Our society lacks unique examples that showcase the beauty of human nature. We are usually inundated with retweets or re-posts from the same handful of people and stories that society has installed as examples of what we ought to be. Often these people are celebrities or sports figures who are relatively detached from our realities. Seldom are we told about people like ourselves who dedicate their lives to making the world better through sacrifice.
In Brooklyn, there is a young Italian American man who at 39 (today) dedicates his life to positively impacting those who are much less fortunate than himself. He isn’t a professional baseball or football player. He is not an actor or famous musician nor is he an independently wealthy philanthropist with questionable motives and unlimited money to throw at the world’s issues. In fact, it is quite the contrary; this gentleman is modestly compensated.
John Russo, a charter school teacher, puts his pants on every morning just like anyone else. What John does differently is that he awakens each day to dedicate his life as a teacher at the Summit Academy Charter School, which is an institution that struggles to keep delivering hope to the youth of Red Hook, a neighborhood that has much less than most.
To first understand the challenge that John and Summit Academy have, one must understand Red Hook, Brooklyn….
History of Red Hook
A land with an extensively rich history, Red Hook was first the land of the Canarsee Native American tribe before the Dutch settled there and both parties peacefully agreed that the Canarsee would sell their land to the Dutch and migrate to Staten Island. Subsequently, threatened by the British Monarchy, Red Hook was home to Fort Defiance and a brave contingency of colonialists who committed to defending America from imperialism. The Battle of Brooklyn was fought in the direct vicinity of Red Hook (throughout Brooklyn Heights and into present-day Sunset Park). When the war was won, and after the creation of the United States in 1776, Red Hook became a critical hub of commerce because of its geographical significance (also why Fort Defiance existed there to protect the Buttermilk Channel). Red Hook housed ports and docks that were the destination for cargo ships entering the Narrows Canal from the Atlantic Ocean.
The most important waterways in America needed plenty of dock hands to physically move goods from the ships and into the warehouses that still exist till this very day. Enter the Irish and Scandinavian immigrants seeking better lives in the newly founded United States. Throughout the 1800’s, until roughly the late 1800’s, Red Hook was an Irish and Scandinavian neighborhood. The Irish and the Scandinavian laborers built many of the buildings from the 1800’s that still remain, including Visitation Church.
Then, in the late 1800’s, Italians began to come to Red Hook also attracted by the jobs provided by the booming docks and ports of Red Hook and the rest of South Brooklyn. Much of the housing stock in the neighborhood that remains from this period housed the Italians who started arriving in droves to eventually completely replace the Irish and Scandinavians.
An Italian Enclave
In the early 1900’s all the way until the 1960’s, Red Hook was a thriving Italian Enclave replete with bakeries, restaurants and salumerias. Visitation Church became an Italian Church. The neighborhood was thoroughly safe. Neighbors knew one another from their towns in Italy and their children became second generation Italian Americans. Fiorella LaGuardia, New York’s first Italian American Mayor, spearheaded the construction of the Red Hook houses in 1938 to house the growing populations of laborers and longshoremen who sought prosperity there. This was one of the largest public housing projects in the entire country.
In the 1960’s there was a revolutionization in the shipping industry which shifted bulk shipping to containerization. With that change, many of the businesses moved to New Jersey’s more modern ports and along with them, so did the jobs. Many Italians moved across Hamilton Avenue to a thriving Italian Enclave called Carroll Gardens. Robert Moses’ Gowanus Expressway bifurcated downtown Brooklyn along Hamilton Avenue effectively creating a firm border between Carroll Gardens and Red Hook. With the fleeing Italian American population, the Red Hook Houses became the home of low-income Latino and African American residents. The same trend was reflected throughout the surrounding houses and buildings. Eventually, by 1990, crime soared as unemployment ravaged Red Hook. Lack of public modes of transportation into Red Hook isolated the neighborhood even further and rendered it unsafe to not only outsiders but also to its own residents. Life Magazine named Red Hook as one of the ten worst neighborhoods in America and called it the “crack capital of America.”John’s Inspiration
As a teacher in such a disadvantaged community, John’s inspiration comes from his own hardship as the son of a single mother. Not born of privilege, John worked diligently to better his life by disciplining himself to study hard. A graduate of Xaverian High School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Mr. Russo went on to study at Johns Hopkins University as well as Harvard University where he studied Environmental and Ecological Sustainability. Being a great student came easy to John so he took his academic talents and applied them as a way to earn extra money as a tutor to many of the yearning neighborhood kids of Carroll Gardens and neighboring communities. Mr. Russo eventually found his calling when he became a teacher at Summit Academy Charter School in Red Hook.
Natasha Campbell, Summit’s founder, envisioned a charter school that could serve the underprivileged youth of Red Hook to reach new summits in life, hence the name. Whether by coincidence or the grace of God, John found his way to Summit to help Natasha see this vision into reality. The school in and of itself is an immense story worth mentioning. Considering the high rates of delinquency and poor percentages of high-school graduates in Red Hook altogether, Summit was able to create a dream team of sorts that has led their school to achieve what was before a statistical impossibility: 99% of Summit’s 2017 graduating class ended up going to college. This immense accomplishment is a testament to the hard work of the faculty and staff at the school not to mention the students. It was such a fascinating accomplishment that Ellen DeGeneres invited the entire graduating class to her show’s studio in California and wound up paying each and every student’s first year of college.
When I asked Mr. Russo about his students’ recent accomplishments, he never used the words “me or I”. He attributed it to the entire staff at Summit. The words “we and us” were how he referred to his students and the school. John candidly admits that he could earn more money for himself if he worked at another school such as a public school, but he persists at Summit because he shares a vision that more Americans need to see. Integrity breeds success. John instills honesty and trust unto his students. He does not teach at them, he teaches with them. He leads by example. He shares whatever he has whether it’s his last morsel of food or his wisdom. John doesn’t see other people according to race or creed. When it comes to people, John doesn’t see color or nationality; he sees other human beings.
One story that resonated with me was when I came to know of John’s generosity towards one of his students. Straddled with the expense of buying a suit for his prom, one of the students came to Mr. Russo for help. The young man didn’t want to attend his own prom because he didn’t have the proper attire nor did he have the money to acquire it. John sat down with his student at his laptop and in a totally out of bounds gesture of generosity and compassion, ordered that young man’s suit for him as well as a shirt, tie and pair of shoes.
The proud grandson of a WW2 Veteran, John passes to anyone who knows him something that is missing from much of what we are exposed to today, the human element. John Russo makes phone calls more than he texts. John isn’t afraid to say “I love you” to his cherished friends despite how uptight the world may be. John speaks with his hands like most Italians. He says “whatchamacallit” when he’s referring to something. He’s a real person. He gives those he loves the shirt off his back. Everyone in the neighborhood knows who he is. He’s warmly referred to as “Johnny Russo” by the old-timers in the neighborhood. John’s the kind of old-school guy that many would say: “they don’t make anymore.” It took a great deal of work for me to get John to brag a little. As a matter of fact, he didn’t brag at all. He calls his students his “kids.” He hugs his friends. I accumulated a lot of what I know about John by watching his actions since his words about his accomplishments and sacrifices don’t exist. John’s students reciprocate Mr. Russo’s passion for what he does for them the best way they know how. Aside from his love of Nutella, which they bought him for his Birthday, they emulate his passion to persevere.
I wanted to write this piece about John Russo and Red Hook Brooklyn to shed light on the fact that the Italian American contribution to America still happens today. Such a contribution isn’t always in the form of a famous Italian chef’s new restaurant, it isn’t a wealthy CEO donating an insignificant sliver of his net worth for accolades and it isn’t a wealthy actor with a vowel at the end of his or her name kicking some money into a nonprofit for a tax deduction or an honorable mention. I hope I am successful in reminding the readers of Italian Enclaves that Italian Americans built from grit and hard work are still contributing to our world in the most honorable ways possible. This piece highlights the fact that it’s noble to pay it forward. Differences of race, religion or sex shouldn’t make any difference whatsoever. Neighborhoods come and go, such is the cycle of life. We shouldn’t lament change nor should we resent our former enclaves’ new residents. We should pass the torch and take solace in our sovereign right to choose what’s right. We should all take a page out of Mr. Russo’s book.
If you know of an Italian American who contributes to your community and exemplifies what it means to be a good human being, please reach out with his or her story. We would like to hear from you so that we can share these heart warming stories to implore everyone to work in solidarity for the benefit of our world’s future.
Please find the following link to Summit’s website where if you wish, a donation can be made to the school and its scholars: http://www.sacsny.com/giving/
- Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal by Joseph Alexiou