Saturday, June 16, 2012

Small deaths in the little, big city

She was only three years old when a hit-and-run pickup truck took her life on Thursday. After Shabbat services today, Minna and I went to the corner where she died -- 10th and Cotton here in Reading, PA. It was overwhelming to see the dozens of candles and stuffed animals that people have left there in sympathy for the family's loss of little Ja'Lexy Bobet.

I don't know the details of why the pickup driver apparently ran the stop sign at that corner. But I do know that pedestrian safety provisions are almost non-existent here in Reading. Dozens if not hundreds of people -- including children (and sometimes, me) -- walk every day across the Penn Street bridge over the Schuylkill river. At the busy highway ramps for the Rt. 422 cloverleaf by the bridge there are neither stop signs nor traffic lights of any kind -- nor are there crosswalks or even "watch for pedestrian" signs. Pedestrians are expected to scramble like rats to avoid being killed. Is it a coincidence that most of those pedestrians are people of color from the impoverished neighborhoods of inner-city Reading? Would we allow this "rat scramble" if these were white, middle-class kids crossing busy highway ramps? Would little Ja'Lexy be alive today if there was a culture of pedestrian safety in Reading instead of the car-is-king -- at least for those who can afford to own them -- culture that we do have?

Reading, amid its decades-long economic decline, has become something of a forgotten city, but recently even the New York Times has started to recognize that the plight of Reading's impoverished is emblematic of wider problems across the nation. The lastest is the layoff of around 200 teachers because of cuts in funding from the state government. We are so quick today to brand inner-city schools  like Reading's as "failing", but how can they be expected to succeed when we starve these most needy districts, while students in wealthier areas can enjoy small class sizes and access to computers?

Poverty, which is so common in this small city that has been labeled the nation's poorest, can affect people in so many ways, even leading to death. Ja'Lexy is not the only child whose life has been lost recently. About a month ago, a Reading High school student -- Jamie Escobar --  followed his best friend in leaping off a pedestrian bridge over the Schuykill. The friend knew how to swim, but Jamie did not. His drowned body was not found until two weeks later.

Every time I bicycle around the Schuykill in warm weather these days, I feel a pain in my heart when I watch people splashing in its rapidly moving waters. I want to yell at them: Do you know how to swim? Do you know what happened to Jamie Escobar? Why don't you go to a swimming pool?

But I say nothing. Unlike in my neighborhood, inner-city Reading does not have a public swimming pool. And many people do not have air conditioning. Or cars to go out into the countryside. And so they splash in the Schuykill.

Are these just "small deaths", the loss of Ja'Lexy and Jamie, not worth caring about? I think not. These are preventable deaths. Deaths of people who were loved. Deaths that left people behind in tears.

The truth is that poverty kills -- and there are things we can do to prevent that. When we think of addressing poverty in this country, we usually think of big government programs like welfare and food stamps. But we should not forget that even many small things can address the ills of poverty. A public pool, or even just painting a crosswalk on the street. But the biggest change must come in our hearts. When we drive by something as clearly deadly to human life as the unmarked pedestrian crossings by the Penn Street bridge, we should see the walking humans there not as mere obstacles in our paths, but as humans just like us and the people we love.

We just have to stop just driving on. Ja'Lexy and Jamie deserve that.

1 comment:

Orit said...

Hi Alan and Minna,
Our city too has a high death rate for children. We have little boys, who don't know how to swim, drowning in Lake Pontchartrain. We have little girls at birthday parties being shot by stray bullets from a drive-by blocks away. We have to continue to search for ways to "choose life" as we look for solutions for our cities.