The high rise Upper Eastside penthouses are barely visible from E 103rd Street Harlem. Here the skylines are dominated by brick and window bars and bulky hanging air conditioners that always make you nervous as you walk beneath them. Streets crackle with that eerie cacophony of sounds only heard between rush hours in those select Manhattan neighborhoods where ice cream trucks outnumber taxis: passing sirens, distant music thumping, a constant lull of stoop chatter, but mainly overwhelming silence, more anticipatory than peaceful.
East Harlem illustrates New York’s trademark juxtaposition at its finest. The kind tourists only see on July 4th ventures to Coney Island where the famous Cyclone roller coaster is framed by the dominating tenements of southern Brooklyn, or at day games at Yankee Stadium, where from the upper decks keen eyes can make out the silhouette of the project buildings ubiquitous to the South Bronx. In the district just south of East Harlem, the prosperous Upper Eastside, less than 5% of residents receive government income support. But in the district of the brick tenements and window bars and hanging air conditioners, over 44% receive income support. E 96 Street is the proverbial track and those living north of it are on the wrong side of the American Dream.
So E 103rd Street Harlem should be an epicenter of urban decay, a representation of all that is wrong with The System, fodder for Reaganites to claim Culture of Poverty!, evidence for activists to declare the Injustice of Gentrification! And yet on E 103rd Street, adjacent to the bricks and window bars and hanging air conditioners, in the heart of East Harlem, a modest five-story white and red building rises from the earth proud and dedicated, like rose from the cracks of concrete.
It is the middle of July, raining and uncomfortably warm, and hundreds of children pack Harlem RBI’s Dream Charter School.
They waddle around in single file lines, wearing baseball uniforms– high socks and caps included– smiling and looking curious the way kids always do, making their way into classrooms and auditoriums throughout the building.
I enter the stairwell, on the way to the third floor. A tiny foot is painted on each side of each step, going upward on my right side and downward on my left, seemingly dividing the stairs into two lanes. Even through the stairwell is empty I feel oddly compelled to stay in my lane, to follow the form of the tiny feet beneath me. Such a magnetic pull toward discipline and social responsibility, I muse to myself.
Various activities in various classrooms. Strategy talk for an upcoming baseball game. Group lunches. Brainstorming sessions to come up with team chants. In one particular classroom, however, an artist named Maria Berrio is speaking to the uniformed children. Her assistants hand them markers and colored pencils and construction paper.
“Draw something that symbolizes your team,” she tells them, in her gentle Colombian accent.
Berrio was commissioned by CITYarts, a non-profit public arts organization, to help the kids create a large and colorful poster. But for now, she’s just warming them up. Drawing them out of their artistic shells through, well, drawing.
The eight year old boy sitting next to me bounces restlessly in his seat. He quickly sketches some shapes before flipping over the paper and starting over.
“I don’t know what to draw. What should I draw?” he asks with a grin and a giggle.
Apparently he is asking me.
“Um, well, uh, how about a lion?” I posit, citing their team name, the “Liones”.
“Or a rabbit! A lion eating a rabbit!” he counters, with the kind of laugh that makes even the most stubborn, independent, ambitious, and single twenty-one year old Upper Westside-living writer consider that maybe, one day, possibly, he would want to have kids.
The initially-eerie silence of the neighborhood suddenly makes sense as I realize its auditory void. Noises of Summertime streets had channeled within these walls.
Tsipi Ben-Haim enters a room with a whirlwind of energy and ideas. She exudes that aura of elegance and determination reserved primarily for Hollywood starlets and foreign dignitaries. Her captivating eyes, blue or green depending on the room’s lighting and the phase of the moon, balance admirably with her fiery coiffure. Her purple blouse waves in perfect sync with her black and white polka dot skirt, the outfit seemingly dancing to the beat of the red and black beads around her neck. Much like Steve Jobs with Apple or Mark Cuban with the Dallas Mavericks, Ben-Haim serves as an ideal face for her organization, embodying and representing and promoting.
In the twenty-one years since Ben-Haim stepped in as director of CITYarts, she has built the non-profit into a powerhouse of public service. Scores of CITYarts murals and mosaics and sculptures have brightened walls and schools and playgrounds in all five burroughs. Pages upon pages of thank-you letters– from principals and parents and politicians, even Mayor Bloomberg himself– fill a large binder to maximum capacity. The organization’s impressive donor list includes Hillary and Bill Clinton.
“When CITYarts comes into the community, our aim is the youth,” says Ben-Haim, with a purposeful cadence that structures her soft Israeli accent. “We can help them do the best they can, bring out their ideas, bring out their dreams while giving back to their community in the process.”
The mission statement of CITYarts is rather profound: revitalize communities through artwork created by local children. Hence, the duality of the organization’s effect. The ends beautify a neighborhood while the means blossom creativity, work ethic and teamwork. One particular leaflet in Ben-Haim’s office displays a quote from a fifteen year old participant: “We took the time to paint the mural instead of selling drugs on the street.”
Ben-Haim stresses that each project addresses social issues. From the 9/11 memorial “Forever Tall” on Bowery and 6th Street to the “Welcome to our Neighborhood” mural at a southeast Bronx homeless intake center to the “Peace Wall” mosaics in Pakistan and Israel. It is the peripheral benefits of the art that induces the most enthusiasm from Ben-Haim, “When you create a mural for your community you do not want to destroy your community.”
Ben-Haim’s community building philosophy is reminiscent of the famous Broken Windows theory. By now the tenets of Broken Windows theory have permeated public consciousness. Anybody who has read Malcolm Gladwell or Freakonomics or taken an upper division sociology class or has known someone who has read Gladwell or Freakonomics or taken an upper division sociology class has most likely encountered the theory. Broken Windows theory essentially states that social disorganization in an urban environment– vandalism, dilapidated buildings, petty crimes– leads to more serious crimes. So basically a person is more likely to break the window of a building that already has several broken windows than he is to break the window of a pristine building. Thus, the first step to hindering crime would be to limit the signs of social disorganization.
Broken Windows theory began to serve as the bedrock for New York City policing in 1985. Throughout the two decades prior the city was notorious for its crime, a haven for Hoodlums and Riff-Raffs and Ruffians of every ilk. Under the new strategy, minor crimes like subway fare jumping and vandalism were stringently prosecuted. In addition, the city prioritized cleanliness, quickly painting over graffiti for instance. And by 2005, New York had the lowest crime rate among the twenty five largest U.S. cities.
The true extent of the theory’s impact in New York City’s crime drop– in comparison to increases in police, innovative law enforcement strategies, and a stronger economy among other factors– continues to be debated. However the fundamental merits of Broken Windows remains extremely valuable on a grassroots level.
“That wall you used to run past, you now stop and look at,” Ben-Haim says. “In building a community, these are the little things that matter.” She believes, as Broken Windows suggests, that caring about one’s community is contagious. A mural leads to a swept storefront leads to a fixed sign. “When people feel better about their environment, people feel better about themselves.”
CITYarts’ projects shoulder a particularly noticeable responsibility as funding for art programs in public schools plummets throughout New York City, as well as across the nation. The Center for Art Education recently reported that even though education spending has increased 13% from 2006 to 2009, funding for art and music supplies has dropped 68% in the city. Furthermore, in 2006 46% of New York City high school students took three or more art classes. Last year, that number dropped to 28%.
“We are filling in gaps, working within a vacuum of schools and communities,” says Ben-Haim.
The current landscape of public academia first took shape in 2002, when George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act. Federal funding for public schools would be based upon standardized test scores, the measurement deemed by the Department of Education as the optimal barometer for a school’s scholastic quality. Consequently, in the misguided race for precious funding, schools began teaching to the test, raining down memorizable facts as opposed to pragmatic applications and theoretical processes. Education became about the Ends rather than the Means. Since the tests did not include sections on art or music, those programs took a backseat on the budgetary school bus. And in 2007 the Department of Education stopped requiring principals to devote a portion of their budget to the arts. Useless frivolities for society’s indigent.
“People think art is topping on the cake, when in fact art is a necessity,” Ben-Haim passionately asserts, “It can do so much for people’s instincts, heart, and behavior. It develops creative thinking.”
Interestingly, less than two weeks after the Center for Art Education’s report, a story in Newsweek conveyed the startling results of a test called the Torrence creativity index. Since 1958, psychologists have doled out the creativity test to children and then tracked their lives in order to judge the significance of the subject’s childhood score. Hundreds of thousands of scores have been recorded. The tests, as it turns out, are remarkably predictive. According to the Newsweek article, “The correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.”
In May, Dr. Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary noticed a bizarre trend in the scores. From 1958 to 1990, creativity scores had been generally rising. This makes intuitive sense, as we assume the accumulated knowledge and academic advancements of society benefit each coming generation. Hence, the consistent increase in IQ scores as well. Yet while IQ scores predictably continued to increase, creativity scores began to drop in 1990. There are a host of candidates for the cause of this creative free fall: children watching too much television, less intimate time with the mind due to convenient technology, skewed education techniques, among many others.
Even before these results were discovered, though, the international education community had sought to encourage more creativity. The European Union designated 2009 as the European Year of Creativity and Innovation. China has shifted from its historically rigid, examination-based education system toward a model more rooted in creativity and problem solving.
To be sure, creativity is not limited to the arts. Creative minds are forged in every academic discipline. However as creativity levels slowly sink, a bastion for uninhibited creativity certainly grows more necessary.
The Harlem RBI classroom is dressed up in full summer baseball program mode. Each table is marked by an MLB team logo. My table was the Mets, the table behind me was the Phillies. The walls are adorned by baseball images– gloves, mitts, balls, diamonds– and baseball phrases– “homerun!” “strike out!” “play ball!”. On a bulletin board, a large poster, headlined “Runs Scored”, displays the names of the students in the class. Next to each name are tally marks.
The eight year old boy next to me begins to wander off task. Partially due to my presence.
“Are you a Mets fan?” I ask him, seeking to help him brainstorm ideas for his artwork.
“No I like the Yankees. The Yankees and the Knicks.” Aw, how cute, the eight year old supports his local teams.
“Oh, yeah, the Knicks are cool.” I am more than happy to humor this budding sports fan.
“Yeah, I can’t wait to see Amar’e start dunking on people,” he proclaims while pantomiming a reverse two handed jam.
I was a bit jolted by his up-to-date NBA free agency knowledge. “Yeah, he’s gonna tear it up in D’Antoni’s system.”
“Him and David Lee are gonna dominate!” Another pantomime jam. “Boom!”
David Lee? This kid knows who David Lee is? “Ah, man, you didn’t hear? David Lee got traded to the Warriors last week!” I was so impressed by his sports knowledge that I felt no guilt in correcting the child’s mistake, in fact I felt absolutely obligated to.
Before he could respond, one of the RBI mentors catches his eye. “Hey, so what do you have done so far?” She asks. “If you don’t do you’re work I’m gonna take away two runs,” she adds mildly menacingly.
“No!” he immediately grabs his marker and scribbles images onto his page.
“But if you do your work I’m gonna give you two runs okay?”
All around the room children are creating– team chants, team logos, abstract team symbols. Just over their determined, bobbing heads a window presents the world outside the classroom, the world of brick and window bars and hanging air conditioners, their world. Soon it is time for me to leave. I shake hands with the boy sitting next to me.
“Aw, you’re leaving alreeaady?” He hangs the second syllable just long enough for me to pause regretfully in the doorway but not long enough to consciously convey anything other than humor.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle but the warm air is still moist. Like walking through a bathroom just after a hot shower. E 103 Street Harlem kept its roll of silence. Not many passing cars, few people walking the streets. Just that hum of distant sounds and thumping stereos all the way to the subway station.