The Public Interest

The idea of justice and the poor

Martin Mayer

Summer 1967

At 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, in the heart of Harlem, stands a three-story walk-up office building with wooden stairs and a damp smell. Since 1950 the New York Legal Aid Society has had a branch here, and a large one, about fifteen lawyers in individual cubicles made by wood-and-glass partitions through which one can (but just barely) hear the mutter of voices next door. There is a large reception room with rows of folding chairs, and against one wall a bilingual, English-Spanish receptionist sits at a metal desk. A big air-conditioning duct system hangs incongruously from the pressed-metal ceiling. As people arrive, the receptionist takes some basic data on a card and gives a number and some reading matter: “The attorney will call you today any time after registration. You must have patience. Otherwise, if you cannot wait, please come back another day. Thanks.”

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