No, not this time around, says Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.), "absolutely not." The negatives pour forth from the congressman in whose district is the nation's most abused political prop: Charlotte Street, South Bronx. In the past, its urban rubblescape has been the backdrop before which presidential candidates -- Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980 -- posed and said the time had come to help the black and Hispanic poor.
Not this year, says Garcia. He will keep the candidates away from Charlotte Street. No more pictures, no more promises. "We will not indulge in that kind of political activity in this district," said Garcia the other morning in his busy storefront district office. Instead of what he calls the "nonsense" publicity of candidates swooping into the South Bronx and swooping out, Garcia hopes to arrange meetings between the candidates and his people.
In itself, that is no major priority. What is talk? How often does it alter the conditions of powerlessness? The national politicians know well what miseries the citizens of the South Bronx are suffering. What they might not know, or care to know, is that in what the Census Bureau calls the nation's poorest congressional district, the destitution deepens.
An exponential collection of statistics is available to document the sinking. More than 43 percent of the South Bronx's families live beneath the poverty line, the largest such percentage of any of the nation's 435 congressional districts. Fifty-one percent of America's families have children under the age of 18; in the South Bronx, it is 67 percent. Between 1970 and 1980, America's population grew by 11 percent. In the South Bronx, it decreased 37 percent.
The suffering of the poor is unquantifiable, but when Garcia came to Congress in 1978, he believed the federal government was at least responding and occasionally delivering. That year and the next saw 267,000 low-income housing units authorized for construction or rehabilitation nationwide. That money is now just reaching the South Bronx. It takes, said Garcia, a lead time of about five years before a paper is signed in Washington for public housing and a poor person in the South Bronx has a key in his hand to open the door of a low- cost apartment.
Funds from the Carter administration's Department of Housing and Urban Development are now seeping into the neighborhoods. The trouble is that four and five years ago, the wait for an apartment was six months. Now it is as much as two years. When notices are posted that 200 rehabilitated apartments are available, 4,000 to 5,000 applications are made. For the lucky 200, the rents are often too high.
Compared with the 267,000 new or rehabilitated units in 1978 and 1979, only 24,000 have been authorized in 1983-1984 under the Reagan administration. The effort being made now is to salvage such groups as the South Bronx Community Development Organization with city and state funds. Garcia says he is optimistic. He resents the fact that his district has become synonymous with urban decay, when in fact as many as 100 community organizations are at work to ease the new pains caused by Reagan policies.
Garcia, who is chairman of the House Hispanic Caucus and has a district with a 50 percent Puerto Rican population, recently polled his citizens on Ronald Reagan's favorite question: Are you better off now than four years ago? "Three- quarters of the people," he says, "said either we're as bad or worse off."
Garcia himself is worse off when it comes to access with power: "I had served (two years) when Jimmy Carter was president. I can remember the briefings at the White House when people were brought in. In fairness to Carter, (these were) Republicans and Democrats. Since this man (Reagan) has been president of the United States, I have not set foot in the White House for any briefing on any subject. . . . It's a very political, very partisan group of people."
A heavy-framed man who is close to having the build of a bruiser, Garcia is unincendiary in his discussion of the South Bronx's problems. He is not a screamer. Why should he be? The suffering that cries out every day from the country's severest scene of poverty is its own loud voice of pain. It is the nation's deafness that keeps it from being heard.