An alternative source for public housing info founded by a former resident of Liddonfield Housing Project who writes true stories about project life and hard times in the northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. Stories and articles post on most Mondays. This blog is best viewed in Internet Explorer 10 or the latest version of Firefox or Google Chrome.
Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline
Apr 25, 2011
The Liddonfielders: A Public Housing Family Drama Series
By Rosemary Reeves
War of the Haves and the Have-Nots
I was born exiled from the greater society, warehoused by a government with good intentions. My early childhood was spent living within the boundaries of Liddonfield Housing Project, where the underprivileged were tucked away from the general populace. Its borders segregated the inhabitants from the surrounding community. The Housing Authority sign at the entrance seemed to designate it as a kind of reservation for poor people.
When I was little I had no idea that my address was akin to a badge of dishonor. My friends and I laughed and played like any affluent children might. But we were the offspring of the needy, viewed by many as little more than mongrels and street urchins, a new generation of deadbeats waiting to grow up. No one expected great things from us in the future. Our purpose in life was to survive and the most we could hope for was to stay out of trouble.
Liddonfield was a paradigm of ugly low-rise public housing. Mom used to say it was the worst place anyone could end up. My family lived there in the 1960’s, when the project’s inhabitants were poor whites. Our dwellings were called units. There seemed to be endless rows of them. Some were red brick and some were yellow. There were young oak trees here and there with their trunks encased in wire mesh, but no flowers.
A three foot high chain link fence ran the length of the block we lived on. The fence was bent and misshapen from being pushed in, hopped over and otherwise mishandled. While the rest of the city bustled around us, we were contained. Perhaps that is why we had such disregard for that fence.
Each unit had a concrete enclosure in front. We called the enclosures bullpens, a prison term. Most of the residents used them for outside storage space. Housewives strung clothes lines up inside them, too, so their laundry could dry in the open air. Little girls used them as imaginary hair salons. My playmates and I would gather some folding chairs and sit on them inside the bullpens while our friends pinned our hair up in their mothers’ curlers.
I lived with my family at 4401-G Megargee Street, second from the end in the first row of units. There were always lots of children playing on the block, riding bikes and scooters or just running around. There were bullies to watch out for and danger would sometimes loom unexpectedly. At the time it seemed like a far more exciting place than the sterile, quiet middle-class neighborhood just beyond.
Liddonfield was a divisive force between the haves and the have-nots. A housing project in the midst of an otherwise nice white neighborhood brought down the value of nearby homes. The people who owned them felt cheated. Resentment could be seen in their scowling faces as they drove past. This undeclared war between the classes resulted in an altercation one day. I was six years old and with my friends when a group of adolescent middle-class kids taunted us from their side of the fence. “White trash!” one of them yelled. Some older Liddonfield boys who had been shooting marbles on the sidewalk abandoned their game to confront the interlopers. They were met with a torrent of classist slurs from our adversaries. One of the project kids picked up a stone and tossed it at a boy who was egging him on from the other side of the fence. His companions followed suit and the strangers retaliated. The two little girls I had been playing with became frightened and took off as stones flew at us.
I stayed and picked up a stone, tossing it at one of the middle-class boys. It hit him dead-on. He jumped back then rubbed his knee where it had made impact. He looked at me with vengeance in his eyes. It was easy to dodge the one he threw back, since I had a moment of warning. It was chaos as stones were flying back and forth and we tried to dodge them. I was grazed once on the hip. It hurt, but I could take it. Within a few minutes, the middle-class kids had enough. They ran away. We laughed at them, then raised our arms and cheered in victory.
After the fight, I opened the battered screen door to my unit and went inside. It was small and shabby. The living room was furnished with a used sofa and smelly pink side chair that was covered in grime. White fiberglass curtains hung from the windows. The curtains were opened wide, letting sunshine into an otherwise dark and dingy home. It only made the stains on the dirty brown carpet more visible. The living room was so cramped that it had a back door, near which a green parakeet chirped in its cage. My sister Jean was talking to the bird. “Who’s a pretty boy?” she cooed.
On our black and white television set, Jacqueline Kennedy was charming reporters during her visit to Ireland. My mother was on the sofa, sipping tea as she admiringly watched the young widow and her children ride horses and frolick in the sea. Mom was so proud when John Kennedy became the first Catholic president of the United States. He was assassinated a few years before, but Mom still watched the comings and goings of the former first lady, who shared her religious faith.
My mother was forty when I was born and much older than the mothers of my friends. People often mistook her for my grandmother. She was very thin, sometimes skipping meals so the rest of the family could eat. Her legs were swollen and varicose, and her teeth were black with decay. She was wearing a faded plaid skirt and sleeveless white top. I bragged to my mother about the fight. I thought she’d be proud of me, but she just got upset. “Are you hurt?” she asked as she looked me over.
“I’m fine, mommy,” I said, “I dodged the stones. Well, most of them.”
My sister Jean said I was a little spitfire. “Those boys should know better than to get you involved in fights,” Mom told me, “Shame on them!” I was disappointed at my mother’s reaction and started back outside.
“Wait,” she told me, “I want someone to watch over you.” She stood up. “Where’s Kevin?”
“I think he’s out back,” Jean chimed in. Mom went to the window and called his name. My brother Kevin was three years older than me. After a few minutes, Kevin came in through the back door with a toy truck in hand that he had been playing with. His ivory skin was beginning to sunburn. His blond hair was nearly white.
“What, Mom?” he asked, as the back door squeaked on its hinges. Mom told him what happened and that he had to keep an eye on me. Kevin grumbled that it was embarrassing to be seen with his little sister all the time. Mom wasn’t having it. Kevin had to do what he was told and that was that. We were to stay right in front of the unit this time because Dad was coming home from work soon.
“Come on,” Kevin said as we left through the front.
The aroma of cooking was carried on a breeze as moms on the block were preparing supper. “What game are we going to play?” I asked Kevin.
“We’re not going to play any games,” he said, “You’re going to stay over there and do whatever, while I sit right here on the step. And don’t get into trouble!”
I crossed my arms and puffed. “Well, then I’m going to find a four leaf clover so I’ll be lucky and you won’t. So, there!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Kevin said dismissively. I sat on a patch of grass, trying to find one. After a few minutes, Kevin told me the chances of finding a four leaf clover were very slim. I kept searching anyway while he sat in front of the red brick unit next to the bullpen, thumbing through his baseball cards. One by one, our brothers and sisters arrived home from middle school and high school. They had another week until summer vacation. Kevin and I were the youngest. His grammar school was already closed for the season and I wouldn’t be enrolled until Fall.
After giving up on the four leaf clover, I saw my father walking toward us along Megargee Street. I let out a gasp and warned my brother. “He’s coming!” I said. The sight of Dad approaching struck terror in our hearts. His presence assured the abrupt ending of a carefree day. If there was a problem at work, for sure he’d take it out on the rest of us. I studied my father’s demeanor from a short distance. I had learned to anticipate his moods by subtle differences in the rigid way he carried himself, the furrows in his brow and the tightness around his mouth. After a moment, I felt slightly relieved. “He doesn’t look so mad today,” I told Kevin.
Kevin stood up. “We have to get inside,” he said. Dad always wanted us inside once he got home. Our brothers and sisters were scattered around the house. They were much older. Eileen, Barry, Rusty, Jean and Sharon were teenagers. James Jr. was the oldest. He was in the army. He was stationed in Turkey, some exotic place where whirling dervishes spun around like tops when they danced. “Dad’s home!” I said to all.
My mother yelled, “All right!” from the second floor. My father entered. Mom met him at the foot of the stairs. Tension filled the house as we all fell silent. Only my mother offered a greeting. The rest of us were too afraid. It was best not to get Dad’s attention in any way, because that might make you a target. Mom kissed him on the cheek.
“Hi, Eileen,” Dad said. He took off his glasses and placed them on one of the lamp tables. His dark hair was streaked with gray, though he was fit for a fifty-one year-old man. Dad was holding a box of frozen jumbo breaded shrimp. It was payday, and Dad always bought shrimp for himself on payday.
Mom took the box of shrimp and said, “It’ll be ready in a few minutes, Jim.” She turned to me. “Little one, do you want to help me set the table?”
“Okay,” I said and followed her into the kitchen. I opened the cabinet drawers and got some forks and butter knives. Mom seemed tired. Years of hardship and poor nutrition had marred her looks, but there were traces of beauty. She fixed her brunette hair in a flattering style. Her eyes were a captivating blue-gray, the way the sky is after a cool rain. The brows that defined them had a natural arch, which gave her a come-hither kind of sultriness. I always thought my mother had movie star eyes.
Mom put some stacked plates on the white folding table that had silver sparkles imbedded in the Formica surface. Around the table was an assortment of metal chairs with padded seats. I picked up the plates one at a time from the stack and started to set the table. The first plate was chipped. The second one had a long crack going through it. Each plate was busted in some way or another, and they all had different designs. Mom started frying Dad’s shrimp. For the rest of us, she was heating up canned beans. It was the third night in a row we had to eat them. To stretch the meal, she cut some hotdogs into little pieces and threw them in the pot with the beans.
I tried to pick the best plate for myself. Mom saw me laboring over that decision. “What I wouldn’t give for a matching set!” she remarked.
“I’ll buy you a set when I grow up, Mommy,” I told her, “The prettiest set there is.”
Mom’s eyes welled up. She buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders trembled as the tears flowed. “Why are you crying, Mommy?” I asked.
“Children are so sweet,” she said, “and I can’t have any more!” She embraced me in a fit of desperation. “Promise me you will never grow up and leave. I want you to stay my little girl forever and ever.”
I kissed her and said, “Forever and ever, Mommy,” though we both knew that promise was impossible to keep.
I was the last child in our family to be born. Besides the eight of us, Mom had two miscarriages and a stillbirth. After I came along, she was told she would never become pregnant again. This was devastating news to her. Mom loved babies. She broke the embrace and wiped the tears from her eyes. “I’d better get back to fixing supper,” she said, “Your father is hungry.”
The aroma of the shrimp made my mouth water. “Why does Dad have shrimp and the rest of us have beans?” I asked my mother.
“Because your father works hard,” she replied, “and there isn’t enough money to get shrimp for all of us.”
Dad was in the other room, polishing the barrel of his shotgun....