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No Surrender : Jonathan Kozol is one of America's last uncompromising voices. His latest cause: the South Bronx.

November 08, 1995|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Not 12 minutes away on the No. 6 subway line is a land of luxury, limou sines and ladies who lunch. It is not inconceivable that in that section of Manhattan--the Upper East Side ZIP code that was home to Jacqueline Onassis, for just one glamorous example--apartment owners pay annual garage fees in excess of $3,700. Certainly many of the luncheon ladies spend that much at the hairdresser each year.

The figure is pertinent because here in Mott Haven, the poorest part of the poorest congressional district in America, one-quarter of the families subsist ( live is probably too generous a term) on $3,700 per year. One out of three of Mott Haven's 48,000 residents is a child, and more than 95% of children here are raised in poverty. Two-thirds are Latino; the rest, African American. White people come here only as priests, teachers, police officers or drug purchasers.

One-quarter of the mothers of newborns in this sliver of the South Bronx test positive for HIV. The pediatric AIDS rate is the highest in America. On these streets, asthma and violence are such curious companions that the kid who packs a piece probably also is armed with an asthma inhaler. Before knocking off the neighborhood bodega, or corner store, he might well dodge the rats that roam with fierce impunity.

"This here is a burial ground," a 9-year-old tells Jonathan Kozol in "Amazing Grace" (Crown, 1995), Kozol's arresting new examination of the lives of children in this bastion of bleakness. "People walk the streets like they're already dead."

Slender and intense, Kozol must have made a conspicuous presence when he began walking these streets two years ago. Outside Mott Haven, Kozol's credentials as one of America's last uncompromising voices were long since established, as he championed the plight of children in books that ranged from "Death at an Early Age" (New Ameri-can Library, 1963) to "Savage Inequalities" (Crown, 1991). Kozol fairly dines off the distinction of having been fired from teaching fourth grade in Boston's largely black Roxbury district 30 years ago for reading the poetry of Langston Hughes in class. At 59, he has made a career out of unrelenting conscience and unrepentant liberalism.

But here, where the aroma of sewage bubbling up from Park Avenue would never be confused with Chanel No. 5, about the only thing Kozol had going for him, as James Roundtree, who runs one of the neighborhood's 13 homeless shelters, puts it, was that "Jonathan is different from the average white person. He don't look like no cop."

Rather, he looks like Woody Allen's vision of a Harvard intellectual who shares a one-room, 250-year-old farmhouse near the New Hampshire border with a golden retriever named Sweetie Pie. He is non-threatening, yet possessed of a powerful urgency. Positioning himself no more than three inches from a person's face when he speaks, Kozol brims with such fervor that even when trying to look adorable, it is hard for him to be convincing.

Asked why this defender of America's young people has no children of his own, he explains that he was divorced 20 years ago. Then he shrugs, appearing more vehement than impish, and adds unpersuasively: "But it's not too late. There's still time."

Kozol happened onto Mott Haven because he heard about a church that was doing "interesting things" in the community. The Brook Avenue subway stop led him to St. Ann's, where a dog of indeterminate origin presides over the desolate dirt mound that passes for a churchyard. To Kozol's surprise, the priest at St. Ann's turned out to be a 45-year-old woman.

Kozol, the Rev. Martha Overall says, became "a facilitator for the voices here--which is good, because otherwise everyone ignores them." Overall, a onetime lawyer, is thin, blond and fueled by the same fires of righteous indignation that apparently fanned Kozol at birth. She wastes little patience on "the guy from the New York Times," author Alex Kotlowitz, whose review of "Amazing Grace" suggested that Kozol must be "tired of shouting. . . . He must be wondering, after all these years, whether anyone is listening."

Overall is just as dismissive of the notion that Kozol might have written the same book in some other equally bleak urban setting.

"There is no other equally bleak urban setting," she retorts. "This is a Third World country. We have Doctors Without Borders here. The food that they had left over from Desert Storm, they brought it here. It tasted like space food."

In the six blocks that formed his laboratory for "Amazing Grace," Kozol remains a distinctive figure, part tour guide and part rock star. Pointing out a crumbling publicly owned staircase--"How long do you think we would tolerate this on Fifth Avenue?" he demands--he is swept up by children's voices: "Jonathan! Jonathan!" An instant later he has skipped up the perilous staircase and half a dozen kids are embracing him.

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