Both parties have let down Duncan Street

July 27, 2004|By Michael Olesker

THE DEMOCRATS are meeting formally in Boston this week, and soon the Republicans will gather in New York, and on Duncan Street they convene every day by reflex. Not that anybody notices. The Democrats talk a good game, and the Republicans fake it here and there, and the final result is the same: They gather on Duncan Street because so little has changed, even in an election year, in the life of so many black Americans.

On Duncan, just off Monument Street by the Northeast Market, we have Mike Collins sitting outside his Music Unlimited operation. He sells marked-down CDs and VCRs and audio tapes, much of it secondhand stuff, from a garage setup converted to a sidewalk operation, and convenes with people wondering about their next influx of cash.

"Business? Terrible," says Collins. "People don't have jobs, so they don't have money to buy merchandise. Plus, they got nowhere to go, so they hang out around here."

He gestures along Duncan Street, a scruffy little commercial strip narrow as an alley. There are two barbershops a few doors down, each with men gathered out front who have no apparent place to go, and a bar in between them, and Collins' place, where familiar faces show up.

Here comes Gilbert Myers, 48, who empties trash around the market and helps old people carry groceries. It's his living. Here's a guy named Poochie, who makes a few bucks washing cars parked outside the market. Then comes Sam Hopson, 55, downsized from his city job, and John Gaines, 55, downsized from a hospital job, and Gary Alsup, who says he's a drug counselor but hasn't worked in two years.

"I need work, like, yesterday," says Alsup. "People gotta eat. Ain't no substitute for food, ain't that right, John?"

"Survival, baby," says Gaines, nodding his head.

"My wife teaches school," says Alsup. "Don't be for that, I might be down the shelter. And you know what the schools are like."

The city schools, for quick reference, have laid off about a thousand people in the past year, and have now been taken to federal court to assure no more threats to the education of children. But the places such as Duncan Street reflect so many lost years of these schools turning out students, most of them black, who go on to spend their lifetimes unable to find steady work.

It is this way around the country. A new national study, out of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies, says one out of every four black men is idle all year long. Among school dropouts, the rate is 44 percent. Neither figure includes black males who are incarcerated -- a figure estimated at 10 percent among those under the age of 40.

The Democrats now gather in Boston, comfortable that blacks will vote for John Kerry. All polls, and all history of the past half-century, assure them of this. Four years ago, George W. Bush got 8 percent of the black vote. The Democrats are the party that championed the modern civil rights era. The Republicans have Bush, too busy for the past four years to meet with the NAACP. No other president in memory has done this.

So a week ago, Bush deigned to meet with the Urban League. "I'm here to ask for your vote," Bush said. "No, I know, I know, I know. The Republican Party has got a lot of work to do. I understand that."

But he also asked questions that make Democrats uneasy. "I know plenty of politicians assume they have your vote," Bush told the Urban League convention. "But do they earn it, and do they deserve it? Is it a good thing for the African-American community to be represented mainly by one political party? That's a legitimate question. How is it possible to gain political leverage if the party is never forced to compete?"

Because here we are on Duncan Street, where nothing changes. They hear the Democrats talk a good game, and they watch the Republicans fake it here and there. But the study out of Northeastern University says the jobless rate among blacks is about twice that of whites and Hispanics. And you hear a name.

"Shorty," says John Gaines, one of the unemployed.

"Oh, yeah, Shorty," agrees another voice, and then a third. "He's going somewhere."

Shorty's a kid from the neighborhood. He's 15. He works at one of the Northeast Market stalls, and when that work is done he crosses Duncan Street and sweeps up in one of the barbershops. This is held up as a great symbol of hope: Shorty has work.

Good for Shorty. But if this is a sign of a neighborhood's employment dreams, then the Democrats and the Republicans can feel ashamed of themselves. The Democrats, for talking a good game with nothing behind it. And the Republicans, for not even bothering to fake it convincingly.

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