National Geographic : 1990 May
drugs-that was the frightening exterior you read about and saw. It was the humanity that drew you in: The ice-cream man with the drooping mustache tending his wooden cart, Mexican-American boys selling flowers on the corner, weekend baseball on a neat diamond near the river, a happy man crossing the street to shake a friend's hand, kids practicing rap music on the corner, dressy little girls playing hopscotch in the park. There were people like Dr. Nabil Saad and Raymond Cornbill, who help run North Gen eral Hospital, a small 200-bed facility on 124th Street. "We take everyone who walks in the door," said Nabil Saad, Egyptian-born president of the medical staff and chief of pediatrics. "We accept the poorest of the poor." "Even if they can't pay," said Raymond Cornbill, chief operating officer, "we have a moral obligation." It's clear that things here are tough. Life is on the edge-big families, small incomes. The hospital's staff does indeed see some of the most desperate cases in the barrio-the home less people with venereal disease, the tubercu losis patients, the AIDS victims. But East Harlem isn't all drugs and crime. I came to know many of those residents- people who work, send their kids to school, shop in the little stores that open for business every day. Self-reliance, usefulness, responsi bility-that is their code. "I've worked for everything I've got," said Maria Penton, showing me her airy loft on 107th Street. Around us were rows of sew ing machines, ironing boards, a time clock, dresses on metal racks-the tools of her suc cessful dressmaking business. A healingpresence, Alejandro Lugo (left), a deacon at St. Cecilia Church, often closes his barbershop to minister to shut-ins. Paid "grandmothers" play with toddlers (above) so mothers can attend classes at a center run by the Little Sis ters of the Assumption. "Pov erty is the enemy," says co director Judy Garson. "Drugs are the cheapest way to feel good." One rising cost: babies born with AIDS, their mothers infected by needles. Dr. Rich ard Stone, Metropolitan's chief of pediatrics, cradles An gela, who died at 18 months.