Next to the two young women sat a group of older black women. One of them was animating about a friend of hers who got caught in some gunplay and had obviously handled it badly by running in the wrong direction instead of taking cover. The woman, who was in her thirties, spoke in such a rapid patois that I often did not understand her. What I took away from the conversation, though, was the sense that she had seen plenty of gunfire herself, as had her companions, and they knew exactly how to react when it occurred.
That got me thinking about the recent attack at the World Trade Center, and my quest to put the deaths that occurred within the ken of Maple Avenue, into context. Hard as it sounds, perhaps these deaths were not so extraordinary, after all. Other locales have even more gruesome stories to tell.
In At the Corner of East and Now, Frederica Mathewes-Green writes about a dark quality — “a sinister miasma” or “loathsome fog” — that seems to emanate not only from certain people but also from particular places. I identified with what she said. I can still feel the chill, musty wave of evil that overwhelmed me when I stepped inside the gates of Dachau concentration camp more than thirty years ago.
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx tells a tale that made me wonder how anyone who grows up in a neighborhood not far from Yankee Stadium stands a chance of breaking the cycle of violence, sexual abuse and chemical dependancy that permeates its streets and living rooms. An undertow of resilience carries the survivors, and the reader, through the saga, though.
LeBlanc says, "My decision to write about Coco's daily struggle baffled her neighbors, family and friends. 'Why Coco?' I was asked again and again. 'Coco's just regular,' people said. 'Plenty of girls is worse off.' Certainly, I have found this to be true. The hardships of these young people and their families are not unusual in their neighborhoods. Neither are their gifts.'"
This is not a recent phenomenon, of course.
In the nineteenth century in New York City, one tenement building alone in an area known as Five Points was said to have seen a murder a night. The building, an old brewery that was converted into a rooming house when it became too dilapidated for business, “swarmed with thieves, murderers, pickpockets, beggars, harlots, and degenerates of every type,” according to one historian. When it was demolished in 1853, workers reportedly carried out several sacks of human bones that had been stashed in crannies. Only one of the five streets that converged at Five Points still bears the same name today as it did then: Mulberry. Anthony has become Worth; Cross is Mosco; Orange is Baxter and Little Water - “a dark and dismal alley which was generally filled with filth above the shoe tops” -- is gone altogether.
Five Points was swampy land abutting a lake that in colonial days was called Fresh Water Pond. It teemed with fish. Over time, it became a rank cesspool, and became known as the Collect. It was filled in during the early nineteenth century, and now supports the New York City Civil and Criminal Courts buildings. It once was home to the notorious prison called The Tombs. Imagine the tales those buildings could tell.
An island used to stand in the middle of the Collect. Public executions took place there. in 1741, a score of slaves rebelled against the consummate injustice to which they were subjected, They were hanged, burned, or broken at the wheel at this very place where New York City still dispenses justice. Bad karma, I'd say.
Walk about four blocks west and a dozen blocks south and you'd be at ground zero of the September 11 attack, which at the time I was thinking about all this was still festering. Every locale has its story if you dig for it. We are mostly inclined to build new structures in the name of forward progress and moving on, however, and leave the digging to archeologists interested in times not so close to our own zeitgeist. We want to get on with our "normal, everyday lives," just as our leaders urge us to do.