The routine can last more than an hour before the children take their first bite. To the left of the door, beneath a decrepit sink where Baby Lele is bathed, the wall has rotted through, leaving a long, dark gap where mice congregate. Hand-washed clothes line the guards on the windows, which are shaded by gray wool blankets strung from the ceiling. A sticky fly catcher dangles overhead, dotted with dead insects. There is no desk or chair in the room — just a maze of mattresses and dressers.
A flat-screen television rests on two orange milk crates. To eat, the children sit on the cracked linoleum floor, which never feels clean no matter how much they mop. Homework is a challenge. Sometimes it feels like too many bodies sharing the same air. She carves out small, sacred spaces: a portion of the floor at mealtime, an upturned crate by the window, a bathroom stall. The children spend hours at the playgrounds of the surrounding housing projects, where a subtle hierarchy is at work. A mucus-stained nose suggests a certain degradation, not just the absence of tissues, but of a parent willing to wipe or a home so unclean that a runny nose makes no difference.
The projects may represent all kinds of inertia. D asani ticks through their faces, the girls from the projects who might turn up at this new school. Some are kind enough not to gossip about where she lives. She will hopefully slip by those girls unseen. Fresh braids fall to one side of her face, clipped by bright yellow bows.
Her required polo and khakis have been pressed with a hair straightener, since Auburn forbids irons. Her heart is pounding. She will be sure to take a circuitous route home. She will focus in class and mind her manners in the schoolyard.
Paul Singer’s Still Got It
She only has to climb those steps. She passes through the metal detector, joining other middle and high school students at the Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts. Stage props are salvaged from a nearby trash bin. Dance class is so crowded that students practice in intervals. An air of possibility permeates the school, named after the first African-American woman to become a physician in New York State.
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There is Officer Jamion Andrews, the security guard who moonlights as a rap lyricist, and Zakiya Harris, the dance teacher who runs a studio on the side. The children also strive. When the students hear it, they know that Jasmine, a sublimely gifted junior, is singing in the office of the principal, Paula Holmes. Miss Holmes is a towering woman, by turns steely and soft. She wears a Bluetooth like a permanent earring and tends toward power suits. Students stammer in her presence.
She leaves her office door permanently open, like a giant, unblinking eye. A poster across the hall depicts a black man in sagging jeans standing before the White House, opposite President Obama. Most of the middle school students are black, live in the surrounding projects and qualify for free or reduced meals.
Fewer teachers share a greater load. After-school resources have thinned, but not the needs of students whose families are torn apart by gun violence and drug use. And now, a charter school is angling to move in. Dasani knows about charter schools. Her former school, P. She never spoke to those children, whose classrooms were stocked with new computers. It is her electricity.
Pass the Story
When they dote on her, she giggles. But say the wrong thing and she turns fierce, letting the four-letter words fly. Miss Holmes is seated in a rolling pleather chair held together by duct tape. She stares at the anguished girl. From that day forward, Dasani will be on her best behavior. In turn, Miss Holmes will keep what happens at school in school. With that, she waves Dasani off, fighting the urge to smile.
D asani closes her eyes and tilts her head toward the ceiling of her classroom. She has missed breakfast again. She sees Florida. For a child who has never been to the beach, television ads are transporting. She is walking in the sand. She crashes into the waves. Both she and another teacher, Kenya Mabry, were raised in the projects.
They dress and talk with a polish that impresses Dasani, who studies them. Miss Hester is also watching Dasani. She does not yet know where Dasani lives, or how hungry she gets. But Miss Hester finds two things striking: how late she arrives some mornings and how capable this girl is in spite of it. Without even trying, she keeps up. Dasani possesses what adults at McKinney consider an intuitive approach to learning, the kind that comes when rare smarts combine with extreme life circumstances.
Principal Holmes is also taking note. She works hard to hide her struggles, staying quiet as other children brag about their new cellphones or sleepovers with friends. If there is one place she feels free, it is dance class. Dasani has been dancing for as long as she can remember, well before she earned her first dollar a few years ago break-dancing in Times Square. But the study of dance, as something practiced rather than spontaneous, this is new.
She is learning to point her toes like a ballerina, and to fall back into a graceful bridge. Dasani never tires of rehearsing the same moves, or scrutinizing more experienced dancers. Her gaze is often fixed on a tall, limber eighth grader named Sahai. A breathtaking dancer, she has long silky hair and carries herself like a newly crowned queen. She is a girl with enough means to accessorize elegantly. When Dasani looks at Sahai, she is taking the measure of all she is not. Dress fly. Do good in school. The first option is out of the question.
While Dasani clings to her uniform, other students wear coveted Adidas hoodies and Doc Marten boots. In dance class, Dasani does not even have a leotard. So she applies herself in school. I t is something of an art to sleep among nine other people. One learns not to hear certain sounds or smell certain smells.
There is the ceaseless drip of that decaying sink, and the scratching of hungry mice. It makes no difference when the family lays out traps and hangs its food from the ceiling in a plastic bag. Dasani shares a twin mattress and three dresser drawers with her mischievous and portly sister, Avianna, only one year her junior.
Their year-old stepfather, Supreme, has raised them as his own. They consider him their father and call him Daddy. Supreme married Chanel nine years earlier, bringing two children from a previous marriage. The boy, Khaliq, had trouble speaking. He had been trapped with his dead, pregnant mother after she fell down a flight of stairs. The girl, Nijai, had a rare genetic eye disease and was going blind. They were the same tender ages as Dasani and Avianna, forming a homeless Brady Bunch as Supreme and Chanel had four more children. The 5-year-old they call Papa sleeps by himself because he wets the bed.
In the crib is Baby Lele, who is tended to by Dasani when her parents are listless from their daily dose of methadone. Chanel and Supreme take the synthetic opioid as part of their drug treament program. It has essentially become a substitute addiction. The more time they spend in this room, the smaller it feels.
Nothing stays in order. Everything is exposed — marital spats, frayed underwear, the onset of puberty, the mischief other children hide behind closed doors. Supreme paces erratically. Chanel cannot check her temper. For Dasani and her siblings, to act like rambunctious children is to risk a beating. It has been years since Supreme lost his job as a barber and Chanel stopped working as a janitor for the parks department. He cuts hair inside the shelter and sells pirated DVDs on the street while she hawks odds and ends from discount stores.
In a good month, their combined efforts can bring in a few hundred dollars. This is not one of those times. He refuses to give Chanel cash for laundry.
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When the truth about Dasani emerges, she does nothing to contradict it. She is a proud girl. She must find a way to turn the truth, like other unforeseeable calamities, in her favor. Her teachers are flummoxed. They assume that she has shed her uniform because she is trying to act tough. In fact, the reverse is true.
A chilly, November wind whips across Auburn Place, rustling the plastic cover of a soiled mattress in a trash bin outside the shelter. They are still short on cash. Chanel inspects the mattress.
But it is stained with feces. Janitors wearing masks and gloves had removed it from a squalid room where three small children lived, defecating on the floor. Their mother rarely bathed them, and they had no shoes on the day she gathered them in a hurry and left. Everyone knows Chanel. She weighs pounds and her face is a constellation of freckles lit by a gaptoothed smile.
She wraps her copper-hued hair in a tubular scarf. The street is her domain. When she walks, people often step to the side — not in deference to her ample frame so much as her magisterial air. A five-minute walk through Fulton Mall can take Chanel hours for all the greetings, gossip, recriminations and nostalgia. She has a remarkable nose for people, sniffing out phoniness in seconds.
She is often spoiling for a fight, or leaving people in the stitches of laughter. While others want the life of the music mogul Jay-Z, Chanel would settle for being his pet. Today, she returns from school lugging a plastic bag of clothes donated by a security guard at McKinney. Dasani begins rummaging through the bag. She pulls out a white Nautica ski jacket and holds it up to her shoulders. It is too wide, but she likes it. Suddenly, Supreme leaps into the air. His monthly benefits have arrived, announced by a recording on his prepaid welfare phone. Supreme and Chanel have been scolded about their lack of financial discipline in countless meetings with the city agencies that monitor the family.
They feel the sudden, exquisite release born of wearing those gold fronts again — of appearing like a person who has rather than a person who lacks. Miss Holmes glowers at Dasani, who tries to leaven the mood by bragging about her place on the honor roll. The principal is unmoved. Dasani still has a B average. You have to want more, too.
Trying not to cry, Dasani examines her food — a slice of cheese pizza, chocolate milk, a red apple. She wrinkles her nose. Miss Holmes has seen it before, the child too proud to show hunger. Bring the tray. There is not much Miss Holmes can do about life outside school. There are many such children. When Dasani is finished, she brings her empty tray to the principal for inspection. T he tree is covered in Christmas lights that mask the lack of ornaments. When the children visit, they spend most of their time upstairs, sleeping on a drafty wooden floor beneath a Roman-numeral clock that is permanently stopped at Christmas gifts are scarce: coloring books, a train set, stick-on tattoos, one doll for each girl.
A few nights later, the children are roused by shouts and a loud crash. Uncle Josh has punched his hand through a window and is threatening to kill Uncle Lamont. Josh lunges at his brother with a knife. The men tumble to the floor as Chanel throws herself between them. Upstairs, the children cower and scream. Sirens rattle the block. Josh is taken away in handcuffs as an ambulance races Lamont to the hospital with a battered eye. They had been fighting over a teenage girl. January brings relief, but not because of the new year.
Their tax refunds can bring several thousand dollars, which could be enough to put down a rent deposit and leave the shelter. On Jan. They take the Q train, which barrels high across the East River. Suddenly, Chanel spots Chinatown. The children squeal. Dasani mentions a book she read about the Great Wall of China. Dasani presses her forehead against the window and cups her hands around her eyes, as if preserving the view for herself.
O pportunity comes rarely, but Dasani is always waiting. She wakes early on Jan. She is unknown in the rarefied world of athletic recruiters and private coaches. But ask anyone in her small corner of Brooklyn, from the crossing guards to the drunks, and they will say two things about this tiny girl with the wayward braids: She is strong like a boy and can run like the wind. Dasani heads out in the icy cold with her mother and two of her sisters. The amateur track and field series is a magnet for athletic recruiters, and some of its champions have gone as far as the Olympics.
Dasani will compete in the meter dash. She heads to the bathroom to change. Wearing no socks, Dasani ties her rainbow laces and walks to the track. When her number is called, she takes her place among four other girls. Dasani comes in second. It hardly matters that her time is insufficient to make it past the preliminaries. They leave the stadium feeling euphoric. As they walk west along Willoughby Avenue, they talk of finding a trainer.
They turn north on Carlton Avenue, passing a renovated brick townhouse with sleek, metal window frames. A skinny brunette is unloading her station wagon. She smiles nervously and moves slowly to her car, grabbing an infant from the car seat. The shelter is only three blocks away. If you got jumped out here, a black man would be the first to save your ass.
When they reach Myrtle Avenue, Chanel goes searching for a beer at her favorite corner store. Dasani trails her. G racie Mansion is something of an oddity. In a city with a 2 percent vacancy rate and a shortage of public housing, the mayoral residence sits uninhabited on 11 pristine acres of the Upper East Side. Bloomberg chose to remain in his opulent townhouse, consigning Gracie Mansion to the status of a museum and venue for civic events.
She is looking for the mayor. It never occurs to Dasani that the mayor does not live there. Who could have a mansion and not live in it? Bloomberg has given news conferences. The tour guide, a woman wearing gold-clasp earrings and tangerine lipstick, moves the children along, reminding them not to touch. They shuffle into the library. Still no mayor. Dasani scans for clues like the F. What impresses Dasani most are not the architectural details or the gold-bound volumes of Chaucer and Tolstoy, but the astonishing lack of dust.
She runs her hand lightly over the top of a Steinway piano. Dasani was still an infant when Mr. Bloomberg took office in In came new plumbing, floors, lighting and ventilation, along with exquisite touches like an s chandelier and a four-poster mahogany bed. Facing that same river, six miles away on the opposite side, is the Auburn Family Residence, the squalid city-run homeless shelter where Dasani has lived for more than two years. She shares a crowded, mouse-infested room with her parents and seven siblings, who sleep doubled up on torn mattresses.
Dasani spends her days in the care of another city institution: her public school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts has suffered its own troubles under the Bloomberg administration: a shrinking budget and fewer teachers. Dasani shuttles between Auburn and McKinney, just two blocks apart. They form the core of her life and the bedrock of her future, one that is in peril. With each passing month, they slip further back in every category known to predict long-term well-being.
They are less likely to graduate from the schools that anchor them, and more likely to end up like their parents, their lives circumscribed by teenage pregnancy or shortened by crime and illness. In the absence of a steady home or a reliable parent, public institutions have an outsize influence on the destiny of children like Dasani. Whether she can transcend her circumstances rests greatly on the role, however big or small, that society opts to play in her life. The question of public responsibility has gained urgency in recent decades.
By the time Mr. Bloomberg was elected, children made up 40 percent of shelter residents. The Bloomberg administration set out to revamp the shelter system, creating 7, units of temporary housing, a database to track the shelter population and a program intended to prevent homelessness with counseling, job training and short-term financial aid. The new system also made it harder for families to be found eligible for shelter. For a time, the numbers went down. But in the wake of profound policy changes and a spiraling economy, more children wound up in shelters than at any time since the creation of the shelter system in the early s.
Dasani and her siblings have grown numb to life at the shelter, where knife fights break out and crack pipes are left on the bathroom floor. For Dasani, school is everything — the provider of meals, on-the-spot nursing care, security and substitute parenting. On the Gracie trip, Dasani wears the Nautica coat donated by a school security guard and matching white gloves bestowed to her that morning by the principal.
This round-trip journey, which occupies much of the day, is a welcome escape. As Dasani leaves Gracie that afternoon, she refastens her neon-pink snow hat. She has given up on the mayor. T here is no sign announcing the shelter at 39 Auburn Place, which rises over the neighboring Walt Whitman Houses like an accidental fortress.
Two sweeping sycamores shade the entrance, where smokers linger under brick arches, flicking cigarette ashes onto an empty, untended lawn. A concrete walkway leads to the heavily guarded front door, where residents pass through a metal detector and their bags are searched for forbidden objects like canned food, hair dryers and irons.
Visitors are restricted to the bleak lobby. The shelter is ill equipped to handle the needs of its numerous disabled residents, among them premature infants and severely autistic children. A starkly different Auburn — the one to which Dasani is witness — emerges from stacks of handwritten complaints , calls to , internal staff reports and dozens of inspections over the last decade.
It is less a haven than a purgatory. There is the year-old boy who writes, on Oct. Nor do they hear about a year-old girl who says she was sexually assaulted by a security guard one year earlier. The complaint, written by her mother in Spanish, never appears to have been translated. The pleas of a year-old girl that same month also go unreported to the police.
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It stands to reason that the complaints of children would be ignored, given how often the warnings of inspectors go nowhere. Over the last decade, city and state inspectors have cited Auburn for more than violations — many of them repeated — including for inadequate child care, faulty fire protection, insufficient heat, spoiled food, broken elevators, nonfunctioning bathrooms and the presence of mice, roaches, mold, bedbugs, lead and asbestos. Dasani can pick out the inspectors by their clipboards and focused expressions. They work for the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which supervises homeless housing around the state.
Given that Auburn is partly funded by the state, these inspectors should presumably hold sway. Year after year, their reports read like a series of unheeded alarms. The adults write as if no one is listening. Many sound like the parent in April who has spotted a dead mouse in the cafeteria and asks a janitor to remove it. The next day, the mouse is still there. There is no place on the inspection forms for the most common complaint: the disrespect accorded to residents by the shelter staff.
Were there such a box to check, it could never capture how these encounters reverberate for days, reinforcing the rock-bottom failure that Auburn represents. Even egregious incidents are sometimes mentioned in passing. After she filed the complaint in September , the worker was taken off her case, but kept his job and recently got a raise. Chanel never told Dasani, for fear of passing on the shame she feels whenever she sees the man.
Like most children, Dasani absorbs more than her mother would like. Chanel is not the first woman to encounter sexual advances by an Auburn employee. Auburn initially suspended the caseworker, Kenneth Durieux, for 30 days. But he kept his job for nearly a year, even after the police charged him with sexual abuse. He was dismissed last January, before pleading guilty to forcible touching. Just this year, there have been some calls to from the shelter — including 24 reported assaults, four calls about possible child abuse and one reporting a rape.
City officials declined to comment on the reports of sexual abuse. Since Mr. One former director, Susan Nayowith, was promoted to head of client advocacy at the Department of Homeless Services. And then there are the elevators, which frequently break down. Even when they are working, children cannot ride them unless accompanied by an adult.
Dasani lifts her wheezing sister, twice her girth, and carries her up four flights of stairs to their room. Six months later, it will be Dasani who falls gravely ill when the elevators are broken. She rocks and vomits bile one evening, trying to distract herself by watching television. At a. She helps Dasani down four sets of stairs before she collapses on a row of chairs in the lobby.
There is no ambulance, so Chanel calls again. Her answer: a shelter dinner of spinach lasagna. In the years that Dasani has lived in Room , city and state inspectors have cited at least 13 violations there, including the presence of roaches, mice and a lead paint hazard. The room is found to be chaotic and insufficiently clean. For weeks, the pipe drips through the night. Finally, Dasani is fed up. She crouches down and examines the pipe as her siblings watch.
A few quick jerks and she triumphs. She then slips into her small wooden desk, opposite her humanities teacher, Faith Hester. Miss Hester can best be described as electric. Long after she gave up dreams of acting, her class is the stage and her students, a rapt audience. Miss Hester knows that students learn when they get excited. It bothers her that McKinney lacks the sophisticated equipment of other public schools. When Miss Hester looks around her classroom, she sees a glimpse of her younger self. She was raised by a single mother in the Marcy projects of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a monotonous spread of 27 brick buildings with the singular distinction of being where Jay-Z grew up.
She could never quite numb herself, like other children did, to the addicts shooting up in the elevator or the dead bodies on gurneys. Her salvation came at church and school. In , Miss Hester was one of the first black students to be bused from Marcy to the predominantly white Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood, Brooklyn. A teacher made all the difference, guiding her to college applications. She sees promise in Dasani, who landed on the honor roll last fall. But lately, she is skipping homework and arriving moody and tired, if she makes it to school at all.
Since the start of the school year, Dasani has already missed a week of class and arrived late 13 times. Miss Hester told Partnership about Dasani. They jump from crisis to crisis, like E. Prevention is a luxury reserved for schools with enough counselors. In their absence, McKinney turns to Partnership, which has weathered its own post-recession budget cuts and layoffs. Graduate students are filling in as interns. She has been assigned to lead one-on-one counseling sessions with Dasani. Dasani has never had a counselor. They meet once a week, passing the time playing Mancala as Roxanne tries to draw Dasani out, which proves far more difficult than any board game.
Dasani knows how to deflect questions with humor, avoiding talk about her family and the shelter. She is also studying Roxanne. Nothing she wears seems to match, and yet her clothes are spotless. It is not the murders themselves that intrigue Dasani so much as the enormous, orderly closets of the crime scenes — closets big enough to live in.
Miss Hester wonders about these counseling sessions. She finds Roxanne bright and devoted, but worries that Dasani will run circles around the intern, whose overriding quality is sweetness. B ack at the shelter, Dasani spends countless hours with her siblings playing games on a Nintendo Wii. In the first round, she confronts the easy villains — her chores — scrambling to bathe, dress and feed her siblings. She cannot find Baby Lele, who is crying. Next, she encounters her parents battling social workers in the guise of angry pirates. Chanel tosses magical powers to the girl, who defeats the pirates, melting them to the ground.
In the third round, she goes to school, finding danger and deliverance. Her math teacher is a supervillain whose weapon is numbers. Down the hall, the girl must rescue Miss Hester from giant, rolling cans. Finally, the girl faces off against her longtime rival from the projects, a purple hulk who picks up cars and hurls them. If the girl survives, she reaches the queen — the principal, Paula Holmes — who decides her future. Winning brings the prize of a new house. It is easier for Dasani to think of Auburn as the worst possible outcome because the alternative — winding up on the street — is unfathomable.
She knows that if she and her siblings were to lose the shelter, they might land in foster care, losing one another. So as bad as it is, the children try to make the place their own. When the lights are on, their room is flatly fluorescent, which prompts them to climb a dresser, remove the plastic lamp cover from the ceiling and color it in with crayons the shades of a rainbow.
When the lights are off, the room assumes a gray aura not unlike, Dasani imagines, the hospital ward it once was. A limp plastic curtain divides the sole shower from the rest of the bathroom, which is marked by vulgar graffiti and shared by dozens of women and girls, though men sometimes intrude. The floor is filthy. The children routinely wipe it down with bleach stolen from the janitors, as residents are forbidden to bring the cleaning solvent into Auburn.
A changing table hangs off its hinge, pointing to the floor like a slide. At night, the children hear noises. They are sure Auburn is haunted. She practices hip-hop routines across the floor. She sits alone in the toilet stall, the lid closed beneath her. Sometimes she reads, or just closes her eyes. Her mind feels crowded anywhere else.
Lately, she is worried about her mother, who has been summoned on Feb. They ride the elevator up to a conference room, where Chanel is jarred to find the director of Auburn, Derrick Aiken, waiting. At issue is their public assistance case, which has closed because Supreme failed to report to a job placement program, one of dozens of such lapses in the past decade.
Currently, the family receives only food stamps and survivor benefits. An open public assistance case allows the agency to be reimbursed with federal funds, while also making the family eligible for child care and job training — the kind of supports that could help in finding a home. Auburn offers plenty of proof. Residents like Jenedra, a home health aide, and her daughter, who works at a Pinkberry in Park Slope, Brooklyn, cannot afford city prices.
The gap between income and housing costs was widening when Mayor Bloomberg took office in The homeless population was also growing. For decades, the city had tried to stem the numbers by giving homeless families priority access to public housing, Section 8 vouchers and subsidized city apartments. While the policy was in place, only To Mr. Bloomberg, priority referrals were an incentive to enter the shelter system. In line with that agenda, the mayor ended the priority-referrals policy in November Instead, the city began offering homeless families time-limited rental assistance, including through a program called Advantage.
Yet more than a quarter of them wound up back in shelters once their subsidies ran out. In , Mr. Bloomberg ended Advantage after the state withdrew its funding. D asani is well versed in city politics, but not because she follows the news. She is simply forced to notice what other children miss. Bloomberg tried to ban the sale of large, sugary drinks, Dasani began calculating what two sodas would cost in place of the supersize cup that, in her family, is typically passed among eight small mouths. It is no small feat to corral Papa, Hada and Maya, who form a tempestuous gaggle of untied shoelaces, short tempers and yogurt-stained mouths.
Dasani shepherds them five long blocks to Public School , stepping around used condoms and empty beer cans. Suddenly, they dash like spirits across the six-lane street that runs under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. One can only imagine the heights Dasani might reach at a school like Packer Collegiate Institute, just 12 blocks west of the shelter. She is not the kind of child to land a coveted scholarship to private school, which would require a parent with the wherewithal to seek out such opportunities and see them through.
In fact, the reverse is happening: a charter school is coming to McKinney. This kind of co-location arrangement has played out in schools across the city, stoking deep resentments in poor communities. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, serve fewer students with special needs, and are sometimes perceived as exclusive. A web posting for Success Academy Fort Greene does little to counter that notion. Do you understand me? For Dasani, school and life are indistinguishable. When school goes well, she is whole. The new honor roll is called out.
It must be a mistake, she tells herself. But when she hears all the other names, the truth sinks in. Without further ado, Chanel heads into the wine shop on Myrtle Avenue, trailed by four of her eight children. They are lugging two greasy boxes of pizza and a jumbo pack of diapers from Target.
Chanel sticks out her tongue. Chanel scoffs. She might not like the wine, but she sees no reason to spit it out. She moves on to a Tuscan sangiovese. Ignoring the spectacle, Dasani scans the room, frowning at a sign on the wall: Liqueur. Actually, the sommelier interjects, that is the French word for the delicate, liquid spirits derived from fruits such as pomegranates and raspberries.
On the map, its boundaries form the shape of a pitcher tilting at the northwestern edge of Brooklyn. Just north of Fort Greene Park are the projects and, among them, the homeless shelter where Dasani lives. Heading north, she passes French bulldogs on leashes and infants riding like elevated genies in Uppababy strollers with shock-absorbing wheels. Like most children, Dasani is oblivious to the precise cost of such extravagances. She only knows that they are beyond her reach. Such perceptions are fed by the contrasts of this neighborhood, where the top 5 percent of residents earn 76 times as much as the bottom quintile.
She notes that few people in the projects use the Citi Bikes stationed nearby. Dasani also knows that not everyone in the projects is poor. When he drives past Dasani and her siblings, he pretends not to know them. Dasani charts the patterns of Fort Greene Park by skin color. The basketball courts are closest to the projects, drawing black children to that northwestern corner.
On the rare occasion when Dasani ventures to the opposite quadrant, she sees white women sunbathing in bikinis or playing tennis near a water fountain outfitted for dogs. Dasani is more likely to encounter shoppers of another stratum at the local Target, where they can save on items that for her family represent a splurge. In the last decade, the neighborhood has been remade, with the portion of white residents jumping by 80 percent as real estate prices more than doubled despite the recession.
Her grandmother Joanie grew up in the Raymond V. Ingersoll Houses, next to the Walt Whitman Houses. Both projects opened in , an era of New Deal reforms that gave rise to white flight and urban decay. Fort Greene, like other black areas, was redlined, allowing banks to disinvest and property values to plummet. By the time Dasani was born there in , a billionaire was preparing to run for mayor.
A year after taking office, Michael R. Bloomberg announced an ambitious redevelopment plan for Downtown Brooklyn. Through aggressive rezoning and generous subsidies, the city drew developers who, in the span of three years, built 19 luxury buildings in the surrounding area that catered — across racial lines — to the educated elite. Dasani and her siblings routinely pass the Toren, a glistening, story glass tower on Myrtle Avenue offering a hour concierge, gymnasium, pool and movie theater.
For the arriviste investor, the projects present a rude visual interruption, an inconvenient thing to walk around, but never through. For Dasani, these faded buildings hold a legacy so intricate and rich it could fill volumes were it ever told. The homeless shelter where she lives is the very building where Grandma Joanie had been born, back when it was Cumberland Hospital. Just across the way is the fifth-story apartment where Joanie grew up, helping her own mother raise seven other children in the clasp of poverty.
Three generations later, little has changed. Fort Greene is now a marker. For one set of people, arriving signals triumph. For another, remaining means defeat. Dasani will do better, she tells herself. Chanel promises they will move this spring, after the tax refunds arrive. She held it up to the light and showed it to her brother. Chanel visited on weekends. Joanie relied on welfare to support her habit.
Sherry ran a day care center and shunned drugs. Worried that Joanie would unduly influence Chanel, Sherry sent the year-old girl to live with a relative in Pittsburgh and attend Catholic school. But Chanel longed for her birth mother and began to act out. Within a few years, she returned to New York and moved in with Joanie. They soon wound up in a shelter in Queens, where both were exposed to tuberculosis.
By then, Chanel had dropped out of high school and was addicted to crack. She had joined a sect of the violent Bloods gang, tattooing her street name, Lady Red, in curly letters across her right arm. She was a regular in the crack dens of Bedford-Stuyvesant. She sensed that Brooklyn was on the cusp of change.
But she could not have imagined that just five blocks from that spot, people would one day line up to buy blood orange and hibiscus doughnuts at an artisanal shop called Dough. In , Chanel spotted a new brand of bottled water — Dasani — on the shelves of her corner store. She was pregnant again, but unlike the miscarriages of her teens, this baby was surviving.
Chanel needed a name. It grasped at something better. The doll-faced infant weighed only 5 pounds 6 ounces. Even as a baby, Dasani was awake to the world. Chanel would surface from time to time, but Dasani latched on to Joanie. A year later, Chanel had a second daughter by the same man, naming her Avianna, inspired by the more expensive brand of Evian water. With both babies, she reported to the Department of Homeless Services intake office in the Bronx.
They were sent to 30 Hamilton Place, a family shelter in Harlem. Down the hall, a single father had moved in with his own two children. He called himself Supreme. He had sad, knowing eyes that made him look older than his 26 years. He never talked about the past. When the pantry was empty, he made sugar sandwiches. He was 9 when he came upon the lifeless body of his baby sister. She had been left near the entrance of the projects, wrapped in a blanket. Supreme stroked her head and kept saying her name, Precious.
Investigators for Child Protective Services thought the 2-year-old girl had swallowed sleeping pills, though the medical examiner concluded that she had died of sudden infant death syndrome. The father had left Precious alone when she died. For the next three years, Supreme bounced from foster care to group homes. He soon dropped out of school and left for North Carolina to join the crack trade. By 17, Supreme had a felony drug conviction and was serving time at a maximum-security prison in Walpole, Mass.
The Five Percenters were shaping urban culture and music, while spreading the word that the black man is God. That message — that God was within him — filled Supreme with a sense of power over his destiny, one that until now had been steered by outsiders. Supreme left prison in with a high school equivalency diploma. He married and moved to Washington, finding work as a barber. Six years later, his wife — pregnant with their third child — had a heart attack and fell down a flight of stairs to her death.
Dasani and Avianna were the exact same ages as his children. He seemed different from the other men. He was always reading, and had a way with words. Chanel embraced the Five Percent, wrapping her head in a scarf and vowing to stay off drugs. One family. One full family. But Supreme and Chanel had a temperamental love. Their biggest fights led to brief separations, even as three more children were born.
Chanel could not stay off drugs for long. When she gave birth to Papa in , the hospital detected marijuana in his blood. Standing there, in the lobby, the memory came rushing back. Supreme was 9 again, losing his sister, then his parents, then his other siblings, all in the course of a day. They inspected the children from head to toe, searching for signs of abuse.
She became expert at the complex psychic task of managing strangers — of reading facial expressions and interpreting intonations, of knowing when to say the right thing or to avoid the wrong one. Dasani remained tethered to Grandma Joanie, who had proudly kept her job as a sanitation worker. She now lived in a cozy apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. On weekends, Joanie would fix the children B. With this child, Joanie could finally be a mother. With Joanie, Dasani could be a child.
At the funeral, mourners gasped as the tiny girl flung herself on the open coffin. Dasani kicked and wailed as Chanel tore her away. At the time, the family had been renting a small apartment in East New York through a city program offering time-limited subsidies to the homeless.
Months later, the city began a new rent subsidy program called Advantage. With its help, Chanel leased a duplex on Staten Island, and in summer , boarded the Staten Island Ferry with Supreme and the children. It was their first time on a boat. They raced to the back and leaned into the salty mist. Staten Island was quiet and green. In their new apartment on North Burgher Avenue, the children rolled around on the wall-to-wall carpet. There they lay, pressed together, that first night.
It was their first real home. Supreme landed a job at Heavenly Cuts, a barbershop a few blocks away. Chanel bought a used, cherry-red Dodge Durango and a rolling kitchen island at Home Depot. It would take years for Chanel to understand why things so quickly fell apart. It was not obvious, in that blinding moment, that money could be useful only if they knew how to spend it.
To think it would bring salvation was as quixotic as expecting a set of keys to drive a car. Money was not going to heal a father who had never been a child. What money brought was a quick escape from all that. Over the next two years, Supreme and Chanel bobbed and wove through a fog of addiction. Supreme started doing heroin. Chanel became hooked on painkillers during an extended stay at Staten Island Hospital, where she was being treated for a recurrence of the tuberculosis she contracted in a shelter.
Eventually, Supreme and Chanel stopped working. On Aug. She stuffed them in her pockets. C hildren are said to be adaptable. On outward appearances, Dasani and her siblings became inured to the dehumanizing ways of Auburn — the security checks at the entrance, the grimy bathrooms, the long waits for rancid food. The entire family must make this onerous trip, even on school days. That evening, tired and hungry, they returned to their room.
It looked ransacked. Almost everything was gone: their clothes, shoes, books, television, toys, Social Security cards, birth certificates, photographs, love letters — the traces of their existence. Everything else was tossed in the garbage. She waded in, the garbage reaching her waist.
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Karamoja the 12 day old baby Rothschild's Giraffe pictured with its mother Orla takes its first steps outside at Chester Zoo. Lulu left and Gulliver, two green sea turtles, are reunited after 8 months apart at Sea Life in Brighton. Enter your email address Continue Continue Please enter an email address Email address is invalid Fill out this field Email address is invalid Email already exists. I would like to receive morning headlines Monday - Friday plus breaking news alerts by email. Update newsletter preferences.
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