All Day

    Liza Jessie Peterson is a broke unsuccessful model turned poet, who in the spirit of most unsuccessful artists in New York, turns to education for a living. Her assignment – The Island School, where the youth of Riker’s Island are educated. Wait, scrap that, it’s where they are dumped during the daytime. She’s with them all day long, no switching from math to science to social studies classes, and as a former suspension site teacher, I can tell this is going to be the teaching job from hell. While some of the boys are hard-core offenders, almost all of them behave like rude children (well what  do you expect, they don’t want to be there anyway) and they will test her, mess up the room, and do silly things.

Peterson faces a problem of many “teaching artists” who go from afterschool programs into full time education. While the afterschool programs are easier because the kids want to be there, full-time teaching is always difficult because of the kids who DON’T want to be there. If you think that’s a problem in a regular high school, imagine what it’s like in Riker’s Island, arguably the worst jail in the USA. It’s not like you can call the kid’s mother (there’s nothing she can do) or send him to the principal (there isn’t one) or expel him (there nowhere to go, this is the end of the line.)

Here’s a horrible irony about teaching at The Island School, which I figured out on my own. You know how the worst kids will probably come to school late and miss your class? Well not at this school, because they’re physically forced to go at gunpoint! Do you remember the kids in public school who never disturb your class because they spend all their time in the bathroom? Well not at this school, because bathroom breaks are restricted! You’re stuck all day long with the kind of kids who you’d rather play hookey all day.

Peterson does get some info about how the boys got there, but I doubt they’re all truthful. Some of them are definitely guilty of the crimes they’re accused of, while others were in the wrong place at the wrong time (like riding in the back of a car when the driver was carrying a gun and had just shot someone.) Some are in there because their parents can’t afford a non-refundable $2000 bail bondsman’s fee, others are foster kids whose legal guardians probably don’t care.

An advantage that the boys have in going to school is that they can hang out with their friends instead of getting stuck all day with the nasty correction officers. They don’t fight much in the classroom, mostly just tossing ball of paper at each other. Maybe the school is the only place where they can still be kids.


Law and Disorder: The Chaotic Birth of the NYPD

    Brice Chadwick’s is less about the NYPD and more about what a mess New York City was in the 1800’s. The author prefaces the book by telling us that crime levels in pre-Civil War NYC were six times what they are today, even more at the time than London and Paris (not sure I agree with that one.) Regardless, the city was known for bad behavior, and the chance of getting robbed and murdered was high. There wasn’t much in the way of law & order, and the police were never much help.

Chadwick’s first chapter discusses the constant rioting in downtown New York (well there wasn’t much of an “uptown” yet) and the Black churches, schools, and homes were a favorite target. The first great riot of the city was not the famous Draft Riot of the Civil War, but the Summer Riot of 1834 (seems like the trouble in this city is always worse in the summer) where the abolitionist meetings were attacked. The few police available did try to stop the riots, but with no results. There wasn’t much that ten cops (with limited armament) could do against 300 violent men, especially when those men had no qualms about killing the police. Maybe those cops just weren’t willing to risk their lives for the miniscule pay they got.

Riots in New York City happened every time the poor got mad, whether it was the use of unclaimed bodies in medical schools (the Doctor’s Riot) or the high price of flour, or the killing of stray dogs, or the impounding of stray pigs. In one forgotten 1833 incident, stonemasons stormed a workshop and smashed the place, because the contractor was using cheap marble from Sing-Sing. Apparently, NYU couldn’t afford the craftsmen’s price, so they opted to use cheaper stonework made by convict labor (NYU always seems to piss everyone off when they build a new wing.) As for the police, they were driven away by the stonemasons (leave it to your imagination who was physically stronger) and the militia had to be called in. That alone almost caused another riot; ever since the American Revolution 50 years earlier, nobody wanted to see armed troops in the city.

I will hand it to Bruce Chadwick for mining some unbelievable resources for this book. In the chapter on the Hellen Jewett murder, he brings to light some old first-person accounts of the city in the 1830’s, most of which I’d never heard of. Some were written by professional writers who toured the city, others are scholarly academic studies on crime. According to the sources, prostitution was rampant (not surprising, as the respectable classes did not engage in casual sex) and some women found it more respectable than being a domestic servant.

Chadwick credits Fernando Wood with improving things. He was trusted and respected by the police captains, and he appointed the ones who could gain the trust of the rank-and-file. As long as there was no dissent within the ranks, the police would at least be unified. Unfortunately, there was no way for patrolmen to communicate with HQ (radios not invented yet) and few would risk their lives by going into certain areas (no way to call for backup.) When the old Metropolitan Police were scrapped and reorganized, the city had the Police Riot, where the old cops and new cops battled each other in the street.

The anti-crime reformers clashed with the police as well as the crowds, because the reformers all came from the same class and school as the abolitionists. Lydia Child, for instance, was a Conservative educated Bostoner, and John McDowall was a divinity student from Princeton. They both criticized the police for the prostitution problem, since the madams were paying off the police captains for every brothel they opened (a fact that the Lexow Committee would concur 60 years later.) Lydia Child found the perfect cause when Amelia Norma murdered a client. The reason – he reneged on a promise to marry her – was used by Child to prove her point; men could do whatever they wanted to the women and face no consequence.

The author does find one positive thing about the early NYPD, and that is the use of the photograph. When cameras first became available, the NYPD seized the opportunity, creating the world’s first “rogue’s gallery” with detailed descriptions. Other departments followed suit, as did the FBI and the CIA. Reorganizing the police didn’t help that much, and things would still be unsafe in the city. Conflict between the abolitionists and pro-slavery New Yorkers continued, leading to the Draft Riots of the Civil War then the labor union riots, then conflict between the Irish and Italians, and so on.

Tearing down the Five Points slum and the old Gotham Court may have helped. It’s harder to attack a cop in a dark alley if there are no alleys anymore.

A Bintel Brief

This is a wonderful book on the advice column of the Yiddish paper The Forward (now English language) where New York’s Jews could piss and moan about everything. The author uses simple drawings to illustrate the problems people wrote about, along with the events of the times. Keep in mind that Bintel Brief was from a time when the Jews of New York lived in poverty and couldn’t afford therapy; writing to the advice columnist was the only way to talk about your problems. The Forward had its own building on the Lower East Side, but the neighborhood that is now hip and expensive used to be a dirty slum. It was a terrible neighborhood, crowded, polluted, and filthy. Families were very large, so the mothers were worn out from repeated pregnancies, and of course they had to work to feed all those kids. There was no public welfare at the time; you worked, or you went hungry. Therapy was unaffordable to most families, so this was the only alternative to talking to your clergyperson. The writers of this column were usually better educated than most Rabbis, so the advice would be a little more practical.
A lot of the problems written about in Bintel Brief had to do with marriage. There wasn’t any casual dating in those days, and a lot of Jewish New Yorkers had arranged marriages. Some of the letters were from women whose husbands were not as wealthy as they claimed; some were from women whose children were in love with non-Jews. You can learn a lot about how people lived in those days, before the safety net of food stamps and social security.
There have been other books on the Bintel Brief column, which ended in the 1970’s, but I think the last book was published in 1990. This fresh and vibrant comic about the column will keep the memory alive for years, in an era when few Jews still speak Yiddish. As for The Forward, it’s also a bit of an irony that the building is now high class apartments; by the 1930’s, the Jews had fled the Lower East Side in droves, and by the 1950’s it was not safe at night. My mother used to visit the building in the early 60’s, when they had a renowned kosher cafeteria in the basement, and she has fond memories of the place. But you couldn’t be there at night, even in the 50’s, because of all the junkies that came out of the woodwork. The paper itself is now in English, but not as much fun to read. It no longer celebrates Jewish life the way it used to, now relying on stories about Israel’s bombings, or who’s donating the most money to UJA. Perhaps when people have real problems in their lives, they’re more concerned with reading about good things? The Jewish community weren’t always financially successful in this country; there was a time when a lot of us lived in the “low income” area.