Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.


Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Nov 1, 2010

Will HOPE VI Children Have Confused Identity?

Goodbye, old style housing projects, where the poor have been isolated from the rest of the populace on what amounts to an urban reservation.  Housing projects all over America are being demolished at break-neck speed under the HOPE VI Program and replaced by privatized mixed-income housing.  After this HOPE VI tsunami is over, happiness will prevail, according to the US government.  The poor will be able to dwell side-by-side with middle-class people who buy the market-priced houses in the mixed-income neighborhoods.  Although different social classes never really got along, the theory behind HOPE VI is that the poor and the middle-class will somehow reconcile.
And the children of the poor will at last inherit the earth, so to speak.  They will view their middle-class neighbors as role models to look up to and emulate.  They will forget the subculture in which they were born - the subculture of the poor who lived on urban reservations the government created.  They will grow up to become middle-class themselves without any ill effects from the experience.  It’s a beautiful theory.  But what is the reality for these children?
First of all, let me say that I am not against HOPE VI.  The government is doing the right thing by trying to fix its mistake of isolating public housing residents.  And the most important thing for these children is their physical safety.  Too many housing projects have become dangerous.  I’m also behind a lot of the new rules, like keeping people with criminal records out.  Low-income citizens have a right to a safe neighborhood free of gangs and violent thugs.  But I don’t believe that the public housing children who were evicted from their homes and separated from their friends under the HOPE VI Program will enjoy a smooth and trouble-free transition. 
As a public housing child that suffered an abrupt and painful transition to a lower middle-class neighborhood, I can offer a glimpse of reality.  (My family was evicted by the Philadelphia Housing Authority when Mom got a job and it raised the household income, making us ineligible for public housing).  Yes, they will benefit from being in a safer, more comfortable environment.  And if they have the opportunity to attend a better school, that is key to their future success.  But remember, the public housing subculture they were inside of is all they know.  Their friends, who were just as poor, understood them and within the public housing subculture is where they enjoyed acceptance.  When they lived in public housing, everyone they knew was in the same boat and they enjoyed the luxury of being liked for who they are.
Enter HOPE VI.  Child experiences an abrupt move, is separated from public housing friends, and is suddenly the new kid in the neighborhood.  Child is scared at first, but thinks the pretty new mixed-income neighborhood is very cool and maybe he or she will easily make cool new friends. 
But even though the child lives in a nice place now, Mom and Dad are still poor.  And the child’s cheap dollar store toys can’t compete with the high-tech, expensive toys the middle-class kids in the mixed-income neighborhood have.  The child begins to experience feelings of inferiority when he starts to compare his second-hand clothes to the nicer clothes the more affluent kids wear.  They even tease him about it.  The child starts looking for someone to blame.  He starts to second guess his own parents, dissecting their flaws and mistakes.  He or she wonders why Mom and Dad aren’t as educated or sophisticated as the parents of the middle-class kids. 
Who is the former housing project child supposed to view as a role model now?  HOPE VI implies the middle-class families are the role models for the low-income children.  But their parents are very different from the middle-class parents.  Child becomes confused as to whom he  should look up to and emulate, but he doesn’t dare tell anyone about his confusion.  Children are not supposed to question their parents or pick apart their flaws.  Only a bad child would do that. 
The former public housing child is intelligent and does well in his or her new school.  But the teacher wants money for a school photo and the child’s parents can’t afford it.  So the child sits alone at his desk while all of his classmates line up to get their school photo taken. 
The HOPE VI child becomes a teenager.  He is still wrestling with confused identity.  By now he has learned to cover up his confusion.  He loves Mom and Dad, but he doesn’t want to be poor like them.  His parents encourage him to go to college.  He studies hard to make them proud.  He graduates and is accepted into university.  There he meets the offspring of doctors, lawyers and wealthy businessmen.  He introduces himself to a group of students in the college cafeteria and talks with them over lunch.  They discuss vacation homes, ski trips and designer clothes.  Their parents are paying their tuition, but he is there on a grant.  The HOPE VI young adult soon discovers he has nothing in common with them.  Once again, he feels adrift, alone at sea in a kind of perpetual limbo.
Alfred Lubrano never lived in a housing project, but my guess is, he can sort of relate.  Lubrano came from a blue-collar family and crossed over into the middle-class.  The experience was so profound that he wrote a book entitled, Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams.  The son of a brick layer, Lubrano attended Columbia University and became a news reporter.  He is currently a columnist for the  Philadelphia Inquirer.  In the book, Lubrano uses the term “straddlers” to describe those who have crossed the social class divide. 
HOPE VI children will most certainly become “straddlers” as they attempt to transition to the middle-class.  Many may successfully transition in the financial sense.  But the psychological transition will never take place.  They will stay straddled between two worlds for the rest of their lives.
The greatest skill HOPE VI children will attain is adaptability.  They will have learned how to move between two worlds with great stealth.  They will be book smart and streetwise – a powerful combination.  They will have insight into society that few others can claim.  HOPE VI children will be knowledgeable of the subculture in which they were born and the mainstream culture which they were forced to adopt.
As adults, they may speak, dress and portray the mannerisms of the middle-class, but they will never lose the edginess that comes from having lived on the fringes of society.  Beneath their soft middle-class fa├žade is a certain fearlessness that comes from having survived tough or even dangerous situations.  People who were poor as children and become successful as adults often visit the poor neighborhoods from which they came to recapture a sense of belonging or for a thrilling escape from the drudgery of middle-class life.  This fearlessness can be a valuable asset in the business world.  An edgy person’s willingness to take risks can be handy when the stakes are high.  Someone who has lived in a housing project and then with the middle-class has learned to balance risk with a touch of caution and such risks tend to pay off. 
On the flip side, a person who lacks edginess veers towards extreme caution and is often hesitant to try new things.  They tend to blend into the background, where they feel comfortable.  This unwillingness to venture out of their comfort zone may lead them to become trapped in a cycle of boredom and dissatisfaction with life.  They may live vicariously through books or movies where the hero has great adventures.  They dream of exotic places and exciting things, but never actually try to make those dreams become real.  They are grounded and responsible, with an unwavering sense of duty.  They make it easy for the risk-taker to stand out in the crowd, in a meeting at the office, or at a party.  People remember an edgy person (even if others don’t know their impoverished past or realize they’re edgy) long after they leave the room.
When it comes to choosing a mate, however, those who’ve changed their social class have it rough.  They have to face a myriad of issues others never even conceive of.  Most people easily pair up with someone from a similar background.  People naturally gravitate toward their roots when it comes to relationships and family, unless they’ve spent their lives moving away from those roots. 
But if you’re a HOPE VI adult who gets engaged to a middle-class person, you will most likely worry that potential in-laws will nitpick over every detail of your past.  Rehearsed answers will fall short upon meeting a middle-class mate’s father and mother.  Nothing looms as dangerous as a future mother-in-law.  Even if your future in-laws accept you, they’ll never understand you and neither will your middle-class love interest.  Their lifestyle seems stale, predictable and boring.  They’re nice people, but you just can’t relate. 
On the flip side, a partner who is poor may not appeal to someone who has crossed over the social class divide.  The fear of falling back into poverty is cause for hesitation.  Two good incomes assure a comfortable life for both of you.  Middle-class friends and colleagues may find your poorer mate unsophisticated and avoid you as a result.  Also, a poorer wife or husband comes with a poor family and there is the fear that family members may lean on you for financial help from time to time.  So, you can marry a middle-class person at the risk of becoming bored and unsatisfied, or marry a poor person at the risk of sliding back into poverty.  Neither scenario bodes well.  It would be interesting if someone did a study on these HOPE VI kids in their adulthood to see if their divorce rate is high. 
Unfortunately, HOPE VI children will become casualties in the war on poverty, psychologically speaking.  It is not so much them, but their children who will benefit the most from the government’s plan to get rid of housing projects forever.  The generation that comes after will have no memory of being isolated on an urban reservation.  They will not have been thrust from a subculture on the fringes of society toward the mainstream and told to sink or swim.  They will be spared the experience of being adrift between two cultures.  And with luck, they will prosper.

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