The Man Who Built New York City’s Schools
How a dogged reformer turned around a crumbling, decrepit public school system, creating cathedrals of education that revolutionized life for millions.
Photos by Hannah Frishberg
We hopped the fence and crawled through a broken ground-level window, entering into the abandoned monolith of West Harlem’s Public School 186. A trail of pigeon carcasses led us to the stairs, which we climbed cautiously, but it wasn’t until the third floor that I began to notice the uncanny similarities between the decaying structure and my high school on the Lower East Side. The same helix-style staircases, the phallic coat hooks, the large windows, the exit signs, the trough-like bathroom sinks — they were exactly the same as I’d seen in school that morning (two years ago now), only covered in dust and debris and pieces of ceiling. The two buildings were nearly identical, except in this one the floor had collapsed in parts, the book room was stocked with standardized tests from the 1950s and the floor was strewn with empty 40-ounce bottles and graffiti. What was this place?