Mott Haven’s lessons will be remembered
By Josh Moyer
I’ve been offered crack-cocaine by a man wearing a long black jacket. And I’ve been offered a dinner of rice and beans by a state assemblyman.
I’ve been invited inside the apartment of a man struggling to survive economic hard times. And I’ve had pennies thrown at me from the projects.
A community might be defined by its residents, but it’s hard to define Mott Haven. I’ve felt welcome and out of place. I’ve been confident and intimidated. For every person who rolled his eyes and told me “I’m busy,” “No thanks,” — or “F— off” —there was another person who would hand me his number or invite me inside his home.
I’ve learned a lot about journalism here, but I’ve learned just as much about people: About five teenagers who witnessed shootouts and shrugged their shoulders upon recalling the incidents. About a man who downplayed his membership into the Bloods. About another man who labeled himself “middle class” — even if he was forced to live on food stamps and donations from food pantries. People just want to get by, it seems, and to do that they don’t focus on the negative. Residents of Mott Haven face more drama and more obstacles than most. But teens still want to enroll in college. Parents still want to provide for their children. Everyone wants to better his or her situation. And most want to do that without stirring up any trouble.
Yet the stories were there.
I listened in court to a 16-year-old girl recount, in graphic detail, the times she said her father raped her. She was 7 when the incidents occurred. I listened to a high-school senior recall when his cousin hacked a kid with a machete — the way the victim’s white tank top soaked up the blood like a paper towel, before it dripped from his side. “It sounded just like when you got a meat store and the guy has a butcher knife,” the high schooler said. And then he smiled. “It might be surprising for a person who’s just seeing this for the first time. But when you see this a lot, you’re not surprised,” he added.
I talked to a former drug dealer. I talked to a priest. People in the projects. An AIDS patient. A food-pantry volunteer. A firefighter. An artist. Business owners. Judges. Lawyers. Crossing guards. Principals. Professors. Politicians. I’ve tried to speak with anyone and everyone. And a common theme emerged: Everyone has a story. In the beginning, I wondered why people in Mott Haven would even want to speak with a reporter. Now, I wonder what’s wrong with them if they don’t.
I remember reading once that journalists give humanity to the faces that most people walk past each day. I wondered if the people I interviewed understood that, if they realized what we journalists wanted to achieve. In the late fall, my question was answered.
On the steps to the Patterson Projects, I asked a man if I could interview him. He assented, leaning forward to answer my questions, whispering close to my ear. He would stop talking whenever people walked by.
“Can I ask why you seem to be whispering?” I inquired.
Well, he said, people here just want to keep to themselves. They just want to get by. And not be bothered. He was afraid what people would think about him talking with an outsider.
I was about to ask why he was speaking with me then, but I didn’t have to. He told me unprompted.
“What you’re doing,” he said, “is important.”