Read Fire in the Ashes Online

Authors: Jonathan Kozol

Fire in the Ashes

Also by Jonathan Kozol













Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Kozol

All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Kozol, Jonathan.
   Fire in the ashes : twenty-five years among the poorest children in America / Jonathan Kozol.
         p. cm.
   1. Poor children—United States. 2. Poor families—United States. 3. Education of children—United States. 4. Children—United States—Social conditions. I. Title.
 HV741.K674      2012
 362.77′56909747275—dc23                2012005183

eISBN: 978-0-7704-3595-0

Jacket design by Darren Haggar
Jacket photograph by Stephen Shames


For Lisette and Angelo,
Pineapple and Jeremy,
Benjamin and Leonardo,
Lara and Mosquito,
Stephen and Miranda,
Antsy and Ariella.
And for Alice Washington.
They prevailed.


Over the course of many years I have been talking with a group of children in one of the poorest urban neighborhoods of the United States and have written several books about them and their families. Readers ask me frequently today if I’ve kept in contact with the children and if I know how many have prevailed against the obstacles they faced and, in those cases, how they managed to survive and how they kept their spirits strong amidst the tough conditions that surrounded them.

It has not been difficult to keep in contact with most of these children because so many of them, as they have grown older, have come to be among my closest friends. They call me on the phone. They send me texts and e-mails. We get together with each other when we can.

In telling the stories they’ve been sharing with me about the years since they were very young, I have begun by recapitulating moments in their childhood that set the scene for what their lives are like today. On some occasions, they have helped me to correct mistakes I’ve made or misimpressions I’ve conveyed in the writings that I did during those early years when we first met.

The names of the children, and grown-up children, and almost all the older adults I’ve described are disguised to protect their privacy, and many have been given different pseudonyms from those I’ve used before. Their exact ages, the locations of their homes, and other details of their lives have sometimes been disguised as well. Conversations on related topics are at times combined, and stories and events told to me out of order are resequenced. Further
discussion of the way I wrote this book, and the ways that events and conversations have been edited, is provided in the text itself, as well as in the endnotes.

The stories in this book were brought to their conclusion in the weeks preceding January 2012. Many of the lives of children in these stories will, I expect, continue to take unforeseen and interesting directions. But this, for now, is where I must leave them. I hope the future will be kindly to them all.

The Shadow of the Past
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 Misérables, 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.

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