I can well remember the lanky and rambunctious kid who seemed to be always in trouble. They called him ‘white boy’ and ‘cracker’ because of his light complexion. He had to endure the name-calling daily at the Sward Village old housing projects in the Dunbar community of Fort Myers. Anthony Hixon is his name, the son of Christine who up living with Grandma Elnora. There is no father, there was never one. Christine had a one-night stand with a white man and does not remember who he was. I go back in memory and see him at church, with his distinctive three-piece suit. I laugh while remembering the day when I had to take him off the church bus after he started a fire!

Engaged on these thoughts, I arrive at Anthony’s small apartment to spend some time with him. He is now a handsome 23-year old man. Anthony received me with joy and kindness and I set in. The apartment is small and modest, but very clean. After some small talk, we go back again to dwell in the past. I heard sad revelations given with no sense of grief or despair. Anthony  offered them with the urgency of revelation and a need to be understood.

Fighting and drug dealing were common at Sward Village. The neighborhood was a shattered one, a place of sorrows. Turmoil and death were there, surrounding the lives of the many good people who lived in constant terror. Anthony talks of the demise of childhood friends, one after the other, due to drugs, fights for girls, or forever gone to serve life prison sentences for some stupid reason. Always teased due to his color, Anthony learned to cope and survive by continually acting out and fighting. With no one there to lead him, Anthony thrust himself well down the slippery slope that leads to misery.

At thirteen, he first got in trouble with the law and was forced to leave the somewhat stable environment of his grandmother’s home at the projects to move into a nearby house with Uncle Charles, a school bus driver who tried his best to take care of him. Less supervised then, he continued to get in trouble. After recovering from an illness that left him paralyzed from the waist down, Anthony’s life went downhill even more. He was just fourteen. It is now that he begins to hang out with the wrong crowd and steal cars for joyrides. The acting out got out of control at home and at school and he was sent to an alternative learning school for “the bad kids.” Later, he ended at the local juvenile detention center. Five or six times he went back to Price Half-Way House juvenile jail for violating his probation. Anthony remembers the fights, the anger eating up every soul, and the lack of even a single peaceful moment. At one time, a guard grabbed him violently by his dreads after he refused to take off his shirt. On the back of shirts, inmates often wrote down their nicknames and, apparently, the guard did not like Anthony’s: ‘white boy.’  The whimsical act of violence was captured on video and the guard was fired on the spot. The fear of violence remained with Anthony wherever he went.

At sixteen, he started using marihuana and cocaine and found himself back in jail with a more charge of possession of narcotics. While driving with big brother Lorenzo, whom otherwise Anthony considered a father figure, the police stopped them. Unbeknown to Anthony, Lorenzo, who already had an extensive criminal record, had some drugs with him. Anthony took the charge for his brother to prevent Lorenzo having to serve a long sentence. Out of love for his brother, Anthony threw himself again squarely into an existence of suffering behind bars. To save Lorenzo he chose to enter a place where human pettiness leads to death and where, in the presence of constantly frustrated desires, people launch at each other.

In effect, Anthony’s entire family was in total disarray. Not only was Lorenzo repeatedly in and out of jail but his other brothers and a great aunt were heavy drug users.  Yet, the burden grew even closer. Only now do I detect any sadness or pain in the young man’s semblance. Anthony quiets down for a moment and his words are no longer flowing with ease. From the long list of human calamities and ghastly experiences of wretch, none can compare with those affecting our mothers. Anthony’s mom was a prostitute and a drug user. The ‘dude’ living with her pimped the woman for many years and she seemed unable to detach herself from his vicious treatment. Hooked on drugs, she found the binding power of that urge too powerful to abandon. The whole focus of her life seemed to be the avoidance of pain. Compounding such shame was the fact that his brothers at times would give her the drugs! They rather see her doped than walking the streets. Anthony tried to justify their action but I could tell how uncomfortable and disgusted he was with the whole scenario. After telling me these things, Anthony paused for a minute to tell me without hesitation how much he loved his mother. ‘Mr. Ismael, in spite of all, I always treat mother with respect.’ In all of this, I became amply persuaded that I was in the presence of a noble soul. Anthony is the first to admit his weaknesses and the struggles still present in his life but I am convinced of his integrity, however.

Beside the turmoil of the domestic world of pain, Anthony experienced another world of happiness, an escape valve allowing the pressures of life never to totally overwhelm his young psyche. This place was the tiny St. Peter Claver Catholic Mission on Michigan Avenue, where I first met him. Church was for him a good place to be, with good thoughts to think and with decent people to love, especially Mrs. Judy. When he talks of her, you can see that his face lights up.

Judy Peck is a middle-aged white woman who served as the youth minister and do-it-all employee at the mission. A true living saint, in my view, the lady was beloved by all in the housing projects and deeply respected by us at the mission. Even to this day, Judy receives letters of gratitude from many inmates she met at the local jail where she ministered. Her work in the black community spawns for over 20 years and has brought comfort to many families in desperate need. Anthony met her when he was about ten years old. She was handing out Christmas cards and inviting people to church. She would pick him up every Sunday for mass, counsel him, and treat him like a son. At times, Judy would take Anthony to her home so her entire family became like the family he never really had. The encircled domain of darkness following Anthony had no power over the radiant country of love that Judy and her family offered; as from there seemed to stream a deep river of peace whose powerful flow washed away the pain.

The radiant light remains on Anthony’s face as he remembers the horseback riding, the family gatherings, the trips, and all the stuff wholesome families do. Judy became the anchor where Anthony could rest in the midst of a tumultuous existence. The incidental nature of the encounters, however, could not totally remove the deleterious influence of the projects. So, by the time Anthony was seventeen, he was back in jail to serve another sentence. But, who was there to console and counsel him? Mrs. Judy, of course!  He enrolled in one of Judy’s classes at the jail and made a concerted effort to get away from a life of crime. Men often prefer to keep their vices in full bloom to avoid the hard work it takes to get detached. A profound aversion to anything that smacks at effort prevents many from ever experiencing a different way of life. Why is it, we may wonder?  I think that refusing to change offers the psychological advantage of alibi. It enables people to continue in the fiction of incapacity and victimization. If the world is unjust and I must resign myself to an imposed fate,  I need not attribute my misfortunes to myself. We see this clearly when a drug user tries to convince his benging partner not to go to treatment, as his possible success places a shadow over all. Yet at times, men get courage and choose otherwise.

To accomplish that task, Anthony had first to survive life behind bars first, not an easy task. There he saw a man stabbed in one eye with a pen for a simple disagreement, mortal fights to avenge old and often meagre street debts, and brutal beatings on people for ‘disrespects.’ The disrespectful offences were things like not flushing the toilet or passing gas in front of others. Ironically, he survived incarceration due to brother Lorenzo’s bad reputation. Other inmates knew well who Lorenzo was and offered the brother ‘respect’ due to his connection to a ‘bad dude.’ Once out, Anthony began to take steps toward a better life.

By the end of our long conversation, Anthony tells me, ‘Mr. Ismael, life is what we make of it.’ For someone like him, who could excuse himself of responsibility at every turn, his wisdom is a powerful witness against victimhood. He tells me that one of the first things he needed to do to save his life was to leave the projects. ‘You need to leave that place, break the cycle, move somewhere, anywhere, and stay away.’ Another important decision of his was to go back to church. ‘Last Easter Sunday my girlfriend and I walked four miles to attend services at Mount Olive Church. I want to go back to church.’ He knows well where the oasis of life remains.

Yes, at times our purpose to change remains a weak and momentary impulse lacking true determination. I have many times witnessed the rousing decisions to change; only to observe as those proclaiming them soon return to their evil ways. And yet, I think Anthony can make it. His determination seems steady and his inner self appears not to be of common order. More importantly, his actions are following the expressions of resolve. He is working two jobs and wants to go back to study at a vocational school and maybe one day open his own restaurant. In addition, he left the projects behind; or so he thought.

In spite of his resolve, the inner man at times needs to fight the errors of government ill-thought ‘solutions’ to Inner City problems. After leaving the Ghetto, Anthony moved to an area not far from where I live. It is poor but clean and peaceful. Unfortunately, because of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s ongoing Hope VI initiative, the latest failed attempt at a new model for subsidized housing, the Ghetto is being brought back to Anthony’s life. HUD is tearing down the old projects and replacing them with new town houses. In the mean time, they have offered worthless Section 8 vouchers to former residents. As most renters shy away of Section 8 tenants afraid that they will destroy their appartments, only the owners of hard-to-rent properties in marginal neighbourhoods are willing to accept the vouchers. Those trying to maintain the decorum of the area find themselves in a bind.[1]

The importation of social pathology hurts those like Anthony who thought they have left the inner-city behind. Built on the deterministic ideology of victimhood, the system assumes that the market cannot provide for unsubsidized housing for the poor. Vouchers then allow residents of subsidized housing to get a better home in better neighbourhoods. The central planners tell us that in turn those with dysfunctional lifestyles will learn from the functional and successful and turn their lives around. The analysis buys into the lie of environmental determinism; assuming that granting a better home in a better neighbourhood is uplifting when, in reality, it is the effort and determination of the individual to achieve the buying of a home in a better neighbourhood what is truly uplifting.[2]

The area where Anthony lives now has been inundated with people from the Michigan projects bringing with them the very temptations and perils he has been fighting so hard to avoid. They bring with them a set of values that end up destroying good communities inhabited by people, like Anthony, who are achieving on their own what the bureaucrats of victimhood say is not possible. His home has been robbed. Once he came back home only to find three strangers on his garage and found that his door had been trampled with. A few houses down, two individuals were murdered by intruders. All of this turmoil made possible courtesy of the fake compassion of government bureaucracy.

Victimizing victims are now the greatest threat against conquerors like Anthony who represent the best we have to offer.

 


[1] See Howard Husock, America’s Trillion Dollar Housing Mistake (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003), pp. 50-51.

[2] See Ibid, chapters 3 & 4.

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