Friday, July 31, 2009

What Else But Home- A Great New Book on Race and Class in NYC

What Else But Home: An Inspiring, Disturbing Book that Pulls The Covers Off Race and Class Barriers in Gentrifying New York

What Else But Home: Seven Boys and an American Journey From the Projects to the Penthouse by Michael Rosen, is a tough minded, unsparingly honest, brilliantly written book about one family’s efforts to bridge race and class barriers that have grown to unprecedented proportions in Michael Bloomberg’s New York, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods like the Lower East Side. The story line is deceptively simple. The author and his wife, wealthy professionals living in a penthouse apartment overlooking Tompkins Square Park, decide to take in, and informally adopt five black and latino boys, all of whom live in neighborhood housing projects, who their son Ripton meets in pick up baseball games in the Park. Given the results, that all five boys end up staying of jail , getting GED’s and high school diplomas, and attending college or community college, you might think this is a feel good story. But what the Rosens, their two children ( both adopted) and the five boys have to do to get there is so painful, so difficult, and so beyond the range of what most people would be willing to do that it makes the barriers they crossed seem almost unbridgeable. Although the challenge this family took on inspired love and trust and generosity, it also produced levels of conflict and misunderstanding that almost broke every person who participated. Michael Rosen, a man of uncommon honesty and literary skill, puts all of this before us without pretence or embarrassment, forcing every reader to ask- could I do what this family has done, could I live with this level of tension, could I come up with the heroism needed to deal with crisis after crisis without saying enough is enough, especially in the light of some extraordinary words of wisdom a friend shared with them when boys started staying at their house

“If you’re going to let them be here, it has to be unconditional. They’ll test it because disadvantaged kids are always screwed over. Teachers start nice, social workers, their mom’s new boyfriends all start nice, get tired and walk away. These kids don’t know it, but they are fighting for their lives. It is a matter of life and death. . . . If you let them into your family, it has to be forever.”

What does forever mean when you have seven boys, two middle class, but adopted and five who have grown up in incredible poverty, violence and chaos, living with a married couple with ample resources and wonderful intentions but all kinds of baggage and a marriage that is falling apart ( the Rosens actually separate for a time when they are taking care of the five boys) First of all, it means constant misunderstanding. One of the best features of this book is the author’s ability to capture the two different languages spoken in his home- the urban, working class youth dialect the boys speak and the middle class conversational English spoken by Michael and his wife Leslie. Not only to the boys routinely use terms that are racist, sexist and homophobic , but it is difficult to explain to them why they shouldn’t use those terms when few people have ever talked to them in a calm and conversational tone about their own behavior, much less social justice issues. Living in makeshift families with rotating adult caretakers, going to chaotic, overcrowded schools, and communicating on the street other young people in hip hop influenced code words, the boys are unaccustomed to people trying to correct their behavior by appealing to their political consciousness or a higher moral sense. The Rosens attempt to impose politically correct language on them seems like it is coming from outer space. They know that the Rosens are providing them with a safe zone, free from the violence and instability they have experienced in the households where they have resided, and the housing project hallways, schoolyards and park areas where they often congregate, but the Rosens also make demands on them in terms of speech, dress, behavior that no one has imposed on them before and they are torn as to whether reinventing themselves this way is worth it

What makes the resulting conflict even more poignant, and the class and race gap the book explores all the more poignant is that the five boys the Rosens adopted-Carlos, Kendu, Phil, Will and Juan-bring considerable cultural capital to the table. They are bright, street smart, athletic ( several end up playing college baseball), good looking and have experienced enough love in their life to respond positively to the love and attention the Rosens give them. Nevertheless, they are totally unprepared, in dress and speech and affect, to adapt comfortably to the middle class milieu life with the Rosens exposes them to, whether it is eating at a sit down restaurant, going to a museum, or entertaining guests at a dinner party and totally unable to sustain the minimum behavior necessary- such as gong to class and doing homework- that would get them to graduate from high school, much less than attend college. Once the Rosens made the decision that the boys were part of their family for life, and that they would be subject to the same expectations that were imposed on the Rosen’s two children, Ripton and Morgan, their lives were going to be childcare, crisis management and chauferring 24/7 and they were going to have to spend incredible amounts of money on clothing, athletic equipment, tutoring, counseling and special school programs to get these boys through their adolescent years without getting incarcerated, injured or diverted by early parenthood. I am not sure this is an accurate figure, but I would guess that the Rosens spent well over $200,000 on clothing travel tuition and other expenses for the five boys they adopted during the six or so years covered in the book. If they had not spent that money, it is not clear this would have been a success story. The public high schools and junior high schools the boys attended gave them neither care nor attention; the local economy of the neighborhood offered no legal ways of making money; the new middle class in their neighborhoods looked upon them with fear and contempt and their home living situations were filled with violence, stress and the dangers and temptations of a local drug trade which was thrivingjust a few blocks from Yuppiedom. The Rosens MONEY, as much as their love and attention, made this a success story.
But before we confer sainthood on the Rosens- though in my judgment they are damn near close-let us give Carlos, Kendu, Phil Will and Juan their share of the credit. It took incredible courage, and resilience to leave everything they grew up around to become part of this white middle class family, especially since they had to endure more than their share of insult and humiliation to become part of the Rosens world. Some of this came from the restaurant owners, hotel and apartment managers, neighbors and friends of the Rosens in the hip, wealthy community the Lower East Side was becoming, a place where project boys were seen as objects of pity, or unwelcome intruders. Some of it came in motels and coffee shops when the boys piled into the Rosens station wagon or van to take out of town trips, most of which seemed to involve visits to historic sites. But some of it came from the Rosen’s attempt to have the boys conform to a regular schedule, keep a curfew, perform household chores, do their homework and not squander the resources the Rosens gave them, whether it was a cell phone contract or a credit card. If it took a tremendous effort on the part of the Rosens to micromanage the boys lives, it took a lot of patience on the boys part to be micromanaged, especially given the freedom they had in households where the adult presence was weak, or stretched to the limit by lack of resources
What can we learn from this experience?. First, that given the right kind of attention and resources, amply sprinkled with love, young people growing up in poverty , even those living in chaotic and dangerous households, can become skilled, educated and productive citizens. What the Rosens accomplished as a family can be replicated by institutions if they are given sufficient resources and have the right people staffing them Secondly, that the race and class divide that the Rosens sought to bridge, is growing larger almost daily because our tax structure maximizes the gap between the haves and the have nots and the market forces that allocate housing in New York city are driving poor people out of mixed neighborhoods. And third, that no family should be forced to take on the burden that the Rosens did because by all rights it is the whole society’s responsibiity. The Rosens heroism, which deserves all the respect in the world, would be best rewarded by giving young people like Carlos, Kendu, Will, Phil and Juan the same quality education, health care and recreational opportunities their middle class counterparts have
Let’s move this agenda quickly while Barack Obama is still president.
The Rosens could use a little rest!

Mark Naison
July 31. 2009