Thursday, July 2, 2015

When New York City Was Greece- The Destruction of Youth Programs in the Name of Austerity in the late 70's

As the Greek crisis unfolds, it is instructive to turn to a moment in history when New York City went "bankrupt" and was put under the control of an Emergency Financial Control board who dictated what kind of budget cuts had to be made in order for the city to continue receiving financing from the nation's banks.

The year was 1976, Abraham Beame was the Mayor, and what transpired was an unalloyed tragedy for the young people of New York City, especially those growing up in the city's working class and middle class communities In fact, based on my own experience and scores of oral history interviews with people who attended or worked in Bronx public schools from the 1950's through the 1980's, many city neighborhoods, and the young people who lived in them, never recovered from what lost as a result of budget cuts made at that time.

Let us first look at the impact of budget cuts on New York City public schools, which had some of the best youth and cultural programs of any public school system in the world from the late 40's until the Emergency Financial Control Board took over.

  The after school programs in New York City public schools , which provided an enormous boon to working parents,were second to none. Every elementary school in the city was open 3-5 and 7-9 with supervised activity, run by New York City public school teachers paid with stipends that supplemented their regular salaries. The activities in these centers included arts and crafts, sports, music programs, talent shows, and occasionally school dances. I played basketball and nok hockey in the night center at PS 91 in Crown Heights, but some truly amazing things took place at schools in the Bronx, some of them serving predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods. At PS 18 near the Patterson houses, the night center, run by former all American basketball player Floyd Lane and NY Knick player Ray Felix, scores of young people who played high school, college and even professional basektball learned the game, including the great Nate "Tiny Archibald." At PS 99 in Morrisania, in additional to sports activities, there were regular talents shows which featured young people who became some of the foremost "doo wop" singers in the nation, along with budding Latin musicians.  There amazing programs were all shut down for good in the late 70's thanks to EFB imposed budget cuts. Sportswriter and coach Howie Evans, who attended the center before working in them, said closing the afternoon and night centers was the worst single policy decision ever made affecting the youth of New York City

  Then there were the music programs in the public schools. During the same period- the late 40's through the late 70's- New York city public schools had the best music programs in the country. Ever junior high school, and many high schools had upwards of 300 musical instruments which could be taken home by any student who tried out for or made, school bands or orchestras. And the intruction was first rate. Many famous musicians taught music in the public schools and some of the greatest instrumental music in the world was produced by students who learned their art in the public schools. Take Salsa, which emerged in New York as a hybrid form of Latin music in the late 60's. Three Salsa giants, Eddie Palmierie, Ray Barretto and Dave Valentin, were products of the amazing music program at JHS 52 in Hunts point, and Willie Colon was taught music at Wagner JHS near St. Mary's Park by none other than Jazz giant Donald Byred, who was a music teacher in the school.

And what happened to these programs? ALL OF THEM, were shut down as a result of budget cuts during the fiscal crisis, and their instruments places in storage in school basements, or sold off to schools in other cities and other countries. Instrumental music never came back to most public schools and is only there now as a result of special school grants.  

And then there were the Parks. The NYC parks budget was cut in half during the fiscal crisis. One of the major casualties here were the Recreation Supervisors in the Parks, known as the "parkies" who supervised sports programs in city parks free of charge. And not only in the big green spaces. There were parkies in the thousands of concrete vest pocket parks around the cities and they offered supervised activity to hundreds of thousands of city youngsters. One example of this took place in a vest pocket park at 163rd Street and Caldwell Ave in the Bronx where a "parkie" named Hilton White ran a basketball program called "The Falcons" which produced scores of great college basketball players including three starters on the Texas Western basketball team which won the NCAA Championship in 1966 with an all-Black starting five ( as portrayed in the movie "Glory Road.).

Almost ALL of the parkies were laid, off and the recreation progams they ran ended. To give an idea of what this meant, there were once over 800 "parkies" in the Bronx ( according to the Bronx Parks Commissioner). Now there are 9

So lets add up the results of Banker imposed "austerity" on the youth of New York City

After School and Night Centers --GONE
Music Programs in the Schools-- GONE
Supervised Recreation Programs in the Park- GONE

None of these programs that were elminated ever returned.

Children growing up now have only a fraction of the supervised activities that I had access to growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950's and early 1960s'

And you wonder why I fear for Greece?