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A History Lesson from the South Bronx

Right now, it may feel like history’s tectonic plates are shifting underneath us, here in month seven of a pandemic, facing a momentous election, amid re-awakened urgency for social justice. In the middle of all that, Partnership educators are elbow-deep in exhilarating, all-consuming efforts to prepare our nine Partnership Schools to open for in-person and remote instruction next week. So there’s not much time for musing on history. But it’s worth taking a short break to reflect on a picture that surfaced this winter and has captivated some of us at the Partnership in the months since:

(If you follow this blog, you may recognize it from our Earth Day post.)

Principal Jessica Aybar notes in her post that the photo of former St. Athanasius student Armando Vega in the late 70s/early 80s highlights friendship–along with rubble from the widespread devastation that pockmarked the South Bronx at that time. What was happening around these boys and the pile they stood on in that moment can speak powerfully to us in this one.

As historian Joe Flood outlines in The Fires, that debris under the boys’ feet, and of thousands of destroyed buildings in the Bronx, was the product of decades-old racist redlining policies that led to disinvestment in formerly solid working class neighborhoods; from flawed bureaucratic formulas that cut New York firehouses in neighborhoods when they needed them more, not less, as buildings became more fire-prone; and from the carving up of blocks to build the Bruckner Expressway. Apartment buildings burned, neighborhoods declined, and by the early 1980s, people left in droves. Hunts Point and Longwood, the neighborhoods St. Athanasius School still serves, lost two-thirds of their population in just ten years, plummeting from 96,000 to 35,000 by 1980.

This is a view of the parish in that period:

For more, see SEBCO’s website.

Politicians and even Presidents visited, and promised funding, but no one seemed to be coming to the rescue. And that’s when something remarkable happened: in 1978, a group of residents on nearby Kelly Street, with no official permission to do so, “liberated” three buildings, fixing them up and initiating a development effort that expanded from there. Nearby, St. Athanasius pastor Fr. Louis Gigante had founded SEBCO, the South East Bronx Community Organization, and after years of effort had negotiated with HUD to build new housing in the area, the start of multiple developments in which some of our families live today.

As former St. Athanasius principal Marianne Kraft reflected, the circumstances were so challenging that the simple arrival of flatbed trucks in 1983 was “thrilling.” Because, she says, “the day in 1983 that prefabricated houses from Pennsylvania came on huge flatbed trucks to be put in place around the church, and [teacher] Francine Rogers led us in singing, it felt like ‘OK. Now we are going to grow back.’” And grow back it did. Government and some private investment followed these individuals’ efforts. Over 150,000 people now live in Hunts Point and Longwood. And because educators like Marianne Kraft, Francine Rogers, and many others stayed in the neighborhood and kept pulling off one school year after another, St. Athanasius is still around. Indeed, thanks to Jessica Aybar and its current team, the school is adding class sections, even amid the uncertainties of a pandemic.

In the late 1970s and 80s, residents of the Bronx with no extraordinary power or influence, after decades of entrenched racism and amid government responses on all levels that left something to be desired, took matters into their own hands–and they began building. Much more remains to be done now, forty years later, for our neighborhoods to reflect as well as they can the ideals of our faith and our nation. But next week, a group of teachers and principals with no extraordinary power, amid the persistent effects of racism and government responses that leave something to be desired, will do something extraordinary: they will return to educating young people in-person at a time when others are skeptical it can be done.

“Act, and God will act.” Joan of Arc’s words are some of our favorites around the Partnership. The South Bronx has proven them true for forty years. Next week, from Cleveland to New York, we’re hoping to prove them true again.