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At this year’s Heroes Breakfast, David Saltzman and Geoffrey Canada, the President of the Harlem’s Children Zone, reflected on how much our city has changed since Robin Hood’s founding in 1988.

Far from the gleaming metropolis that many know today, three decades ago New York was a bleak city struggling to claw its way back from the brink of financial collapse and plagued by rampant drug use, crime, and murder. In 1990 alone there were 2,262 murders compared to just 352 in 2015.

For children living in poverty in this era of our city, life was grim at best.

Revisit this haunting period in New York City’s history in a speech delivered by Geoffrey Canada at the 1992 Robin Hood Heroes Breakfast. At the time, Canada was being honored for his work as the CEO of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, a group that aids poor children.

As you read Canada’s moving words, bear in mind that despite the enormous progress we have made, our city is still a challenging place for the 1.8 million New Yorkers living in poverty. A record high 60,000 are sleeping in homeless shelters every night including nearly 24,000 children. We have more work to do.


New York City — December 28, 1992

YOU are probably going to be a little concerned when I tell you how happy I am to be honored as a children’s hero.
Some people might be a little more modest and say: “Don’t call me a hero. I’m not worthy of such flattery.”
But not me. I desperately want to be a children’s hero.

You see, children here in the city need heroes because a hero summons up images of supernatural powers. Heroes were meant to slay dragons and monsters, and far too many of our children face monsters every day.

Now I’m not speaking metaphorically. I’m talking the real thing — Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, real monsters.
If you calculate the number of deaths these three monsters cause on any given night, it doesn’t compare to an average Friday night in New York City. In 1991, for example, there were about 12 murders a weekend.

Plus, these monsters did not really see children as their target. Well, that’s not entirely true.
Frankenstein threw the little girl in the pond when he ran out of flowers. But even his intent was not to kill children. So the images we have of monsters actually pale in comparison to the reality that many of our children face.

Our children face monsters who kill in the night and the day, monsters who lurk in the dark. They see monsters on their way to school, in the park, in the hallways at night — monsters who leave traces of their brutal work, staining floors and walls, the vestiges of which tell of horrors unspeakable to such young minds.

Our children know that we cannot see the monsters, not really, because if we saw them, we would certainly protect them. What group of men and women would sacrifice their children to monsters?

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I do this work because I haven’t forgotten about the monsters. I remember them.

I remember being small, vulnerable and scared. I remember growing up in the South Bronx, when I was 7 and we were cooking potatoes in a hole in the ground in the backyard, which was really an empty lot behind our tenement. Urban campfire boys, or something like that.

We used to call the potatoes “mickeys” — I don’t know what it stands for — and 5 cents would buy enough for the group. We thought this was the greatest of fun.

Suddenly some man, who was crazy or drunk or evil, or just a monster, burst on us screaming and grabbing and yelling.
We all ran for our very lives, hit the fence and climbed over — all but one boy, William. He was fat; he was slow. He got caught. The monster beat him bad. We never found out why or who it was or what it was all about.

The thing about monsters is that sometimes they need no reason to act and we children learned that our survival depended on running fast and climbing fences because monsters can’t climb fences fast.

Now why is that? It’s true you know. As any child who knows how to run from monsters will tell you, they can’t climb over fences as quickly as little boys can.

And how hard we practiced, my friends and I, in the afternoon and early evenings, running through alleys, climbing over fences, learning our monster drill — run, run, fast, fast, hit the fence, over quick, over quick. (Come on now, you know you could be caught.)

And then there was a young boy named Malcolm, just a little boy, whose only distinction was that he was the poorest among us and one of the nicest. And they were only rolling a tire in the afternoon when the man yelled to shut up the noise, and they laughed and paid him no mind. Who knew where monsters lived?

Down he came and shot Malcolm — all of 10 years old — dead in the street in broad daylight. That monster they took away somewhere — jail, Bellevue, who knows — and so we learned of monsters in the Bronx.

Don’t wake up the monster. Climb the fence, over, over, fast, monsters on the street. No heroes in our neighborhood, no Superman or Batman. No heroes here, just monsters hurting children.

So you see, I have long waited to be a hero riding into town on my fiery steed, slaying monsters who prey on children. I know them for what they are. Even though I’m grown, I still remember them.

The poor children of this city live with monsters every day. Monsters deprive them of heat in the winter, they don’t fix their sinks and toilets, they let garbage pile up in their hallways, they kick them out of their homes, they beat them — sometimes to death — they rape their bodies and their minds.

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Sometimes they lurk under the stairs. They scuttle around in the dark; you hear them in the walls gnawing, squeaking, occasionally biting a little finger.

Monsters work seven days a week and don’t take vacations. And each night when the children leave our care, we pray we will see them again and won’t hear tales of monsters. And it seems to me that on this special day, if we can talk of heroes, then we can talk of monsters.

And if I can be a hero today, then I want what every hero wants — to ride into town with the troops on a big, bold horse, having vanquished the evil, the monster’s head held high on a lance.

And the children looking out of the windows saying, “He killed the monster, come out, come out.”

The children would run out to the streets and cheer, and they wouldn’t have to look under the stairs; they wouldn’t have to dodge the bullets and the glass and the filth. Their homes would be happy and their bellies full, and they would have love and laughter in their lives, and they would forget there ever were monsters.

Their nightmares would be a thing of dreams; the monster would be on television where you could change the channel or cover your eyes and hide under your mother’s arm, not daring to look.

And the children would have mittens and boots and happy holidays.

They would get up in the morning to smiles and go to school and worry about the multiplication tables and telling time, and not about monsters.

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