In December 2013, just as the 12-year Michael Bloomberg era was giving way to the Bill de Blasio years, the New York Times published a bombshell investigation. The report, called “Invisible Child,” appeared to demolish Bloomberg’s claim that he had left New York City a better place. The story’s focus was Dasani, an 11-year-old Brooklyn girl, who shared with nine other family members a single room in a rodent-infested homeless shelter. For journalist Andrea Elliott, Dasani was a symbol, her plight partly the result of “decisions made a world away, in the marble confines of City Hall.” Because of the administration’s decisions and negligence, Dasani had been “pushed further into the margins.” The five-part, nearly 30,000-word series riveted New York’s political and intellectual classes. Times readers were “heartbroken” and “ashamed.” Bloomberg attempted damage control, calling Dasani’s situation “atypical” and lamenting that “this kid was dealt a bad hand.” Mayor-elect de Blasio, preparing to take office, promised “a very different approach.”
Elliott has now turned Dasani’s story into an extraordinarily reported 530-page book. She spent eight years with Dasani’s family, sometimes sleeping on the floor with them. With Dasani’s mother’s and stepfather’s permission, she pored through city records, tracking everything from child-abuse allegations to drug-addiction treatment. Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City is beautifully written and searingly empathetic.
Yet the book already feels dated, reflecting a particular moment in New York’s history. Invisible Child isn’t just the story of Dasani—compelling as it is—but an expression of affluent New York’s postmillennial, pre-pandemic anxieties. Elliott expertly understands her educated readership’s guilty worry in the years before 2020. She sees Dasani and her family through an angle, sometimes strained, of racialized class stratification. New York’s main problem, in her book’s telling, is white gentrification.
Each New York generation gets its defining journalistic tome of urban deprivation. In 1995, the book was All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence, by Times writer Fox Butterfield; it won a Pulitzer Prize. In 2003, it was Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. The formula is the same: multiyear access to a poor family that stands in for the perceived problems of a whole city and beyond. In Butterfield’s book, the dominant theme, from the perspective of the early 1990s, when he finished writing it, is government’s failure to stop violent crime. For LeBlanc, from the perspective of the late 1990s, as she finished reporting, the theme is the city’s abdication of responsibility for its most vulnerable citizens. Each is worth reading as a capsule of the prevailing elite anxiety of its time—even if the authors are more comfortable blaming external forces than reckoning with the role of human agency that they so aptly chronicle.
Elliott wants readers to ponder New York’s postmillennial gentrification. Bloomberg’s successes carry a dark side. “More than three hundred miles of fresh bike lanes connect commuters to high-tech jobs.” Wealthier New Yorkers enjoy “futuristic projects like the High Line.” In Manhattan and Brooklyn, “glassy roofs reach skyward.” In Fort Greene, Brooklyn, by contrast, where Dasani lives in the homeless shelter in a neighborhood where her mother has deep roots, families like hers are “erased by a gentrification so vast and meteoric that no brand of bottled water could have signaled it.” There’s the obligatory juxtaposition of poverty and wealth. In Fort Greene, “French bulldogs on leashes and infants riding in elevated strollers with shock-absorbing wheels” perambulate near a “fancy wine shop,” across from “the Chinese Fried Chicken that gives fries to hungry kids.”
The contrasts are accurate enough, providing a vivid picture of pre-pandemic Brooklyn. It’s also true, as Elliott writes, that Dasani’s African-American ancestors had a much tougher time of it than did comparable white families in post–World War II New York. Migrants from the South, they faced racial discrimination in job opportunities—Dasani’s great-grandfather, a trained mechanic and World War II veteran, had to work as a janitor—and in housing, where banks wouldn’t approve mortgages for decaying brownstone apartment buildings.
But Dasani and her parents are not in a homeless shelter by 2013 because of gentrification. Before having children, Chanel, Dasani’s mother, already dependent on drugs, had quit her McDonald’s job to work as a low-level drug dealer and madam. In 2001, when Chanel, at 24, gives birth to Dasani, her first child, she is already homeless, chiefly because she doesn’t want to live with her mother, Joanie, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway cleaner with a decent apartment. With baby Dasani, Chanel and her then-boyfriend, Dasani’s father, enter the city’s shelter system, “the fastest way for any single, young Black parent who wants to get out of their mama’s house,” she tells Elliott. But Chanel gravitates back to Brooklyn, spending her days either in a “crack-induced high” or depressed. Her boyfriend leaves, and she’s back in the shelters. Thanks to New York’s social services, though, she, Dasani, and her second child, Avianna, wind up in a private Harlem apartment, complete with a kitchenette. There, she meets—and then marries—Supreme, a widower with two young children.
The city gives Chanel and Supreme, a convicted drug dealer and trained barber, many chances to assume responsibility for their growing family. By 2006, when Dasani is five, the couple get “their first real apartment,” a two-bedroom unit in East New York, Brooklyn. For 18 months, under a new Bloomberg subsidy program, the government pays their $1,176 monthly rent. Yet they “kept failing—to hold down a job, to resist getting high,” and time runs out on the rent-subsidy program. Chanel and Supreme failed to use it, or the ample job-training, job-search, and drug-treatment initiatives also offered by New York, to become more self-sufficient. Amazingly, the city keeps trying. A different subsidy program pays the $1,481 rent “in full” at another apartment for another year. Supreme gets a job at a nearby barbershop, Chanel as a seasonal parks-maintenance worker. They’ve also got a $49,000 inheritance from the now-deceased Joanie.
But by 2010, Chanel and Supreme are no closer to supporting themselves. Joanie’s money runs out, and the family finds itself in the Brooklyn one-room shelter—the last stop, typically, for people who have refused to take advantage of other government help. Yet in 2014, after the Times runs its series, Chanel and Supreme—now with eight children—get a federally funded voucher for a third apartment, on Staten Island, costing $2,044 monthly. By no means have wealthier New Yorkers displaced this family.
Just as Dasani’s family is never economically displaced, nor are they personally traumatized by gentrification or being in proximity to wealth. Dasani likes the view of the Empire State Building outside her shelter. “It makes me feel like there’s something going on out there,” she says. One day in Brooklyn, Chanel and four of her kids, with “two greasy boxes of pizza,” enter Fort Greene’s fancy wine store. Dasani is intrigued by a wine-tasting sign and thinks it’s a good idea for her mother to relax with a few sips. It’s the perfect setup for a cringe-inducing vignette, especially when Chanel announces of the several wines on offer that “I’ma try ’em all.” The “peppy blonde” sommelier, the reader thinks, will look down on this black family, and ask if they’re going to buy anything. Instead, she explains each wine to Chanel, with no hint of disrespect.
Dasani observes her wealthier Fort Greene neighbors with interest. More affluent people— “the whites,” in her child’s simplistic view—“save their money and don’t spend it on drinking and smoking” (though they spend some of it on expensive wine). Dasani’s mother, too, has a sense of humor regarding booming Brooklyn. “Among the ironies of gentrification, Chanel likes to point out, lapdogs have become fashionable in the projects, while rescued pit bulls are in vogue among whites.”
Invisible Child often tries to draw a picture of an uncaring government and social-services bureaucracy that looks down on poor people—poor black people, especially. But Elliott’s reporting doesn’t support such a conclusion. When one of Chanel’s children is born with marijuana in his system, the hospital finds out because it did a drug test “without informed consent.” But both parents have a long, documented history of drug abuse—and domestic violence. At a Staten Island hospital, a school principal finds one doctor “condescending” and “overly eager to report suspicions” about the family to the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. But one can hardly fault the doctor for reporting Chanel and Supreme. The principal is at the hospital because the police have brought their elementary-age son there, after finding him wandering, alone, blocks from his house, in below-freezing weather. The boy, nicknamed Papa, had already showed up once at school with a “nickel-sized wound in his scalp, saying that his father had struck him with a belt.”
When Chanel and Supreme eventually lose custody of their children to ACS and foster care, Elliott seems to portray the calamity as the consequence of officials’ racially tinged contempt. When ACS wants Chanel to take a drug test to ascertain if she has stayed clean, for example, Elliott notes that such hair-follicle tests suffer from “hair color bias” because a person with dark, thick hair absorbs more drugs, possibly testing positive “simply from being in the same room as someone smoking crack.” Maybe so—but Chanel has been neglecting her children a long time and, after she loses custody, is mostly inaccessible by text or phone. She refuses to take the test—with no explanation—for months. Similarly, Supreme’s older teenage son, Khaliq, is hospitalized for a psychotic fit, after smoking one of his father’s K2-laced cigarettes. This episode can hardly give caseworkers confidence that the family is avoiding drugs.
When a judge, after giving Chanel and Supreme multiple chances to prove that they are drug-free and capable of caring for their kids, finally revokes custody—first from Chanel and then later from both parents—Elliott writes that it was partly because a caseworker, Marisol, “misled” the judge in failing to report Chanel’s recent clean urine test and in not giving Chanel credit for “her efforts to meet and cooperate with ACS.” But staying off drugs for just a few days was not the deal; Chanel was supposed to be clean and sober the entire time she had responsibility for her children. And Chanel’s idea of cooperation with ACS is to be unreachable for months before suddenly showing up at Marisol’s office, expecting the caseworker to recall each of her case’s details instantaneously.
This is not to excuse government’s real mistakes, from a hospital sending a woman—Chanel—with a history of addiction home with a prescription for opioid pills to not transferring Chanel’s food-stamp benefits immediately to Supreme, after she initially loses custody to her husband. There’s no excuse for government to contract with private-sector shelter and housing providers with badly maintained properties, infested with rodents. Then again, the only reason the door on the couple’s Staten Island apartment is broken is that Chanel, frustrated at not finding her keys, wrecked it on the family’s first day there. And during the months it took the city to transfer the food-stamp benefits, Chanel controlled the thousands of dollars that the city kept crediting to her benefits card and could have bought food in Supreme’s presence without seeing the children, thus not violating ACS’s no-contact order.
Moreover, for every encounter with the uncaring hand of government, Chanel’s family benefits from government officials and charitable organizations invested in their success. This history starts with Chanel’s mother, Joanie, who gets her MTA job only after 1990s-era reforms get her off welfare. She calls her first day of work “the best day of my life.” Decades later, Chanel undergoes multiple government-paid drug-treatment programs, including a monthlong in-patient initiative at Mount Sinai.
Dasani loves her Brooklyn middle school, where teachers, counselors, and administrators are patient with the girl’s outbursts and physical violence, teaching her techniques to control her anger. The kids love New York’s public library. When Dasani gets accepted as a scholarship middle school student at Pennsylvania’s Milton Hershey School for poor children, and enrolls at the boarding academy, she profits not only from an enriching education and after-school environment—joining the track and cheer teams and taking several field trips—but also from an army of social workers and “house parents.”
Likewise, Dasani’s family’s increasingly frequent encounters with the criminal-justice system don’t show a racist police state, as Elliott half-heartedly implies. Supreme’s felony conviction doesn’t keep him from finding work as a barber. Chanel habitually shoplifts, but she faces no serious repercussions, even when caught. When Supreme attempts an armed robbery to buy food for his children, he spends just a night in jail; ACS doesn’t even notice that he’s missing from the home, at a time when he had sole custody of the kids. Dasani is kicked out of her Pennsylvania boarding school after several violent fights, including “playfully” wielding a knife against a housemate. Back in New York, she keeps brawling at her Staten Island high school. Her mother, Chanel, shows up to protect her, with a “disassembled” gun in her purse. Police don’t search Chanel because of their racism but because students inform them that she has threatened them with a gun. The cops, “perhaps out of pity for Chanel,” charge her with a lesser crime than the offense merits; she spends little time at Rikers.
The most serious criminal saga is that of Khaliq, Supreme’s son and Dasani’s stepbrother. As an underage teen, Khaliq randomly attacks “a sixty-three-year-old white woman” on Staten Island—apparently, an example of the “knock-out game.” Elliott paraphrases Khaliq’s assessment on getting caught, that “it’s hard for a Black youth to get any other perception” than “as a thief, a troublemaker, and angry.” Yet this idea of a young black teen fated by a racist society to become a violent criminal is contradicted by the shocked reaction of his caseworker, an older white woman herself. She “never would have believed” that Khaliq committed the crime until seeing his face, clearly, on video.
New York’s de Blasio–era justice system does all it can to keep Khaliq out of jail. His punishment for this horrible crime: a judge asks him to write an apology. It’s only after Khaliq commits many more assaults, mostly on older whites, that a judge sends him to juvenile detention. In September 2020, a “surveillance video will show a young man approaching a white Mercedes-Benz on Staten Island’s North Shore. The assailant—his face obscured by a hoodie—will point a nine- millimeter semiautomatic pistol at two young men in the car, opening fire and killing one of the men in a gang-related hit.” Four and a half months later, police arrest Khaliq, 19, for the murder.
Invisible Child does prove that Dasani and her seven siblings got a raw deal in one sense—the lottery of birth. There’s no doubt, too, that Supreme and Chanel, products of their own respective family dysfunctions, drew a similarly bad hand. The unanswered question, though, is: What more, exactly, could government have done? For two decades—more, if one includes the previous generations of Chanel’s and Supreme’s families—New York City has provided free housing, free food, free schooling, intensive drug treatment and counseling, and careful government supervision to help the family.
Invisible Child, despite Elliott’s steering, doesn’t work, then, as a warning about the ills of gentrification or the callousness of government. Chanel, Supreme, and their ten children are not even a typical New York poor family, as Elliott acknowledges. (If the author had selected the average poor family to chronicle, she would have chosen “a single mother with two children, working a low-wage job.”) Elliott chose Dasani because she liked the spunky preteen, whom she met during the Bloomberg era, and appreciated her ability to “breathe life into the story.” Dasani’s story is more about a city that spends vast resources yearly on poor families, with often-discouraging results, unless they do something to help themselves.
A half-decade before Dasani was born, the affluent, educated people reading books about New York City poverty weren’t worried about gentrification but about violent crime, seen as an outgrowth of being poor. All God’s Children (1995), Butterfield’s Dasani-style saga, observed that everything New York had done to stop wayward poor children and teens from becoming killers—”super predators,” in the day’s lingo—had proved futile.
Butterfield’s antihero was Willie Bosket, one of New York’s first “baby-faced killers.” In 1978, at 15, Bosket shot and killed two strangers on the subway, in separate attacks. Eleven years later, Bosket, by then in adult prison for another violent crime, “stabbed a [state] prison guard in the chest with a five-and-and-a-half-inch shank.” Representing himself in court in that attempted-murder case, Bosket called himself “a monster created by the system.” Butterfield adopted as his thesis the idea that government had failed Bosket, and he set out to find out how. Like Elliott after him, Butterfield enjoyed extraordinary access to his subject.
A Harlem native descended from southern migrants escaping Jim Crow, Bosket had a family background even more dysfunctional than Dasani’s. When his mother, Laura, was pregnant with him, his father murdered two strangers in a Milwaukee pawnshop and received a life sentence. Like Dasani, Willie had attentive teachers at his public elementary school in Harlem. One “soft-spoken, gentle black woman . . . controlled him with a mix of firmness and affection.” But Willie’s mother never took much interest in him, and he was dangerously violent even as a preteen, randomly attacking people on New York’s streets. At nine, he set a black homeless man on fire. After that incident, Willie was essentially a ward of the state.
The state, by Bosket’s admission, did all it could to help him. A juvenile judge sent him to Wiltwyck, a residential school for troubled children in New York’s Hudson Valley. Supported by Eleanor Roosevelt, Wiltwyck was no abusive warehouse for throwaway kids. “At its apogee . . . there was something special about it, like the Peace Corps,” Butterfield writes. “Visitors came from all over the country to see how Wiltwyck succeeded where others failed.” Conscientious teachers and aides tried to teach Bosket how to manage his rage. He called one staffer “mom.” Yet Wiltwyck ultimately couldn’t handle him. He threw a chair at a pregnant social worker, kicked a doctor, punched a nurse, and ran away. He was committed to Bellevue Hospital as a young teen, but Bellevue expelled him, too, and the boy was moved to a state “training school.” There, again by his own account, the staff was caring, but he fled the low-security facility.
Back in Harlem, the 15-year-old committed violent robbery after robbery; he likely kicked a man to his death off a neighborhood roof. Police caught him quickly after the two subway killings. He received just a five-year juvenile sentence, a well-publicized outrage that spurred Governor Hugh Carey to sign a law mandating that the state try younger teens accused of particularly vicious crimes as adults.
Emerging from juvenile jail as a 20-year-old convicted double murderer, Willie still enjoyed official goodwill. He returned again to Harlem, where he became romantically involved with a young neighbor. He told her mother that he wanted to marry her, admitting, “I’m afraid it was me who killed those men on the subway.” “That’s OK,” the mother said. “It’s what you do now that is important.” Bosket married, and “allowed himself to think [that] he wasn’t predestinated to spend his life in prison after all.”
And yet, soon after, “he wanted to have some fun” with an elderly upstairs neighbor. “You fucking faggot,” Willie yelled at him after a minor argument. Brandishing a knife, he added: “I’m going to kill you.” Police arrested him. In Butterfield’s view, “it was a minor scrape,” but to an old man subjected to verbal abuse and a violent threat, it wasn’t minor. Willie got sent to prison—adult prison, this time—and, a few years later, tried to murder the guard, whom he didn’t know, in a premeditated attack, in view of hundreds of visitors. He was sentenced to a life in solitary confinement, which, decades later, he is still serving upstate.
Willie Bosket’s tale is bleakly interesting, but it falls short of Butterfield’s broader thesis: that he was a “monster created by the system.” What more should government have done? New York took custody of Willie before he reached his teens. The state and city never treated him abusively. Butterfield offers a closing caution: “In the closing years of the twentieth century, the number of young boys committing murder . . . has reached epidemic proportions,” he writes. “With the number of teenagers projected to increase by 20 percent over the next decade, many criminologists predict that America’s homicide rate will rise sharply again, making the early 1990s look like the good old days.” That prediction reinforced popular fears, but it did not come true. Good policing overcame the demographics, and violent crime plummeted. All God’s Children offered its affluent readers what turned out to be a fantasy: that poverty inevitably brought violence and that there was nothing officials could do about it, as long as such inequities persisted.
Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s 2003 tale of loosely related teenagers growing up in the Bronx from the mid-1980s through the late 1990s, bridges the eras covered by Butterfield and Elliott. In the 1980s, New York hadn’t yet embraced preventive policing or welfare reform. But it had largely given up on the well-meaning progressive ideas meant to help Willie Bosket. LeBlanc doesn’t really have a theme; what she does, writing in the interregnum between expansive liberal anticrime policies and aggressive conservative anticrime policies, is depict unrelenting chaos.
What’s striking about Jessica, her brother, Cesar, and his girlfriend, Coco—the teens LeBlanc trails through the South Bronx for a decade—is that, like the Charlie Brown cartoon characters, they’re seemingly on their own. Parents, teachers, counselors, and ACS caseworkers are nowhere to be found. The book has an air of nihilistic glamour. “George,” Jessica’s drug-kingpin boyfriend, “took her to Club 371. . . . A long line of people waited to enter. He strode to the front. Girls eyed him. . . . The hostess seated the foursome in the VIP section, and a waitress appeared with a bottle of Moët. The dance floor smelled of perfume instead of sweat. Jessica got up and performed a little dance for George in front of their table; everyone treated George like a king. . . . The night ended in two $500 suites . . . in Teaneck, New Jersey.” A party on a yacht paid for by drug dealers is “like prom night, but with an open bar and no chaperones.”
But consequences abound. Jessica, a gorgeous girl with no adult supervision, is easy prey for older men. After an incident at a party that most people, today, would consider acquaintance rape, she gets pregnant in her early teens. She and her daughter live in a household full of unrelated men, coming and going. When her toddler, two-year-old Serena, “started to cry whenever she peed,” she takes the baby to the hospital, which diagnoses sexual abuse—but child-welfare officials don’t intervene. A few years later, Coco takes her own young daughter to the doctor, only to find that he thinks she “might have been molested.” He says that he must notify the authorities—but again, nothing happens. Welfare checks come to new mothers and grandmothers, with no strings attached. “The first week of each month, after the welfare check came in, was best—a time to buy things . . . . Outside, the drug dealers enjoyed a surge in business. . . . Everything changed toward the end of the month, when the money ran out.”
The government doesn’t care about male teens and young adults, either. Cesar fails to “make it to junior high”; he falls into the drug trade. He is in a park one day “when an argument over a basketball erupted into a shooting spree. Usually, the cops weren’t so concerned about hoodlums shooting at one another, but this time a bullet had grazed a two-year-old.” As a young adult, Cesar earns a long prison sentence after he accidentally shoots his best friend, aiming for a group of rival teens. Puma, Jessica’s ex-boyfriend and Serena’s father, is shot to death while holding another child. Law enforcement doesn’t intrude into the South Bronx to keep small crimes from escalating into large ones—at least, not until Jessica’s pusher boyfriend, George, becomes such a prominent heroin dealer that he gets the attention of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and, after a 1990 trial, a long federal prison sentence. (He’s still serving it.) Jessica loses her kids not to an abuse or neglect case, as with Dasani’s family, but when the feds convict her of narcotics conspiracy in service of George’s million-dollar-a-week business.
The displacement phenomenon in LeBlanc’s book is the opposite of gentrification: poor families voluntarily tiring of this life and fleeing the city. As Coco enters her twenties, with three small children and a fourth on the way, “a growing number of Bronx friends and neighbors . . . had moved upstate. . . . Children could play outdoors safely. Schools were strict about classwork and attendance. . . . There were jobs.” Coco “decided to make the move. . . . She felt that no good would come of staying in the Bronx.” In 2001, Jessica, released from prison, is jarred by the changes in her home borough: “Some of Tremont’s hungry spiritedness had been subdued. . . . Under the policies of New York City’s prosecutorial mayor, police had frog-marched the dealers off the streets.” Indeed. Jessica, like Dasani and Willie, is hardly a representative specimen: most young minority women don’t do hard time in federal prison for heroin sales.
After reading Random Family, a reader might ask not what more the city government could have done to help Jessica, Coco, and Cesar, but why didn’t it try to do anything? From that perspective, Dasani’s story, nearly four decades on from the 1980s Bronx, is not entirely a failure. After 2016, Dasani doesn’t settle easily back into New York City after her discharge from Hershey. Staying with a foster family, she flirts with gang membership. When the city learns that a rival gang has put a price on her head, it moves her to a government-run group home in a different borough to keep her away from her new enemies. She does eventually calm down, to a degree. After a judge allows the nearly grown-up teen and her next- eldest sister to stay with their mother again, Dasani graduates high school, the first in her family to do so, and makes plans for community college. Her sister Avianna, a year behind, is following the same path. Three of their siblings are flourishing in foster care, likely on their way to adoption; a fourth, in a different foster home, graduates from high school and plans for college. Even Chanel is making progress, delivering food for Postmates during the pandemic and winning back supervised custody of her younger son.
If Dasani and her siblings do get ahead, it will be largely because of signature accomplishments of the Giuliani and Bloomberg years and even, to some extent, the pre-pandemic de Blasio years: keeping violent crime low, encouraging poor people to work, intervening in severely dysfunctional families, and emphasizing the K–12 education system, which consistently gave Dasani and her siblings emotional and psychological support throughout their turbulent lives. The girls, by living in gentrified Brooklyn, have also absorbed a lesson not available to the families that Butterfield and LeBlanc covered, living in crime-ridden, burned-out, late-twentieth- century Harlem and the Bronx: feeling safe enough to walk a diverse neighborhood as children, and to observe and interact with functional, successful neighbors of all races and incomes.
Taken together, the Elliott, Butterfield, and LeBlanc books are representative commentaries on how influential New Yorkers understood major city problems at a particular time. If they share a common theme—albeit largely unintended by all three authors—it is one that would apply to the city in any era: that there is only so much society can do to prevent people from self-destructive and socially harmful behavior.
Top Photo: Dasani Coates, the subject of Andrea Elliott’s new book Invisible Child (RUTH FREMSON/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX)