THE BRONX, NEW YORK — Unterberger the hero. Unterberger who did not go to Los Angeles.
I think of him while negotiating the sidewalks of my old Bronx neighborhood threading carefully among the drug addicts, derelicts and the quiet majority of scared but decent people. Victims and future victims of the ever present juvenile delinquents, the least of whose crimes is the graffiti that climbs over the schools like kudzu vines determined to strangle the willow trees.
But, surprisingly, they have not killed my old schools--P.S. 96, Christopher Columbus H.S. and once proud City College. Education, that great rope ladder up for the immigrant and minority poor, lives against terrible odds in this northeast corner of the Bronx, thanks to teachers and parents who refuse to give up. People like Unterberger.
Of course, it's not the same as in the 40s and 50s, when I went to these schools, when the world looked to this city's system as a model for what free, universal education could achieve. Then democracy meant first of all quality education for everyone, the poor, minorities, immigrants included, with New York showing the way.
Now public education almost everywhere is perceived more as a problem than a promise. In New York, as in many urban areas, people who can afford it turn to private schools and starve the schools left to the rest. Others, like me, pull up in station wagons depositing their children at carefully selected suburban schools eager to make sure their kids profit from the inequality in public education.
Refuse to Give Up
So I go back to the Bronx to check on what is left of an important dream and am startled out of my pessimism by P.S. 96 Principal Martin Unterberger, who is quick to point out that he is no different than many other overworked and underpaid teachers around the country, L.A. included, who have refused to give up.
Unterberger the improbable hero.
How else to describe him? And what does that make me, a coward?
What makes Unterberger so tough that he is still in the Bronx serving, while I am in Huntington Beach shopping? Didn't we both go to "City," City College of New York, uptown, to be precise, where we majored in social commitment before we majored in anything else? And what is social commit-ment if not staying where you are when it's become a mess and helping your own? Nothing against Huntington Beach mind you, but it's not my village, and try as I might, the surfers will never be my landsmen.
So why am I there while Unterberger is here in the Bronx? Did I leave out of fear? No, it was too long ago, and all I wanted was the sun. The Bronx was good but California has been great. But could I live here? Today, I think not.
Sure L.A. has problems. At night you only have to wander a few blocks from The Times building downtown to enter a no-man's land of terror softened only by the pathos of hundreds of wasted humans sleeping in cardboard condos delineated by stolen shopping carts and garbage bags.
The Bronx has no franchise on despair.
A State of Being
What's changed is that in the good old days--and they were not so hot--the Bronx was not as important for what it was as for what it believed. It was unique not as a state of being, but as a state of mind--the borough of unreasonable hope. That is no more.
Let me not exaggerate. On the main avenue, Allerton Avenue, there are cops and life is not, in the daytime, menacing. And three blocks up the avenue, across the IRT White Plains elevated line, where the Sicilians have dug in, life goes on somewhat like before. Gino's bar has expanded and serves the best prawns diavalo in New York, and the Koreans who have moved into the sacred domain of fresh produce marketing do a better job of stacking, squeezing and hawking than their fabled Italian predecessors.
But there is fear and the merchants complain about constant theft and harassment. They are not alone.
Prowling these ruins of a civilization that once fascinated me, I, too, become an object of fear when I spot Normie's mother and she scurries away because a stranger can only be trouble. Normie's mother, who used to chase me down the street with a jar of milk she wanted me to drink. Milk for the brain, always the brain, on this the Jewish side of Allerton Avenue.
I never knew much about the other world up Allerton on the other side of the "El" where the Italians lived and still live. Now theirs is the safe stable world and the world of the Bronx neighborhood Jews is no more.