THE WOMAN WHO TOOK BACK HER STREETS by Rita Webb & Tony Chapelle Smith


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The kind of success story Americans are yearning for: about a woman, disgusted by what drugs were doing to her Harlem neighborhood, who refused to let fear, lack of education, or her powerless status as a welfare mother stop her from demanding--and winning--action from the top echelons of N.Y.C.'s political and law-enforcement systems. The writing here is less than polished--despite the input of Chapelle, who's written for the New York Times and National Public Radio--and the structure of the book is clumsy, as is the pacing, which bogs down, notably in a nearly verbatim transcription of the trial of the dealer who tried to murder Smith's son. But these stylistic problems do not overly detract from the human interest and power of this remarkable story: Rita Webb Smith had lived all her life on 143rd Street in Harlem, and as a twice-divorced mother of seven tried hard to maintain a decent and safe home for her family. But drugs were infesting her block in 1979; dealers and junkies did business openly, random shootings were frequent, and the block's residents--mostly elderly, or women raising children alone--cowered indoors in fear. Smith determined to take action, learning the ways of the bureaucracy and refusing to stop until she got police action. In the process, her son was shot by a dealer (he lived, and the dealer went to prison) and her own life was threatened--but Smith persevered. The result was spectacular: 143rd Street became virtually drug free; Smith secured millions from the city to rehab abandoned buildings on her block; she was lauded by the mayor and the President and was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from Fordham. No less important, she instilled hope and a new sense of personal power in her neighbors, who had long before resigned themselves to being victims. High drama and mass appeal.

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 1990
Publisher: New Horizon