us who grew up in the somewhat grittier neighborhoods of New York City), are tempted to return to our childhood homes to see what’s remained the same, what’s changed, and measure the distance we’ve traveled.
Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College, did just that. Working with Laura Scheiber, a Ph.D. student at Teachers College, the two of them returned to Levine’s apartment building and block in the South Bronx to understand how the neighborhood of his childhood and teenage years enabled him to achieve his version of the American Dream — and how, in the 40 years since he lived there, it failed so miserably for the young residents living there now.
When Levine grew up in the South Bronx, mostly among the offspring of other Jewish immigrants and Catholics, there was a clear sense that education offered the best way to escape poverty and deprivation and land squarely in the middle class. As he writes, “The few Jewish kids who failed to complete high school or attend college were known to everyone. … The parents of these children were universally pitied.” Further, he explains, “Despite the differences among the people living on Creston Avenue, there was at least one fundamental commonality — a belief in the power of education and a commitment to the American Dream.”
For Levine, who went on to the Bronx High School of Science, Brandeis, and graduate school, education was the foundation of his success, and his career. Currently president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Levine has also taught on the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, been president of Bradford College and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education and Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The power of education to transform people’s lives is a bedrock belief for Levine.
Unfortunately, the South Bronx “village” that nurtured Levine and his friends and propelled them onwards and upwards into the American middle class had vanished by the time the young men that Levine and Scheiber profile in this book emerge on the scene. What had been an aspirational, working-class (or even lower-middle-class) neighborhood in Levine’s day had become a symbol as the residence of a permanent underclass.
When Levine was a child, only 6 percent of the children in his neighborhood lived in single-parent families. For the Dominican young men — Leonel Disla, Juan Carlos Reyes and Carlos Pilarte — whose stories contrast so sharply with Levine, 46 percent of the households in their South Bronx “village” were headed by single women. In Levine’s era, doctors, dentists, accountants and schoolteachers also lived in the community, serving as unofficial mentors and role models. For these Dominican young men, their streets were absent of any role models aside from gang members or drug dealers. It’s a world of no jobs, no ambitions, and no sense of a future that could in any way be different from an intolerable present. Social mobility is stunted.
For Leo, whose tragic story is the counterpoint to Levine’s, the bleak narrative of poor schooling (not helped by attending four schools in as many years), a lack of adult guidance and role models, and an inability to see school as anything other than a boring warehouse, predictably leads to what one would expect: gang involvement, dangerous encounters with the police, and premature sexual relationships that trap both parties.
In this South Bronx, which is isolated linguistically, racially, economically and educationally, Levine and Scheiber observe that “what would still be missing from the boys’ lives is the belief Arthur and his friends shared that all things were possible and they had in their hands the means to achieve them.”
Despite the mostly grim narrative that Leo’s story exemplifies, there are glimmers of hope. Both Juan Carlos and Carlos manage to find a way out of the South Bronx to a larger world. The essential question for Levine and Scheiber is how to provide similar experiences and opportunities for more youngsters to emulate Juan Carlos and Carlos.
This is a compelling and worthwhile book, especially for those who teach in inner-city schools. #