Roughly four decades after the demise of the Hyman-Curtis Project I found myself in NYC – it was now safe to visit the place again. I was in town to attend a charity event at the American Museum of Natural History, which sits on Central Park West. My hotel was near Gramercy Park, and since I considered myself to be practically a New Yorker I naturally decided to take the subway.
I hopped on the uptown Green Line, got off at Grand Central and took the Crosstown shuttle to Times Square. As I stepped onto the uptown Red Line platform, a train was just pulling in. I strode confidently aboard, smugly congratulating myself on having navigated the bizarre subway system every bit as well as any native New Yorker. It was only then that I realized I was riding on the express train to 125th Street.(1)
At the American Museum, my dinner partner on my right was one of those New York society ladies who look like they could use a good meal. As I took my seat late, a couple across the room was also arriving late.
“Do you know who that is?” whispered the society lady.
“Sure,” I said, “That’s Stan Druckenmiller, the hedge fund guy. He’s from Pittsburgh, you know, started his career as an oil analyst at the old Pittsburgh National Bank.”
The society lady seemed slightly scandalized by this, but said, “And that lady with him is his wife. Actually, his second wife.”
She then told me a lot more than I needed to know about the first marriages of Stan and Fiona, but I was only listening with one ear. Mostly, I occupied myself by wondering what a guy had to do to get a drink in that joint.
But then, gradually, I realized the society lady was saying something interesting. Stan and Fiona, she’d been saying, were extremely generous folks.(2) She confided to me that they’d taken an interest in a new anti-poverty program that had adopted something like one hundred blocks in Harlem. What they were doing up there is, they were bringing to that neighborhood a wide range of services – those that middle class neighborhoods took for granted – to address in a soup-to-nuts way the problems poor families faced.
I stared at the society lady in astonishment. “What’s this program called?” I asked.
“The Harlem Children’s Zone,” she told me.
I didn’t believe her for a minute, but later I looked it up and the society lady was exactly right. Harlem Children’s Zone – HCZ – was the brainchild of a brilliant and charismatic African-American named Geoffrey Canada. What he wanted to do was to bring to this neighborhood a whole series of resources middle class neighborhoods took for granted: early childhood services (e.g., HCZ’s The Baby College parenting workshops and its Harlem Gems pre-school program), childhood services (asthma and obesity programs, the Fifth Grade Institute), and high school and college programs, including the Promise Academy charter school and Harlem Peacekeepers.
He couldn’t do this with government money (just ask your humble scrivener about that), so he did it with private money, especially Stan and Fiona’s. And while it’s too soon to know how HCZ will ultimately work out, the early results are so promising that many other large cities have attempted to clone the program. In Pittsburgh, for example, we have the Homewood Children’s Village.(3)
The reason for the excitement is straightforward: 83% of HCZ’s third graders score at or above their grade norms on New York State’s standardized tests (that’s higher than white kids in New York); 87% of eighth graders score at or above grade level; and 90% of HCZ’s high schoolers go on to college.
That’s sensational stuff, you’re thinking! The only question before the house is, why did it take forty years to do it? The answer? Because that’s how public policy gets made.
(1) Fortunately, they’d invented cellphones by then, so I was able to call my friend and tell her I’d be late and why. “I’ve got one word for you,” she said. “’Taxi.’”
(2) She wasn’t kidding. A few years later Stan and Fiona gave away more than $700 million – I mean, in that year alone – and were awarded the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy.
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