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Slums of New York – Training

Glendora Press – Oct. 19, 1969

 Slums of New York—Training

(Editor’s Note: For several issues the Glendora Press has carried articles by Glendora High School teacher Dwayne Hunn in which he describes his impressions as a Peace Corps worker in India. He continues with other aspects of his Peace Corps experience and training.)


My placement in this Peace Corps training group was partially a bureaucratic blunder.

As a teenager, I had helped my uncle make a drawer or two and thus had written carpentry as one of my hobbies on the application. Consequently, I was placed in this Rural Community Construction group bound for Pakistan.

Though I loved the group and was starting to learn plan drawing and a few fundamentals of building and road laying, I decided that I would transfer to a group in education or community development and left with no little remorse.

In a month I had my choice of Thailand, Malaysia or India in the desired fields. I chose India because it was to be the first Urban Community Development group sent to Asia, and it seemed the bigger challenge.

UCDers often had no “real” job at their work sites. You were not there to specifically teach school, increase agricultural production, nurse the sick – but to develop a community. So the hope was that you would find an area that needed work and work into it. While you were, hopefully, doing this, you felt by living close to the general population and simultaneously observing the life styles of the city’s rich – who usually were interested in making whites acquaintances – much frustrated.

Though you may have come from a lower middle class background your old life style was still closer to that of the rich than that of the masses. Your attempts at quickly finding a relatively rewarding job generally failed. If you accepted wining and dining invitations from the rich westerners or natives, and they asked what you were doing, and even if you were doing something they thought it was a terrible waste of time on your part; your frustrations continued to mount.

If you did not find that job, your American sense of speedy accomplishment and your exalted Peace Corps image of yourself plus the typical cultural differences, homesickness, physical sickness, etc., grated on you until you gave up. For these and other reasons UCD had the Peace Corps’ highest dropout rate.

Training started in October at Columbia School of Social Work in New York. Our language training was inferior in the Pakistan group’s trainin; we spent too much time studying Hindu philosophy and history and not enough on learning Hindi. Our instructors, from the school of social work conducted great discussion groups, but their jobs were made easier due to our field work experience.

The worst slum in Asia is Calcutta and because of this and its violent Bengali temper the Peace Corps was leery about sending a group there. As a second choice they settled on Bombay. Peace Corps was then faced with the problem of how to train us for an Asian slum.

Rather than choose the coastal slums of Bombay for field training, they chose the coastal slums of Harlem, South Bronx, etc. From our 40 odd experiences in these areas, the 21/2 hour discussion groups were hardly enough to complain about the bureaucracy, argue job approaches, and relate experiences.

Some were humorous experiences. Fran, Jim, Dan, and two girls acted out one of these.  (Not their true names.)

While walking through Central Park on the way to a meeting two Negroes came up behind them. With trench coats curled up and their hands sunk deeply into their pockets, the Negroes demanded that the five “Give all the money you got.”

Jim was a six-footer and a good athlete. Dan was short, stocky, and quick tempered. Frank was roly-poly and liked to talk a lot. The girls were just girls. Four of these acted scared. Frank didn’t. Frank told them to get lost and led the group on their walking way. The Negroes followed and raised their voices in repeating their demand. Frank led on.

This time one of the Negroes grabbed one of the group and stopped them in their tracks. With this the roly-poly one bounded forward, oblivious to the threats that the concealed hands were curled around guns. He threw up his hands and sprang into a stance to announce that he knew Karate and would they please step forward to take the money. The Negroes looked stunned. Frank turned the group to continue their trek. The Negroes remained.

The story was the talk of International House for weeks, and Frank, most of all, liked to tell it. Frank probably could punch his way out of a paper bag but not by, the unknown to him, art of Karate.

Some experiences, like the Christian Damascus Church of Christ, were startling. Doreen, a sweet and simple girl, Frank, and myself found the church down a back street, flanked by a Black Muslim organization and many barred windows, in South Bronx. Worn, musty, and crickey stairs led to a hall that passed a large room in which derelicts were sitting on some old basic steel frame beds. I had seen derelicts on Skid Row in Cleveland, and though I had never seen a Salvation Army rest room during the depression, this is how I imagined it might be.

About 10 feet past this room we entered a 15’ x 25’ office. Seated in the middle of the room was a pathetic figure, sobbing and heaving. He was saying something, but not making much sense. Most of his effort was going into his sobs and heaves. Sharing the room was a teenage Mexican girl and the Rev. Jerry Kaufman. We inquired into the man’s condition and the reverend said he was coming off of a high.

The whole scene, this church, this neighborhood, this guy was too much for me to swallow at once. The reverend was ignoring the man, going about his paper work, counseling visitors, and wondering, we later found out, what to do with us. While he was doing this, I stood back to study the situation.

The next five hours were spent watching the pathos of the man sitting in the chair. I became a believer. I believed that dope addicts frequented the church, that the reverend had been an addict for 13 years, and that there were more pathetic looking people walking through the doors of that church than I had seen in 9,000 school days.

I did not believe that the church had saved hundreds, was more effective than Synanon or New York City Hospital, and that they were saved through Christ and the Bible alone. The young, part-time Mexican girl was their only clerical help and that, plus the lack of funds, accounted for their lack of records to substantiate the reverend’s statistical claim. It would take the trip to their home, 60 miles north of New York, to make us consider those claims.

About four weeks into our work the reverend, a Catholic priest, an old, partially deranged ex-addict who acted as assistant around the church, and we three volunteers drove to the house. Talk was cordial and easy as we drove the open roads and passed through the tunnels of northern New York. The church, had, I believe particularly through a donation, acquired this house and made it part of their rehabilitation program. If an addict expressed sincerity in trying to break the habit, and ex-addicts acting as judges of sincerity agreed, the church sent him to the home for six months of spiritual rebirth.

The fresh air, the countryside, and the escape from the city crowd were purgative themselves. But the real purgative, as had been propagandized into our heads by now, though I still had not bought the story, was the Good Book.

It was brisk as we left the car and entered the 2½ story house. It was almost as brisk inside. Everyone wore jackets. The front room was one large wall to wall room, probably 50’-60’” long though not as deep. Total furnishings consisted of fold-away chairs and a lectern. We passed into the dining area. The ceiling joists connected to the posts so that the outside winter was clearly visible and coming inside. The cement and car­pentry work was rough, yet they were proud of it. It. It was their own work.

Things were, stark, cold, gray — few amenities, little furniture, and no color. The residents didn’t try to cover this fact. They may not have even noticed it. The only extra they made a comment on was the Bi­ble. “One’s in every room,” a resident  beamed.                                                                                                                                                                                                           We returned to the front room to listen to the Catholic priest talk. The three of us sat in the back as the priest started slow­ly and then used our trip to convey his point.

He described our ride as easy, engulfed with free talk, pleasant scenery, and a radio which kept us in tune with the world. Then, he said, we came to a tunnel. We could no longer see the landscape roll by, nor clearly see what was ahead, nor be in touch with the world.

At this point Father was winding into high gear. He was talking to illiterate men, mostly Puerto Ricans and Negroes, and he knew from experience than evangelism, simplicity backed by flaming oratory, meant communication. His voice was loud, strong, and clear.

“You,” he bellowed, “were like us.” You were going down the road of life and things were, all right. Then you lost touch with the world! Couldn’t see clearly the path ahead and couldn’t hear what to do. Well, when we entered that tunnel we had to turn on our lights to help us see. It we wanted to hear what was happening we had to raise our antenna, listen closely, and continue moving forward! This is what you must do!”

They followed his analogy. Father was hot.

“You must raise your antennas to Christ! Listen to him and He will show you the way! See His word! Hear His word! And He will guide you through your dark tunnel and back into the stream of life!”

I sat more and more erect. My eyeballs craved from their corners.

Four or five were shouting,“Jesus save me!”

“Christ have mercy on me!” from the left and right.

“Help me God! I’m a sinner,” echoed from the room.

Everywhere the men were falling to their knees, holding their heads in their hands, some were crying, most were issuing supplications to the Saviour. I wanted to hit Doris and Frank and say, “Do you see what I see?” I didn’t bother. I guess I knew I might never see anything like this again. So I took in as much as I could.

Afterwards there was no embarrassment over the display that had just occurred. A few laments and moans were still heard by those still sitting or kneeling. Those standing that we talked with were even more free in discussing their alcoholic or narcotic past.

They invited us for dinner, bread and potato soup, but we had to return to the city. In a handful of hours, we had made an acquaintance with many worn and misery etched faces, an acquaintance hard to forget.