What Hillary saw last week in New York - Harlem renewed

capitalism in the schools
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The Independent Online
New York City - If the American political system had done its job properly we wouldn't have had the trouble with the President's zip. Both major parties got the wrong spouse. The Republicans should never have selected Bob Dole to fight Bill Clinton; they should have lined up behind his wife, Elizabeth. And the Democrats, instead of giving the serial trouser-dropper the nomination, should have put the nation's number one political pin-up, the First Lady, on the ballot paper.

The steely edge she showed to the nation on Tuesday morning has apparently convinced people here that she is twice the man her husband is. If she had experienced the urge to entertain Monica Lewinsky in private, the session was more likely to involve a blowtorch than a blow-job. But her resolution appears to have worked to save her husband's bacon. In New York, the common reaction to the whole affair is a shrug of the shoulders and (from women) the sage observation that "If Hillary don't mind, why do I got to bother with it?"

The President's own approval rating is up to record levels, but Hillary's rehabilitation is the most remarkable turnaround. It is less than five years since she was being parodied as a frumpy feminist; a make-over turned her into the frosty ideological harridan who was trying to foist sinister, un-American ideas - like universal healthcare - on to God's people; and this week she was transmuted into a combination of ultra-loyal wife and master tactician. The trouble for the American media, which has enthusiastically peddled the first two of these notions, is that this week most Americans believe the last image. Even in deeply sceptical Harlem, Hillary is the hot ticket. Having spent the past few days here, it's clear that part of her renewed appeal to America's least fortunate citizens is her passionate advocacy of special programmes for the poor. On the very day she went on TV to defend her husband, she spent the afternoon here in Harlem, learning about a special programme to improve literacy standards. I followed her footsteps; three days later, her presence is still almost tangible.

It is not the first time that The First Lady has found her way to the symbolic heart of black America. Indeed, a visit to 125th Street, its most famous thoroughfare, is now becoming almost obligatory for dignitaries visiting New York. There seems little to fear here. Crime in the area has fallen faster than elsewhere in New York; the streets are relatively clean, and many of the buildings have had face-lifts. New art galleries and restaurants have surfaced, and their patrons are not exclusively black. There is much talk about the old days of the Harlem Renaissance, when the area was the home of great writers artists and musicians, and throbbed with the sounds of Ellington and the like. Harlem's promoters claim evidence that some major investors have decided that the area is safe enough for their businesses.

A great deal of this success is Clinton-inspired. Harlem is one of six major urban areas to be designated an "empowerment zone", attracting some $300m in public money to invest in new projects over the next seven years. The zone has already spent some $26m - and has managed to persuade private investors to put up another $70m to help put up new housing, refurbish old apartment blocks and create new entertainment and tourist attractions.

All of this would be marvellous if it were not for one thing: that in spite of New York's economic recovery and the adoption of aggressive affirmative action programmes, job prospects stubbornly refuse to get better. Part of the reason is the nature of New York's boom. Like London it is built largely on the growth of financial and business services - areas where there are relatively few extra jobs for each rise in output. Another part is continued job discrimination. But what is especially disturbing is the fact that far too few of Harlem's children are acquiring the basic skills that will allow them to play a full part in the city's future. And that was the point of Mrs Clinton's visit to Harlem - to highlight a unique effort aimed at improving the literacy of Harlem's children, and which on the face of it is managing to do the things that our own efforts with British primary schools are not achieving.

For the past year, in over 200 schools across the city, every day at the end of lessons, 16,000 children who would normally head for home and the TV or the streets go to the school canteen. They get a snack and then return to the classroom for three more hours of special tuition. They are not forced to attend; rather, it has become a kind of prize. Half of the 80 children in each school are chosen by the head, the other half selected by lottery. There is a waiting list to get into the classes. In the three extra hours, the children concentrate on three things - technology (ie use of computers), sport and literacy. They are encouraged to read aloud, and if their parents can't join them in the classes, then the children read to them at home in the evening. (By the way, this programme is only open to children between the ages of six and eight. The motto here is catch them early.)

The classes have their own teachers, separate from the normal school staff. In the UK, this would no doubt provoke a storm of protest from overworked teachers, railing at the unfairness of diverting public funds in this way. However, here some teachers are so enthusiastic about the programme that they sign on as voluntary counsellors. Some would claim that the classes actually make their jobs easier. And best of all most of it is not paid for out of public funds. In the case I looked at, 19 of the classes are run by the Harlem YMCA, with funds from two sources; one is the empowerment zone which kicks in $15,000 per class each year; the other is the entertainment and media giant Time Warner which gives $25,000 for each class. It may help that the man who chairs the Harlem empowerment zone is also the chairman of Time Warner, but that is not the only reason that Time Warner is involved. The money is peanuts to that corporation, and a cynic might say that it is only a moderate recompense for its achievements in "dumbing down" America's youth. However, that misses the major point for TW; the materials used in the Virtual Y classes are Time Warner's own "Time for Learning" teaching pack.

America's capitalists genuinely care; but they never miss a trick. I wonder who is, even now, discreetly inviting Hillary to discuss her future after the White House?