Exploring The American Dream In The South Bronx Arthur Levine has spent much of his career writing about how tough it is for poor minority kids to get into college. Rarely has this widely respected educator written more urgently than in his latest book, Unequal Fortunes. It was a journey that took him back to his childhood in the South Bronx.
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Exploring The American Dream In The South Bronx

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Exploring The American Dream In The South Bronx

Exploring The American Dream In The South Bronx

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Arthur Levine has spent much of his career writing about how tough it is for poor minority kids to get into college. But rarely has this respected educator and former president of Teachers College at Columbia University written more urgently than in his latest book, titled "Unequal Fortunes."

Levine journeyed back to his childhood in the South Bronx to understand why he made it and why most kids living there now don't.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez has this profile.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Tonight, at Eljodo(ph), a popular Dominican restaurant on 181st Street, there is good reason to celebrate.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: One, two, three.

Unidentified People: (Singing "Happy Birthday" in Spanish)

SANCHEZ: Arthur Levine just turned 62 years old. The book that he and Laura Scheiber, a former student, started 10 years ago was just released. And two of the 14-year-olds they wrote about, Carlos and Juan Carlos, have joined them for dinner and cake.

They hug, they laugh, they reminisce. And later, in a park down the street, they ponder the book's central question: Is the American dream a myth, an empty promise? What do you think, Levine asks Juan Carlos, now 24.

JUAN CARLOS: I don't really think that it exists anymore. It's just that, it's a dream. It's a dream.

Mr. ARTHUR LEVINE (Co-author, "Unequal Fortunes): Aren't you guys the product of the American dream at some level? You grew up in families in which your parents didn't have a lot of education. You guys are college graduates.

JUAN CARLOS: Yeah, but we're the exceptions.

Mr. LEVINE: Right, but for you two, it existed.

Ms. LAURA SCHEIBER (Co-author, "Unequal Fortunes"): Well, what does the American dream mean to you?

JUAN CARLOS: It pretty much means that you can be born anywhere, from the bottom, and you still have a chance of making it to the top. But to say that our system itself has set up an American dream that works, I think that's false.

CARLOS: I believe in the American dream. Definitely, yeah, sure.

SANCHEZ: That's Carlos, always the optimist. Hard to say how their friend Leo would have responded. He's the other 14-year-old in the book, who can't be here tonight. Leo was shot and killed by a New York City policeman during a confrontation five years ago. He would have just turned 24.

CARLOS: There is nothing good about this story at all, but his story lives, you know. So it's sort of like he never dies.

SANCHEZ: Earlier in the day, Levine had taken me to Leo's sidewalk memorial a few blocks away.

Mr. LEVINE: There's a - at the center of the mural is a picture of Leo, and he's wearing a baseball cap with the seal of the Dominican Republic on it. He has long braids. He's wearing a chain.

SANCHEZ: In front of the 12-foot-high mural sits a small wooden box. Inside a few dried flowers and several veladoras, tall candles burned down to a nub. What happened to Leo, says Levine, happens to lots of children growing up in the South Bronx.

Mr. LEVINE: Kids in this neighborhood don't go to college. Kids in this neighborhood do drop out. Kids in this neighborhood do end up without jobs. Kids in this neighborhood end up without futures. And in Leo's case, he ended up dying at 19.

SANCHEZ: Did Leo have a shot of making it out of this neighborhood, I asked Levine.

Mr. LEVINE: Once he moved into this neighborhood, the answer was no.

SANCHEZ: For a true believer in the power of education and upward mobility, it's a stunning confession that Levine wants to explain to be fair to Leo.

Mr. LEVINE: Leo understood that education was important. In his diary, he wrote this passage that I will never forget. It said: I know that if I go to college, I'll get the house in the country. I can help my parents. I can marry a girl I respect who graduated from high school.

Next paragraph: I haven't been to school in three weeks. I went to school today, but I didn't go to any classes. I had sex under the stairs.

SANCHEZ: You see, says Levine, Leo faced some pretty tough odds from the day he arrived in New York at age eight with his mother from the Dominican Republic. He was bright, but he struggled with English. He was ambitious but attended overcrowded, dysfunctional, violent schools. He desperately wanted to please those he loved, especially his mother, but to avoid getting jumped every day, Leo joined a gang. In the end, he ignored his mother's advice and the streets swallowed Leo whole.

Unidentified Woman #1: That's not happening.

Unidentified Woman #2: How you doing? (Unintelligible).

SANCHEZ: On the corner of 181st and Creston Avenue, young mothers push their strollers towards P.S. 79, Leo's elementary school, the same school Levine attended 56 years ago, back when the neighborhood was almost entirely white and the language of the streets was English and sometimes Yiddish.

Mr. LEVINE: What changed about the neighborhood was, when I lived here, there was more of a mix of income levels. So the teacher lived in the neighborhood. There was a dentist who lived in the neighborhood. There was a doctor down the block. And you saw brothers and sisters who were older than you, neighbors, heading off to college. These were kids who were going to have a future better than their parents, which is real different than what goes on today.

SANCHEZ: Today, the language of the streets is Spanish, and the people who live here are poorer, more isolated than we ever were, says Levine.

Mr. LEVINE: The story of the South Bronx is the story of a working-class neighborhood that became poor. And with that change, the American dream died.

SANCHEZ: Levine grows quiet as we walk up Creston Avenue. A block away, the elevated subway train runs right down the middle of Jerome Avenue. Below the steel girders, a string of bodegas line the sidewalks where a Kosher deli and two Jewish-owned bakeries once thrived.

In his youth, says Levine, this community was a nurturing, hopeful place that his parents saw as a stepping stone to a better life.

Mr. LEVINE: They were moving away from the ghettos of the South Bronx.

SANCHEZ: Show me where you lived.

Mr. LEVINE: I lived in the building right ahead of us, 2078 Creston Avenue. And the last window over to the left, on the ground floor, was my bedroom. When I first came here, Carlos lived there.

SANCHEZ: Carlos, his friends and Juan Carlos and Leo, of course, became the central characters in Levine's book. They kept brutally honest diaries, and those diaries gave voice to all that Levine wanted to denounce.

Mr. LEVINE: My hope is that this book shows this community is isolated not by choice but by circumstance. And I hope that it shows that the community is a dangerous one to live in. It's hard to blame them for conditions like that.

SANCHEZ: Unlike so many of Levine's books, "Unequal Fortunes" is not just about failed institutions and policies. It's more of a plea for readers to peer into poor children's harrowing lives and become advocates for what Levine calls a "Schindler's List" kind of change: maybe not to save all children but to rescue as many as possible.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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