Arlene Alda

New York Values

Air Date: July 30, 2016

Author and photographer Arlene Alda discusses the culture of the inner city

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. New York values. Bernie Sanders, the Brooklynite. Queens native Donald Trump, and of course, Hilary Clinton, who adopted Westchester as her New York residence. Our Presidential contenders this year hail from the Big Apple and the Empire State, so naturally, what about the Bronx, we ask our guest today. A professional clarinetist turned award-winning writer and photographer, Arlene Alda is the author of Just Kids from the Bronx: Telling it the Way it Was. A chronicler of Bronx tales from the Mayflower to the New York Yankees, Alda collects oral histories of Bronx heritage, from Hollywood legends to dignitaries, among them Al Pacino, Colin Powell, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Alda dedicates her testimony to the future leaders of the Borough and to the memory of her parents, who she says had the good sense to move to the Bronx in the first place. Arlene, a pleasure to meet you.

ALDA: Oh, thank you. Pleasure to be here, Alexander.

HEFFNER: Let’s start from that. New York values.

ALDA: You know, and one of things that I learned in interviewing 64 different people who hailed from the Bronx who, who kind of made names for themselves is that, um, everyone agreed that there’s something about the Bronx where you’re down to Earth, that there are… You, you are who you are, you say it like it is. So, I would say that was, that’s one of the Bronx values, truth, honesty, down to the Earth-ness.

HEFFNER: Authenticity.

ALDA: Authenticity. Yeah.

HEFFNER: And what spoke to you most in compiling these anecdotes, these… this treasure trove of oral history.

ALDA: I started in a very random fashion. I started interviewing people I knew, basically, just to see what there was that might be interesting to others. So, I interviewed Regis Philbin, um, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Reiner, um, Martin Bregman, producer of Al Pacino’s movies, Al Pacino, uh, someone called David Yarnell, also a producer, documentarian. These are the people I feel very comfortable talking to initially, and when they told me, in conversation, stories about growing up, I felt there was a treasure trove, treasure trove here of, of what it’s like to grow up in what is called an outer Borough, uh, at a particular time.

HEFFNER: What was the time?

ALDA: …After, after that particular time, which was… Would have been in the 30s and 40s and 50s, uh, I also knew that there was a whole part the Bronx story that wasn’t told, and that had to do with the people who grew up in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s. So, the book expanded from people in their, now in their 80s, 70s, 60s, 50s, to people in their 40s, 30s, and 20s, and that shift really created, for me, a very interesting kind of a mosaic, a kaleidoscope of, of what, what the people were like and what the borough was like when they were, when these people were growing up. So, for instance, Carl Reiner, who is now 94, just turned 94, grew up at a very innocent time, in an ethnic community that was both, uh, Jewish and Italian. Very, very similar to, to my background, in a way, ‘cause I grew up in a neighborhood that was Jewish and Italian. At one point, the Borough of the Bronx was 60 percent Jewish, with the other e… Ethnic groups being Italian, Irish, German, Polish, a little bit of Asian, a little bit of African American, a little bit of Hispanic, and over the years, that has shifted, but what hasn’t shifted, in my opinion, is the fact that the Bronx has always been a borough welcoming immigrants, and a borough where the working class person was striving, is striving to make a better life for themselves and their kids.

HEFFNER: How you see it now really depends on where you are in the Bronx, but I wonder if you reflect on then and now, the Bronx as a pioneering borough of educators, what was it like then?

ALDA: The school was the place where the lofty ideals were set forth, where the mix of ethnic groups happened, where the mix of economic groups happened, so that… You could… You might say that that’s really the democratic cauldron right in the schools. Um, the, the tragedy of what has happened with the public school system is that it, it, for whatever reasons, and you could name, I guess, a, a lot of different factors, but whatever those reasons and factors are, the, the, that, the tragedy of schools being dysfunctional has… That has repercussions beyond what it seems to have, because that sense of, uh, being prepared for the world, that sense of meeting others and understanding, um, that it’s not just you and your ethnic group, the, the… Learning as, as a goal in life, um, not just as a way of passing time, all those, all the wonderful things we were taught, um, somehow got tossed out, but the hope is, and it’s, I, I see it now, the school system certainly is much, much better, in many ways now, than it certainly was in the 80s and 90s, and, uh, I see tremendous teaching going on in the schools. I like to visit…

HEFFNER: Do you see a rebirth?

ALDA: Well, yes. I absolutely do, and I think, um, the competition of the charter schools is a good competition. Uh, at first I was kind of on the fence about it, and having seen a number of charter schools in action, um, I’m all for the good ones. Um, and the good… There are great teachers out there, teachers who devote their lives to, uh, bringing out the fullest potential of each kid. So…

HEFFNER: I think you evoked the portrait of a failing school system by describing the virtue of a successful one, and what I mean by that is diversity was the great promise. It’s what fertilized the American Dream, and I wonder how this feeds into the narratives and oral histories of some of the people we’ve talked about, because the… I think the failure, at least in part, can be attributed to the very methodical self-segregation of communities, the lack of diversity and the lack for wanting a kind of great American story, uh, for every ethnic stripe.

ALDA: I grew up at the time of the so-called melting pot, and that melting pot meant that, uh, you come from whatever country you come from, when you come to America, you’re in this big cauldron, and you come out American, because you speak English, you go to a school where English is, uh, is, uh, predom… [LAUGHS] the, the language and you learn the American way. Well, that had failures as well.

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

ALDA: But, uh, the issues today are quite… They’re very challenging. You know, uh, the economic issues are very challenging. In my family, we were, I would say, working class, but not poor. Uh, as a whole neighborhood, I don’t know anyone who was, you could categorize as being poor. Uh, uh, Luis Ubinas, who, just to cite one of the people I interviewed, um, Puerto Rican descent, grew up in the Bronx in the 80s and 90s. He describes poverty in a way that was… brought tears to my eyes. I had never either experienced it firsthand or heard about it with a, a kind of a dispassionate detail that he was able to, to describe. Talking about the insufficiency that was always there, that if one day you had heat in your apartment or, or food on the table, the specter of that insufficiency was always there, and oddly enough, and wonderfully enough, this young boy was saved by a wonderful teacher who recognized that this kid, in the fourth grade, read on the twelfth grade level and that the schools, the school was not doing him any, any big favors by keeping him there. Uh, so they wanted to skip him to the sixth grade from the fourth grade, and, you know, from a nine-year-old to a, uh, to a class where there are twelve-year-olds or whatever and some kids who were left back who are thirteen and fourteen, that, that was totally, uh, awful, but that’s the way it was handled. The teacher took him by the hand, went down the subway, took him to interview at, uh, three private schools in Manhattan and he got into all three and, and the kid chose one, the Allen-Stevenson school, and then he went on scholarship, also at the Allen-Stevenson school, to Cathedral High, uh, Harvard University. Harvard Business School. Became a very successful businessman, and then the, the topper of it, which I love more than anything else, is he became head of the Ford Foundation, which is a foundation that gives out millions of dollars to, uh, worthy organizations for their, uh, for the, the good deeds that they do. So, here’s this very, very poor boy, who but for the, the attention of a caring teacher, we don’t know what that trajectory would be, but in his own words, he describes how the horizon for a kid in a good school is limitless, whereas the horizon for a kid in a dysfunctional school stops at the school door. Uh, it’s, it’s quite different view of life and, um, we can only hope that the horizon for the kids in the Bronx is now that distant one where you can see that you can go on to, to fulfill your potential.

HEFFNER: We were talking a bit off camera. The objective of gentrification, uh, sometimes gets in the way of learning English. You know, that we… I think, in some sense, the progressive teaching of diversity in 2016, uh, lacks that connection to the American Dream, that, like you said, you learn English. How do you see gentrification today in the Bronx? Um, do you see an inclusiveness that is still together a unified Bronx story? And let’s get back to those Bronx values, you, you said they’re gonna, they’re, they’re gonna tell you straight—and I know people who will testify to that, if you’re from the Bronx.

ALDA: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: But in the context of this political season, I do want you to weigh in on the disparate values systems, or lack thereof, in some of our New Yorker candidates.

ALDA: Oh wow. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Let’s, let’s start with the gentrification…

ALDA: Big, big question.

HEFFNER: Let’s, let’s start with…

ALDA: Gentrification. Okay.

HEFFNER: How do you see gentrification in the Bronx today?

ALDA: Okay. Uh, now, I’m a total amateur when it comes to…

HEFFNER: Sure.

ALDA: Uh, this, but this is, uh, what I glean: there are wonderful things that are being done in various neighborhoods to be able to bring more business in, to make more affordable housing, and to, uh, make it a comfortable place for families to live, for artists to come and work. Um, there’s also such a thing as, uh, the Bronx River, which, uh, is, you don’t often think of a river, in terms of gentrification, but the river, when I was a kid, was not this idyllic, beautiful that went, uh, you know, north-south. It was a muddy mess with garbage in it, so things have, and in many ways, have gotten better. The Bronx River Alliance, for instance, has gentrified the river. It… people go there to, to relax. There’s kayaking. There’s fishing. I, I don’t think there’s swimming, but, um, it’s a different river than when I was a kid. The South Bronx has a lot of old factories that are on waterfront. There’s a lot of waterfront in the Bronx that is undeveloped. Uh, it’s derelict. There’s, there’s, um, and I know that in the South Bronx, there is a big development, uh, in place for, uh, both market value housing and affordable housing, and I think they, the community now has a voice, whereas in the past, for instance, when the Cross Bronx Expressway was, uh, uh, put through in the 60s, and it split parts of the Bronx into two pieces, there was no community…

HEFFNER: You say…

ALDA: Involvement.

HEFFNER: They have a voice because of the rise of progressive populism today?

ALDA: Well, I think they’ve all… Always tried to have a voice, but I think the reception for the voice is there now. Um, uh, the populism that we see in terms of this, the current, um, primary season is extraordinary, from my point of view, because it’s, it’s one day it’s this, the next day it’s that, and, um, I’m reeling from the, um, what has happened, um…

HEFFNER: This will…

ALDA: And of course as Bronxite…

HEFFNER: Yes.

ALDA: I was brought up as a liberal democrat, I’m proud to say, and I still, to this day, am a liberal democrat, although, uh, I listen to reason, uh, very clearly and I choose, uh, very carefully, but I’m very proud to use the word “liberal,” although they’ve changed it to “progressive now.”

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS]

ALDA: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: We recently had on our program Michael Lynch, the author of a book The Internet of Us, and I think he encapsulated in his theory about Donald Trump and by the time this airs he may wholly be irrelevant with the implosion that has long doomed him… Uh, supposedly, right? But we, we discuss the peril of having a, a political officeholder, someone seeking a highest office in the land, who lacks a values system, because really you think for someone with conviction, well they have a set of values. You think of someone with humility, they are willing to learn. When you lack conviction and humility, that means you really have no value system and it, it, it was growing up in the Bronx that I think instilled a certain core values system in you and a lot of the people you write about in the book, so I, I, I throw this question back to you and because I’m eager to hear your thoughts on the, the nature of, of, of New Yorkers, uh, and New York’s primary is actually coveted this cycle. Uh, we don’t know who will win but, how do you explain the New Yorker, uh, the carpet-bagging New Yorker of Hilary Clinton, right, but the, the, the genuine New Yorkers, the folks who grew up here, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, what say you, Arlene, about their, their youth, and, and the way they speak to values? Do they comport with the Bronx or no?

ALDA: Well, you’re talking about two different people, one from Queens and one from Brooklyn…

HEFFNER: And what does that say? [LAUGHS]

ALDA: And, and, uh…

HEFFNER: What’s the difference?

ALDA: But, but… Brooklyn is very similar, or was very similar to the Bronx, so, I can understand where Bernie Sanders is coming from, uh, clearly. I, I would disagree with you about Donald Trump not having values. I don’t think that’s so. I think, um, he’s a businessman, and he, he values the, the talk of, uh, deals.

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS]

ALDA: I mean, he constantly talks about deals. Whether or not that’s appropriate or training for being…

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS]

ALDA: President of the United States is up for argument, but, but I, I think he does have a values system. I don’t happen to agree with it, uh, I don’t happen to agree with his style, nor do I agree with Bernie Sanders’ style, who says a lot of things, and I agree with Hilary: tell me how you’re going to implement these things. We agree that banks did egregious things, uh, during the last recession, and they’re still doing them. How are you going to deal with that? It’s one thing to, to identify the problem. It’s another thing to promise people things you cannot… You’re, that are not in your control. So, um, in, in many ways, I, um… It, it’s a political season, and from my taste, Hilary is the one who’s the… Not only the most, uh, um, uh, the most, um, uh, qualified for the job, but the one who’s telling the most down to Earth things. She, you, you mention any issue, she knows that issue, and she knows it from a very practical point of view.

HEFFNER: Let’s talk a little bit more in the time we have remaining about this, because we will… We’ll have to agree to disagree on that Trump point.

ALDA: Of course.

HEFFNER: But in the same way that we talk about the Bronx’s revival, I think the people the Bronx probably associate with, the Brooklynite, as you said, there’s some commonality in origin, but the fact that Park Avenue and Wall Street haven’t touched the lives of the great preponderance of people in the Bronx, at least not yet, and I think Bernie Sanders and his, and, and Donald Trump too, in his own way, has channeled this populism, they’re wondering, in our lifetimes, or in our children’s grandchildren’s lifetimes, will the support system that exists in Park Avenue and Wall Street, will that ever trickle into the Bronx, so that the Bronx is the golden age of everything we, everything we aspire for?

ALDA: Um… Trickle down… You use… It’s interesting…

HEFFNER: I use the term.

ALDA: That you use the term, because that was…

HEFFNER: Because it never worked.

ALDA: Ron…

HEFFNER: It never worked.

ALDA: It never worked.

HEFFNER: We, we’ve been…

ALDA: We, Ronald Reagan…

HEFFNER: It’s, it’s…

ALDA: I became aware of that…

HEFFNER: Yeah.

ALDA: Mostly through Ronald Reagan, because I’m not an economist.

HEFFNER: Right.

ALDA: But he did use, you know, that administration did use those terms…

HEFFNER: It’s…

ALDA: And it did not work. Uh, the trickle down, uh, if you make it good for the guy on top, it’s not gonna come down to the working guy on the bottom. It just doesn’t work that way. Um, why it doesn’t work that way, I don’t really know, but it, in practical terms, I’ve seen that it doesn’t work that way, and I’ve seen bubbles…

HEFFNER: But, uh… Yeah.

ALDA: Arise.

HEFFNER: But go… Going back to this idea of having a level playing field…

ALDA: Yes.

HEFFNER: Like you said. A chance, right? Do you think the people of the Bronx have a chance today?

ALDA: Well, I think, you know, the job, jobs are what, uh, we’re talking about. Work, so that, um, one can put food on the table, and, um…

HEFFNER: …Because contrary to what you describe as the climate then, you can’t be middle class, you can’t be working, without being poor today.

ALDA: Yeah.

HEFFNER: …In so many instances.

ALDA: Yeah. It’s, it’s a very complex problem, and I’m, I’m afraid that I’m really not qualified. [LAUGHS] To, uh, to answer it. My hope is that the, the poorest borough now, the Bronx, uh, will have enough economic development so that, uh, it will bring, somehow, bring the, the basic level standard of living up, that the schools will be as good as they can be, and we see good, good evidence of that now. Um, uh, beyond that, I, you know, I really don’t know.

HEFFNER: And I have to ask you before, uh, photography is being employed in a way to lift up the livelihoods of communities. How do you foresee the art, um, the art that you produce, the art that hangs in museums, how do you foresee that having the maximum impact on youngsters today?

ALDA: You know, art has, has always been, uh, a way of, um, not just communicating, but specifically telling stories. You know, when you think, think of the medieval times, when everyone was, um, most everyone was illiterate, before the printing press, the, the works of art were, that were shown, were stories, Biblical stories. People learned the Bible from looking at art, and as the centuries have, have, uh, uh, moved on, art has always been a way of, of, telling stories. It, it also has the wonderful, um, power to inspire, and, um, I think that when kids are involved in art, it is a way of, of touching a part of them that no, uh, amount of reading or writing can ever, ever touch. Reading and writing are fundamental, but…

HEFFNER: …That’s right.

ALDA: …Art is for the soul, and when a kid gets involved with art, there’s an uplifting, uh, quality to it that you can’t describe, and I can only describe it because I’ve been fortunate to, to have been involved and be involved in art.

HEFFNER: My alma mater high school, Andover, has the Addison Gallery of Art, which is quite spectacular. I thank my teachers, I thank, thank Ansel Adams for all the photos that hang there.

ALDA: Oh. Oh great.

HEFFNER: And I thank you, Arlene Alda for joining us today on the show.

ALDA: Thank you so much, Alexander.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion in to the world of the ideas. Until, then keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.