A Slice Of Life In New York City
© Copyright 2023 by William Flores
Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash
The American social and economic landscape of the 1950’s through the 1970’s was more advantageous for so-called “minorities”on a whole then it is today. It provided greater opportunities for Black and Latino families to achieve the American dream without the interference of big government, and its welfare State. The following is a small part of my life story, a Latino kid brought up in New York City during a time in America when the quality of public education was great, and employment opportunities plentiful. Rates of employment and high school graduation amongst these groups were higher then they are now in the 21st century. They had higher rates of intact families, with both parents living in the home; and lower numbers of homicides committed by adolescents during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s combined, in comparison to today. These times were not only prosperous but were times when women and children felt safe to walk the streets in their communities during the day and night.
Now days, it is not uncommon for communities of color to have entire weekends filled with violence, gang members firing guns at one another in broad daylight, and babies dying from random gunshots in the New York City area in particular. The decline in the quality of living for these groups in the “Big Apple,” in my opinion, is a direct result of the expansion of the welfare State. With it came the breakdown of many Black and Latino families, and their over dependence on welfare handouts. The following is my personal story of having lived through these changing times.
In 1962 I was ten years old. As a foster child, I was living with a Black family in Springfield Gardens, Queens. It was a great time to be a young boy growing up in New York City. My foster parents were good folks who cared for a house full of foster children who they loved and cherished. My community was a working class neighborhood made up of 70% Whites and 30% Blacks, with hardly any Latino families living in the area. In fact, besides myself, there were only three other Latinos in the neighborhood, two brothers and a sister who lived around the corner and down the block from me. Although racial differences existed, almost everyone got along with each other. This is not to say racism wasn’t present. Rather, when acts of racism occurred they were not broadcasted on radio and TV as they are today.
PS 37 was the first public school I attended. I had no problems fitting in with my peers, and excelled academically. I remember when Principal William McNamara entered my 2nd grade classroom and whispered to my teacher, Mrs. Wilmer, something in her ear. When they finished, Mrs. Wilmer asked all those who heard their names called to line up outside the classroom. She proceeded to read a list of names out loud,. Thirteen names were read off her list. My name was called last. Next, Mr. McNamara led us down the hall to Mrs. Gibson’s 4th grade classroom. She was one of two Black teachers in the entire school. I didn’t have a clue as to why we were called out of class, or why we were being taken to Mrs. Gibson”s room.
Mr. McNamara spoke briefly with Mrs. Gibson, and then promptly left. Mrs. Gibson brought us into her classroom and asked her students to give us a warm welcome, and announced that we’d been skipped from 2nd to 4th grade for our academic excellence. The students gave us a roaring applause, and we were then assigned our new seats. It was such a surprise to me. I stood their dumbfounded. I was thrilled and proud at the same time. It was an achievement I’d never forget because of the way it made me feel, proud yet humbled. I continued to do well in school, and went through grades 5 and 6 in the advanced classes.
During the summer months, my friends and I attended summer day camps at PS 37 for free. Not only was admission open to all youth, activities were supervised by adult staff members at all times. These grown ups ran organized softball, handball and basketball games for us. Summer camps included lunch and snacks for every kid who wanted them. They provided positive field trips, sports and arts activities for developing youth from the neighborhood. Unlike today in New York City, summer day camps charge admission fees as high as $2,500 for six weeks of activities per child, and kids are left supervised by youth not much older then the campers themselves. I spent my early years attending after school and evening centers, again sponsored by PS 37, which included field trips and swimming classes at Andrew Jackson High School. These memories remain positive in my mind to this day, and laid the foundation for my Junior and High School experiences to come.
In 1966, my foster father died and I was then sent to live in Mount Loretto, a foster care institution located on State Island, New York. It was in a rural area of New York City. The Mount was an enormous coed campus that housed close to a thousand kids. It was a culture shock for me since I’d never lived with so many kids at one time, only with small foster families. I was full of fear when I arrived at the facility. For the first two weeks, I was assigned a bed in the infirmary, and medically assessed by nuns. Later, I moved into St. Anthony’s, one of the four intermediate dormitories. Living with thirty other teenagers in the dorm, between the ages of 14 to 16 years old, I quickly made friends who taught me the ropes.
In Mount Loretto, I learned a deeper meaning of cooperation and competition. In order for daily life to run smoothly in the dorms, we had chores and responsibilities we’d carryout together. We showered, ate and slept together as a group. For instance, every morning before school, one boy would sweep the long hallway in the dorm, and another would follow with a mop. Once this was done, some other kid would then buff the same hallway. The completion of these tasks taught us to work together as a group. All chores were assigned on a weekly basis, and we received an allowance based on how well we carried out these chores. This group cooperation taught me the importance of working with others to meet mutually shared goals. It also showed me the value of cleanliness which to the nuns was next to being in good with God.
Mount Loretto had a long standing and well respected reputation for its athletic programs throughout the Island. It championed many of the Island’s basketball, football, and baseball tournaments, for both male and female teams, over the years. I was fortunate to have played on the Mount’s junior varsity basketball team during my 10th grade year. We played against other Catholic institutions and public high schools. As the seasons changed so did the sports we played. The four intermediate dorms competed against each other in intramural games all year round, and only the winning team received trophies. St. Anthony’s dominated the games while I was there. I won trophies for winning softball, football and basketball championships. This taught me the importance of doing my best at all times, whatever the challenge, and how it’d always pay off in the end. Unlike today, in my opinion, kids who receive participation trophies are robbed of knowing the value of always doing the best one can, and to not settle for mediocrity.
Mount Loretto was a great experience for me. In August of 1968 I was discharged and placed back into my previous foster mother’s care. I was happy to be home, yet missed the daily structure and camaraderie back at the Mount. My adjustment to living outside of the institution was difficult. I wasn’t able to readily establish positive relationships with others my age, like I’d done in the Mount. Crime and drugs had besieged Springfield Gardens by this time. So, I decided to move away, come the first chance I got. I left the foster care system three months later. I simply walked away from it. I dropped out of high school and started looking for work.
Back in the late 1960’s and early 70’s job hunting was much different then it is today, and usually rewarded the hunter in no time at all. Since there were no cell phones or computers back then, word of mouth and help wanted signs hanging in local shops offered opportunities for the unemployed. Although a high school diploma was a respected achievement, it wasn’t required for hire by many employers. I searched the local newspapers and circled help wanted ads listed in their classified sections. Unlike today, all I had to do to obtain an interview was call the telephone number included in the ad. Also, one could get day work through employment agencies. So I went to one located on 169th Street and Hillside Avenue in Jamaica and filled out an application. I was sent to William Douglas McAdams, an advertising agency located in midtown Manhattan, to apply for a mailroom position that very morning. I was interviewed and hired the same day, right on the spot. I did so well there, I eventually was hired to work full time with the agency.
I enjoyed my time with the advertising company as a mailroom clerk. My duties included sorting and delivering mail to various offices throughout three separate floors, delivering packages to other agencies, and setting up and breaking down offices within the company. I met friends and coworkers there, and learned how to keep and maintain employment. Much of my work ethic I’d learned in Mount Loretto carried over to my new job. I was a responsible worker, and paid attention to detail and the quality of my work. It was during this time I met a girl and fell in love. I was 17 years old when my girlfriend came up pregnant, so we got an apartment together. I knew I’d need to earn more money to support my girl and baby on the way. I left the advertising agency, and went back to school. To keep up with my bills, I got federal eduction loans, worked part-time jobs, and sold baby clothes on 125th Street in Manhattan to make ends meet.
Unfortunately, my relationship with my baby’s mother fell apart quickly. We were simply too young, and I didn’t know how to maintain a long lasting, intimate relationship with anyone at that time. I’d never learned how to be in one responsibly. My personal family history hadn’t taught me the meaning of family, and the strength one receives from its nucleus, the father. Of equal importance, the idea of fatherhood was alien to me since my own father had abandoned me when I was only an infant; nor did I know my biological mother. I’d been in foster care my entire life. I knew nothing about being a husband and father, raising a child, or how to meet the responsibilities that come along with doing all of this. My girl went back to her family in the south where she was raised, and I enrolled into a college preparatory course that awarded me a GED after completing a two year academic program.
Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey offered me a Sociology program of study, while I took courses in remedial math and english simultaneously. I entered an academic world I’d never knew existed. I met so many different types of people during my time there, and socially, it was an education in itself. I fell right into a group of young adults who spent hours in the library. I dedicated myself to my studies, and participated in the “work study” program offered by the school. This program provided additional financial aid to students in need of work. It buttressed my Federal and State grants, and the private loans I took out to meet tuition and living expenses. It was the mid 1970’s, and I was living with another girl friend while attending college. Although I enjoyed my academic success, I wasn’t committed to my new girlfriend or living in Newark, and longed to be back in New York City. I made up my mind to return to New York, and got an apartment in the South Bronx. I moved from one ghetto to another.
The South Bronx in the 1970’s was known as “Fort Apache” because of its high crime rates, mostly due to the spread of heroin in this community. Times had changed in New York City in general and in the Bronx in particular. This area of the City had been literally burned down to the ground. Youth street gangs, like the Black Pearls and Savage Skulls, ruled over entire neighborhoods, while sitting on top of the drug trade and other illicit activities. Landlords were cashing in on fire insurance claims by the droves, leaving their properties in ashes and abandoned. Young drug addicts quickly occupied these burnt out buildings and used them as shooting galleries for drug use and as homeless shelters. This isn’t to say the owners of these buildings purposely committed arson, but it wasn't by accident that the major part of the South Bronx went up in flames. Some believe the landlords fled their properties after the White flight began from the Grand Concourse and other places inhabited by Jewish families in the borough. Many up and coming Black and Latino families began moving from West Harlem and Spanish Harlem up to the Bronx in the late 1960’s.
By the 1970’s, the South Bronx was bulging at its seams with these so-called “minority” groups. Along with landlords abandoning their properties came a decrease in City services. Garbage pickups quickly declined. The streets became dumping grounds for any and everybody. Dirty needles and syringes used to take drugs intravenously littered the same streets that children walked to school and played on. Police presence was sorely lacking, and only in cases of emergencies could one find a cop. In spite of it all, I was moving forward with my studies. I matriculated my credits from Essex County College to Baruch College in New York City while living in the middle of hell on Prospect Avenue and 163rd Street in the South Bronx.
Baruch College provided a great opportunity for me to finish my undergraduate studies. I obtained Federal and State grants, but had to take out even more student loans in order to meet tuition costs. New York’s high cost of living was significantly different from Newark’s. It forced me to have to work several jobs and run different types of hustles while going to school. No matter the cost, I was determined to take advantage of the opportunities available. I refused absolutely to become a victim of poverty, and end up on the City’s dole like many around me.
The bustling streets of New York City provided different ways to make money. The saying, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere,” proved true. During the warm weather when Central Park was crowded with sun worshippers and bathers, I’d sell 16 ounce cans of Budweiser beer for a dollar a can. On any given day, I’d buy two to three cases of beer and sell them in the parks around town. I’d make 100% profit in one afternoon. The only catch was I had to evade being spotted by Police who’d confiscate my merchandise. Although this wasn’t an actual crime, I was breaking City ordinances. However, I never got cited the few times I did get caught. I’d make close to $100 or more a day selling beer in the parks. At that time, $100 would be worth about $400 in today’s economy. On other days, I’d sell jeans, sweat socks, hats and handkerchiefs up and down 125th Street in Manhattan, and 149th Street and 3rd Avenue in the Bronx. I always ate, and paid rent and tuition on time. Life was sweet and I was enjoying the ride.
In August 1979, I graduated from Baruch College with a Bachelors degree in Sociology. I maintained a 3.75 grade point average throughout and finished Cum Laude, “With Honors.” My college experiences were some of the best times of my life. It was now time for me to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wasn’t sure if I should undertake graduate studies immediately, or enter the job market full time. After some thought, I decided to work for a year, and then enter the university to pursue graduate school. I was hired as a Vocational Counselor for a local drug program in Harlem a few weeks after graduation.
In 1979 cocaine addiction was rampant in New York City, and heroin had fell off as the major drug of choice for many users. The use of cocaine in a smokeable form was spreading across the country like wildfire. “Free basing” as it was initially called turned into a full fledged health epidemic. This soon became known as the era of “Crack” cocaine. It kept the user up for days on end, with no need for sleep or food. The cost of cocaine had come down tremendously, because of its high demand, making it more available to the average recreational user.
As a counselor in a drug program, I witnessed the physical, mental and emotional damage it caused my clients. The horrific impact it had on the users and their families was devastating. The term “Crack Babies” came out of this era. Addicted infants were being born throughout the country and placed in foster care at an alarming rate. I began studying the current treatment strategies used to help addicts overcome their addictions, and started conducting individual and group counseling sessions to help my clients stabilize and become job ready. Since I too had come out of the foster care system, Many clients could identify with my personal life story.
This was a rewarding yet difficult field to work in. Many days and nights I couldn’t get the misery and suffering of my clients out of my own mine. It was like a nightmare at times, even during my awake hours. When I’d see a client relapse and fall deeper into her addiction, my heart went out to her and her family. I’ve had clients with crack addicted newborns; infants with physical deformities, missing limbs and eyes, blindness, and born HIV positive. This motivated me to look for other ways to help this population. It seemed like the war on drugs was a losing strategy, and I felt worse knowing I was part of it. My individual and group practices were proving successful, but only with a limited number of clients. 2 out of every 25 clients would achieve recovery for any significant amount of time; yet some of these did get clean and sober, and continue to maintain their recovery to this day. I’ve helped mothers reunite with their children from foster care placement, and successfully maintain employment. Yet in still, I needed to further my education to be more helpful overall.
A year later, I was accepted into graduate school at Columbia University to study the science of Social Work. I specialized in program administration and clinical practice. I concentrated on the area of Child Welfare, and worked on interdisciplinary teams within psychiatric hospitals and foster care preventative agencies. By the end of my second year, I’d been a member of a consultant team, providing an agency executive director feedback on the 1979 Child Welfare Reform Act. I received a MS degree in 1982, and was licensed by New York State to practice professionally in 1983. My vision to help individuals and families suffering from addiction and family dysfunction widened considerably. My professional goal now was to start up and manage a foster care prevention agency in Spanish Harlem.
To this end, my goal was to identify and train groups of community members in how to create change in their own lives. My main objective for conducting these group trainings however was to help preserve the Latino family unit in East Harlem, also known as “El Barrio.” I ran these groups successfully in El Barrio for several years. As an outcome of my efforts, I was awarded a contract with the New York City’s Special Services for Children agency in 1992. Our mission was to develop and operate a foster care prevention agency that provided both clinical case management services to under organized Latino families, and program management services to individual staff and organizations within El Barrio. It was a great venture. It helped many families struggling with poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, lack of employment, and family stability get back on their feet. The name of the agency was “La Nueva Alternativa”, The New Alternative. It did well amongst the Latino population for several years, and served as an advocate for families involved with the City’s family court system as well.
Though I must confess, I was astounded by the number of fatherless families within this population. More than 95% of these families had no father figure living in the home at that time. The City’s welfare department ruled that in order to receive financial assistance, no unemployed adult male could live in the home. All of the mothers were on welfare, unemployed and high school dropouts when first coming to La Nueva Alternativa for assistance.
Meanwhile across New York City, the rates of crime, homelessness, youth incarceration, and the number of children born out of wedlock continued to loom out of control. Welfare roles grew accordingly. By the end of the century, the impact of the Crack epidemic, number of AIDS deaths, and the growing number of homeless mentally ill could be seen throughout every borough of the City, devastating especially the so-called “minority” communities. To make matters worse, the 1994 federal crime bill sent scores of Black and Latino men and women with mental health and drug abuse problems to prison at rates never seen before. The law created a problem of mass incarceration that disproportionately affected Blacks and Latino families for certain.
I was offered a Senior Consultant position with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in the Fall of 1996, and worked there until I retired in 2014. This was an exciting time in the field of mental health since Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was committed to keeping the mentally ill out of State hospitals, and maintaining them in their communities, along with a bevy of support services. My main responsibilities were to provide clinical and program management consultations to mental health service agencies in contract with the City of New York. I performed contract oversight duties that ensured the severe and persistent mentally ill clients received the required services the agencies were being funded to provide. I reported directly to the borough Commissioner of Brooklyn and Staten Island, and worked along with a team of health and mental health professionals. I grew a lot at the department, both professionally and personally.
Much to my dismay however, I witnessed many mental health agencies and their clients become full blown dependents of the City and State. A class of professional patients grew up right before my very eyes, and remained as patients for years on end, without an end goal in sight. The agencies as well grew overly dependent on the City for funding, constantly begging for money at every turn, even though most of the executive directors’ salaries were well into six figures and climbing. This continues to this day, I am ashamed to say.
As I look back over the years I’ve lived and worked in New York City, I see how the welfare State harmed those who grew completely dependent upon it, and became victims of the State in their own minds. It is true, many of my clients were addicts, mentally ill homeless, and formerly incarcerated individuals who didn’t consciously choose to be so from the outset. The fact that the majority of those I tried to help failed in their recovery had more to do with their broken intergenerational families than with their own willingness to recover from their personal maladies. Thus, they believed they were victims from the start, unable to do for themselves, and many blaming racism and lack of resources for their poor lot in life. This over reliance of families on the State for their survival has created these dependent populations to begin with, which are growing larger by the day. In the long run, I predict the welfare State will grow to the point to where it fails completely, and runs out of resources to operate at all. At its current growth rate, we are practically there already.
Meanwhile, I remain grateful for my own life experiences to this day, especially those of my childhood. They’ve helped me in countless ways to succeed. Most of all, I’ve come to understand the importance of having the love of a family, and strong principles and values to live by. These have been the main ingredients of my success. Though I started my life without my own biological family, I am thankful for the love and guidance I received from those around me when I was growing up, and as an adult. The values I was taught as a child, self discipline, tolerance and patience, as well as perseverance and commitment, I now attribute to my success as a husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather today. I was taught from a young age to work hard for whatever I wanted, and to never depend on or blame others for my success or failures in life. I was always encouraged to make my own way through life, whether it be good, bad or indifferent. I accepted the hand I’d been dealt, and played it to the best of my ability. I’ve been married now for 37 years and have a wonderful life, with no regrets.
am 71 years
old, a Puerto Rican man who lives with my wife, one of my sons, and a
grandson in the northeast section of the Bronx, New York. Though I
have entered several writing contests, and answered calls for
submissions, I’ve yet to have any of my short stories
published. This has not been for my lack of trying of course. I hope
this will be the first of many.