They call the 1950s and 60s “the good old days” of public housing, when the projects were clean and safe. There is no doubt that when these buildings were first erected, they were nice. It was also a more innocent time back then and there was much less crime in general. In her article for Poverty in America entitled, The Projects Get a Museum, Megan Greenwell points out that stories appearing on the National Public Housing Museum website are overwhelmingly from former residents of that era who state that back then, housing projects were a great place to live. One wrote that the residents didn’t even know they were poor. Ms. Greenwell countered that in her statement, “By the 1980s, people living in public housing did indeed know they were poor, and that meant they lived in fear and danger.”
While that is true for some of the worst housing projects today, it is a sweeping generalization which conjures up images of terrified residents who are shivering, helpless victims waiting to be saved. Is this characterization preferable to the one that describes them as perpetrators of crime? Ms. Greenwell is not alone. When people who live in housing projects are not portrayed as criminals, they are almost always described as victims, when in fact, most are neither.
As a resident of Liddonfield Housing Project during that bygone era, such statements prompted me to wonder whether recent inhabitants of Liddonfield had been terrified to live there. (The project has been vacated and is being demolished). I had no idea how I would find this out. Then one day, I was on Facebook and that led me to a group called R.I.P. Liddonfield.
The group has its share of old timers like myself who remember “the good old days” of public housing. But it was the young ones who surprised me. They expressed that they had good times and good memories, even when Liddonfield had suffered decay and a rise in crime. Many felt regret at having to leave. How can that be?
Perhaps the answer can be found in my own experience. Let me take you back to the 1960s, when I was a kid in the project. Liddonfield was clean, but I don’t recall it being entirely safe back then. There were hardcore bullies, like the 13-year-old boy who body-slammed me when I was six. During that time, I occasionally heard about a Liddonfield kid ending up in reform school and later on, he was one of them. Some households were prone to domestic violence, including mine. One night, a woman came screaming at our door because her husband was chasing her with a gun.
How could I have fond memories of the project? I do because I recall how fun it was to ride my scooter along Megargee Street. I had lots of friends, which gave me a sense of belonging (something I lost when my family moved into a middle-class neighborhood.) Once, we had a summer block party where all of the Liddonfield tenants put aside their differences, feasting and dancing for hours. The housing project segregated us from the surrounding community of homeowners, creating a subculture of people who needed each other for survival, acceptance and fraternity. Once any of us set foot outside the project, we were unsafe in a different way. We were judged, characterized as freeloaders and deadbeats, labeled, unwanted and unwelcome. If we sought middle-class acceptance, we had to hide where we came from and who we were. Sometimes the ugliness of the project is preferable to seeing the ugly hatred in people’s eyes.
In the project, everyone knows your name. Middle-class folks don’t interact nearly as much with their neighbors, because they can afford to isolate themselves. Their financial comfort gives them much independence, and many middle-class people don’t even know who their neighbors are. I once rented an apartment in middle-class South Jersey. I was there three years before I met the guy in the apartment next to mine at the grocery store and we briefly spoke to each other for the first time. I only saw him twice after that.
In public housing, people depend on their neighbors. If you’re out of food, neighbors often sympathize and offer you what they can spare. If you can’t afford to enroll your child at a daycare center so you can work, there is undoubtedly someone you know down the street who will babysit for much less money. There are times when you need something you don’t have. But you know Jamal who lives a few doors away and Jamal has one. So you borrow it from him and the next time he needs something, he can borrow that something from you. Friends and neighbors become a safety net or even a lifeline when you’re most in need.
If you’re poor and you want to celebrate a birthday or anniversary, you can’t afford an expensive night out on the town. But you can get your public housing neighbors together and invite them to your party. All they have to do is bring a dish. Turn on some dance music and the party is on. So, even in the decay of a government neglected housing project, good times and good memories happen.
I am not trying to whitewash or deny the decline of housing projects. I am simply saying that when people are segregated as a group and placed into a bad situation, they find a way to celebrate, love and bring happiness into their lives, if only sometimes. The human spirit is intangible. It lives behind the graffiti-covered doors of housing projects. Perhaps it can be found in public housing especially, for it is in such places that generosity, sharing, community, and compassion are most needed.
Though public housing tenants have been subjected to government imposed segregation of the poor and all the bad things that come with it, most do not think of themselves as victims. And while there is crime in public housing, most are not perpetrators. Like everyone else, they are somewhere in between. Each has admirable traits mixed with personal shortcomings and each makes his or her own happy memories. There is a quote in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” Hundreds of years have passed since Mr. Shakespeare wrote those words, but they still ring true.
I firmly believe that if a middle-class or rich person lost all their money and was segregated from the rest of society in a housing project, they would reach out to neighbors to survive. And in doing so, would discover the good people there, because he or she would be looking for them.