There is continuous debate over the benefits and costs of social programs designed for the lower middle class and poor. New York City has more than their share of neighborhoods that house the economically depressed. These areas are and have been called the slums, the hood, or the ghetto. They go by such names as The Bowery, Lower East Side, Hell’s Kitchen, East and West Harlem, Bed Sty, Brownsville, The South Bronx, etc. etc. As for area, they consume much more of The Big Apple than the toney addresses of Central Park West and other small pockets of wealth dotting the city landscape.
I cannot say for certain if social programs for children and teens have subsquently elevated their self-esteem. How such a program may have changed their views of the world, or exposed them to joys they would not have had an inkling existed. I cannot state how a program like Head Start may influence their social skills, or if it affords them an equal footing in primary school with those who have been more fortunate. Those more fortunate children whose parents were able to afford nursery schools and pre Ks. I can only relate how a social program enhanced my life.
Located on 116th Street between First and Second Avenues there was a building that was taken on for the purpose of operating a center where youngsters of the neighborhood could gather for free. This was the Harlem House. It was run by a husband and wife, Pete and Celia. I remember for sure his name but I’m taking a stab at hers.
I was about twelve or thirteen when I began going to the Harlem House. Pete was the jack of all trades there. He played sports with the boys. There was a real gym on the first floor. He was in charge of all the sporting equipment, maintained the building, changed light bulbs and I assume washed floors. Celia took care of registration, set schedules, supervised the instructors and kept the boys and girls separated. Although, at the time, the couple appeared to be old to me, in retrospect I guess they were in their early forties. Not so old!
Since we were never charged a fee to register and participate I can only assume it was a city run program. The memories I took away from the Harlem House I reflect on with pure pleasure. Sports, drama classes, art and music were subjects that my Catholic elementary school education did not include. Our Lady of Mount Carmel put all the emphasis on the three Rs, reading, writing and arithmetic.
Now, dear reader, you must know that going to the Harlem House was not considered cool by the people I hung around with in the candy store, but I didn’t care. I was hooked from the first time I went. Even my best friend, Susan, would not go back after one or two times. Again uncool.
Except for sports, which Pete ran, we had separate instructors for the different arts that we were exposed to. Genuine artists instructed us in painting/sculpture, drama/theater, and music. We could go without restriction to any class we signed up for. There was no pressure and no judgement.
At the Harlem House I learned for the first time that physically handicapped people were just like me with the same dreams and desires. I remember a beautiful young girl on my basketball team who was missing half her arm. Except when we played basketball she wore a prosthetic. She could dribble with her left hand and catch the ball and shoot baskets as good as any, and better than some with her one and one half arms. No one had to tell me she wasn’t different. I saw it for myself. We played punch ball and dodge ball (which they no longer allow children to play because they might get hurt) without helmets or equipment. We learned to play as a team.
For drama class I studied lines for a play I was to be in. It was a chinese play and I was the nurse. To prove to the audience that I was a nurse I wore a white blouse and an inverted silver box top on my head. Since I had several lines in this play (I was only given the part because I begged for it after Susan, who originally had the part, stopped coming) I was on stage quite a lot. My mother came to watch me at the sole performance.
My favorite class of all was sculpture. We were taught to mold clay, how to keep it moist from day-to-day until our piece was completed, how to fire it in the kiln and then glaze it so it would keep forever. If we were creating a head, the instructor taught us to emphasize muscle tone under the skin; how to breathe life into the piece. We were shown pictures of beautiful works and she dissected them for us. She gave her charges an appreciation of art. To this day I have two of the heads I created in sculpture class.
Where would I have ever been exposed to all these wonders without a place like the Harlem House? Perhaps not until I was an adult moving amid the world beyond the small existence of the neighborhood. Perhaps then it would be too late to readily change my opinion of things. I think you would be hard pressed to convince me that social programs are a waste of money.