Forest Hills Diary

The Book of the Week is “Forest Hills Diary” by Mario Cuomo, published in 1974.  In 1972, New York City Mayor John Lindsay chose Mario Cuomo to embark on a fact-finding mission to collect public opinion data on a proposed low-income housing project on 108th Street in Forest Hills near Corona, Queens, to consist of African American tenants, three towers of 24 stories each.

There was much emotionally charged public debate due to the very nature of the undertaking (housing projects in general, have a bad reputation– for crime, for bringing down property values, etc.).  Cuomo could have proposed reducing the planned apartment sizes to that of studios or 1 bedrooms– a compromise in order to push the project through. Regardless, he could not please anyone because Forest Hills residents were against the project altogether, while African Americans wanted apartments of at least 2 bedrooms.

Another option was to make one of the three towers a “Mitchell-Lama” which would allow tax breaks, but reduce the number of low-income units, and reserve 40% of the units for the elderly. The reason for favoring the elderly was to minimize the public sentiment that the apartments would be crime-ridden. Cuomo visited projects in the Bronx and had seen this phenomenon himself.

The Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights had gone downhill due to low-income housing. The African Americans with whom Cuomo spoke were against the project.  One black leader admitted to him in confidence that a way to spur upward mobility among African Americans was to have a mix of middle-income and low-income tenants.

The “scatter-site” legislation was passed allowing the project proposed originally, to be built.  However, raucous public hearings prompted the developers to compromise by building three towers of 12 stories each (instead of 24), 40% of which were to house seniors. All sides of the controversy roundly criticized a report released by Cuomo, although few people had actually read the whole thing.  This book provided an engaging analysis of political and urban issues with respect to race, housing and human nature.

Whatever It Takes

The Book of the Week is “Whatever It Takes” by Paul Tough, published in 2008.  This book is about Geoffrey Canada’s efforts to improve his community in Harlem in New York City, through both educating kids and providing social services to parents to improve the kids’ environments.  City agencies funded his programs.

Mr. Canada felt bad that he could not save all the underprivileged children in Harlem.  He did not operate his school the same way the KIPP chain of charter schools did– hand-picking a group of underprivileged kids it would make into high-achievers, whose accomplishments would exceed those of their peers.  He idealistically thought all children could become college material, if his Promise Academy charter school (initially a middle school, and later, also an elementary school) did its job right.

However, many studies have shown that success in life becomes much more likely for an individual when that individual is taught specific skills starting in infancy, such as “patience, persistence, self-confidence, the ability to follow instructions, and the ability to delay gratification for a future reward.”  Middle school is too late.

But Mr. Canada still felt it was worth trying to turn their lives around, although he had far less success with them than with kids who participated in his programs from infancy and were lucky enough to be chosen in the lotteries that determined who was accepted.  Also, he had the most success when kids stayed in the programs from infancy through at least middle school, but this was extremely expensive.

The jury is still out on whether society as a whole is greatly improved by providing a small percentage of underprivileged people with resources superior to those of their peers, so they may succeed in life.  I doubt Mr. Canada, and even all of the other people and entities helping too, will ever be able to bring success to all of Harlem’s children. Some people do not want to be helped.  Others unluckily are not chosen in the lotteries. I don’t know the solution.

Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference

The Book of the Week is “Teacher:  The One Who Made the Difference” by Mark Edmundson, published in 2002.  The author wrote this book as a tribute to his high school philosophy teacher.  One of many memorable questions the teacher asked during the school year was, “Why do we need leaders?”  Answer:  We need someone to think for us.  Many of us human beings are lazy and we do not want to think for ourselves.  The author described how even the class clown was made to think, and learned something in this teacher’s class.

To Know A Fly

The Book of the Week is “To Know A Fly” by Vincent G. Dethier, published in 1962.  This thin, little paperback book discusses how scientists attempt to understand the behavior of a fly.  Those who pull off the legs or wings of flies either come to a bad end or become biologists.

“The [required] college education not infrequently is as useful for acquiring proficiency in the game of Grantsmanship as it is for understanding biology.  No self-respecting modern biologist can go to work without money for a secretary, a research associate, two laboratory assistants, permanent equipment…” a car, books, animals and their accompanying accessories, etc., and a vast quantity of money (called overhead) “to the university to pay for all the transcribers hired to handle all the papers and money transactions that so big a grant requires.”

There is much to be said for the fly as an experimental animal.  The author describes in detail some clever experiments involving the fly’s eating habits and capacity to learn.  “To know the fly is to share a bit in the sublimity of Knowledge.”

The Heart is the Teacher

The Book of the Week is “The Heart is the Teacher” by Leonard Covello, published in 1958.  The author came to the U.S. from Italy when he was nine. He became a passionate teacher, and later, principal of Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem, New York City.

Benjamin Franklin said about education, “If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”

Mr. Covello said about being a teacher, “I am the teacher. I am older, presumably wiser than you, the pupils. I am in possession of knowledge which you don’t have. It is my function to transfer this knowledge from my mind to yours… certain ground rules must be set up and adhered to. I talk. You listen. I give. You take. Yes, we will be friends, we will share, we will discuss, we will have open sessions for healthy disagreement– but only within the context of the relationship I have described, and the respect for my position as teacher which must go with it.”

Enough said.

Leading With My Chin

The Book of the Week is “Leading With My Chin,” the autobiography of Jay Leno.  This is an amusing book, although the part in which he explains the secret to his success, is rather simple.  It was tenacity: “…we would start lining up outside the clubs at two in the afternoon with hopes of getting onstage sometime after eleven that night… I’ve never been better at anything than anybody else… I plowed forward, slow and steady. Even if it meant sitting on curbs all day or sleeping on the back steps of comedy clubs all night.”

Silicon Snake Oil

The Book of the Week is “Silicon Snake Oil” by Clifford Stoll.  This prescient book (published in 1996) presents evidence that the use of technology in certain areas of our lives, such as in education, is not necessarily a cure-all.

Here is an excerpt describing what happened when the author’s machine was malfunctioning:  “…so I grovel before a technician or pay a long-distance fee to get lost in a thicket of automated help messages…”

Just a few problems in American schools include overcrowding, poor teaching, poor security and budget shortfalls.  “Computers address none of these problems.”  Just because technology might “make learning fun” does not mean students learn any better. It just makes curriculum suppliers richer.

This is a thought-provoking book.

Bad Attitude

The Book of the Week is “Bad Attitude; The Processed World Anthology.”  Edited by Chris Carlsson with Mark Leger, 1990.  This is a compilation of the late 1970’s magazine, “Processed World,” about early office computers.  It has many funny anecdotes, illustrations, comic strips and photos.  The caption of one photo (which really doesn’t require a photo) reads, “Sabotage… It’s as simple as pulling a plug…”