Remember the Harlem Children’s Zone? Barack Obama was very impressed with the Harlem Children’s Zone in 2008.
You’ll find hope in 97 neighborhood blocks in the heart of Harlem, in New York City, in New York State. This is the home of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an all encompassing anti-poverty program that is literally saving a generation of children in a neighborhood where they were never supposed to have a chance. The philosophy behind the project is simple — if poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence; failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community. And we have to focus on what actually works . . . . And it is working . . . . And if we know it works, there’s no reason this program should stop at the end of those blocks in Harlem.
It’s kind of funny to describe Harlem as a place where children were “never supposed to have a chance”- this is perhaps the most storied and famous neighborhood in the country, which from the 1920s onward had plenty of well-off black residents over the years, along with an endless list of famous sons and daughters who most certainly decided they had a chance despite growing up north of 110th street. More pointedly, while the average home value when Obama was speaking was not the over 930K that it currently takes to buy an apartment or home in Harlem, it was already over $600,000. As of today, for example, it looks like it takes at least $2 million for one of those classic brownstones in decent condition, but you can get a two-bedroom two-bath apartment on Adam Clayton Powell and 131st street for only $1.1 million:
(This is one of the reasons why I thought it was nuts for Moving to Opportunity to use Harlem as the “concentrated poverty” counterfactual for their experiment on moving Section 8 recipients to supposedly richer neighborhoods.)
In any case, yes, there were and are a lot of poor parents and kids in Harlem (I’ve known a few), and many of them were probably happy to get the services that Geoffrey Canada started offering more expansively in 1997. (There was actually an earlier anti-truancy program called the Rheedlen Center that had existed since 1970 and that Canada took over and renamed before expanding dramatically.) Paul Tough, who (despite his name) was hugely enamored of the HCZ, wrote a whole book praising Canada and the HCZ:
This is where Geoffrey Canada comes in. Canada, if you haven’t heard of him already, is the man behind the Harlem Children’s Zone Project, a hugely ambitious effort to improve lives in a 97-block swath of New York City. Others, like Marian Wright Edelman or Wendy Kopp, have worked as tirelessly on behalf of America’s children. But the Harlem Children’s Zone, founded in 1997, is perhaps the most intensive set of youth programs of our time.
As Paul Tough explains in “Whatever It Takes,” Canada “believed that he could find the ideal intervention for each age of a child’s life, and then connect those interventions into an unbroken chain of support.” Its “conveyor belt” begins when expectant parents learn about safety gates and mothers of toddlers learn to turn supermarkets into learning labs. Prekindergartners were enrolled for 10 hours a day, with an intensive focus on language, including French vocabulary. Canada’s high school, middle school and two elementary schools — all charters — can’t educate all the children in the zone; those left out can still attend computer workshops, fitness classes or college prep. Canada isn’t satisfied with propelling selected children to a better life; his goal is to “contaminate”the entire culture of Harlem with aspirational values, disciplined self-improvement and the cognitive tools to do better than those who came before. That depends on offering services to as many people as possible. Employees approach teenagers with strollers and stake out Laundromats.
“Whatever It Takes” is engaged throughout, nowhere more so than in a vivid section on Baby College. Tough’s account of this parenting class illustrates the challenges Canada and his staff face. Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton have sung Canada’s praises, Barack Obama has promised to replicate the zone in 20 cities, Wall Street backers have helped boost its budget to more than $40 million a year. But superstar fans go only so far when it comes to teaching the value of time-outs to an expectant father whose discipline philosophy is based on pinching.Poor people typically don’t view their children as improvement projects the way middle-class parents do, and Tough presents the social science that shows how this can leave their children at an almost insurmountable disadvantage. Telling poor people how to raise their children is sometimes denounced as racism or “cultural imperialism,” but Canada sees attentive, careful parenting — of the type middle-class parents read about in baby books — as the first step toward overcoming poverty. As he puts it, “We want our parents to have the same information the rest of America has.”