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

Jun 6, 2011

The Liddonfielders: A Public Housing Diary - Part 7

by Rosemary Reeves

Part Seven:  Thrust Into a Closed Society

If you missed the first six parts, click on the links below:

 It was late at night and all of us children had gone to bed, only I woke up thirsty and wandered into the living room toward the kitchen for something to drink.  All of the lights were out, except one.  My parents were sitting at the kitchen table where a lit bulb hung over them from the ceiling.  My father was weeping.  “Eileen, where will we go?” he asked my mother as he buried his head in his hands, “What will happen to us?”  I thought the world must have ended for my father to be in tears.  She held him to her bosom and comforted him.  It was frightening to see Mom and Dad so distraught and without direction.  Something told me not to disturb them so I tiptoed back to bed, wondering what terrible thing was about to happen to my family.
I soon learned that the Philadelphia Housing Authority had sent a notice to vacate the premises.  Mom and Dad’s successful attempts to better themselves financially created a bureaucratic catch twenty-two.  The rise in household income made the family ineligible for public housing and we were being evicted.  Housing and Urban Development became familiar words to me as my mother cursed HUD to hell and back, so to speak, for days afterward.  In the weeks that followed, my father became very depressed.  There were days when he skipped work and just sat on the couch, brooding and immobilized by fear.  In reality, Mom was the strong one.  She came up with a plan and went to the bank for a home loan.  “Put your signature there, Jim,” she told Dad when she brought home the mortgage application.  She handed him a pen.
“What good will it do?” Dad said, “They’ll never give us a mortgage.”  He had already given up, but at Mom’s insistence, he signed it anyway.  Mom made several more trips to the bank.  Eventually, the mortgage was approved.  My parents bought a house in the lower middle-class neighborhood just beyond the housing project fence and we left Liddonfield forever.
Frantz Fanon once said, “I call middle-class a closed society in which life has no taste, in which the air is tainted, in which ideas and men are corrupt.  And I think that a man who takes a stand against this death is in a sense a revolutionary.”   I was about to find out for myself how closed a society the middle-class can be. The day we moved into our new place on Carwithan Road, I met a little girl in a yellow dress.  She asked where I was from and I casually mentioned the housing project.  We played and everything seemed fine, but the next day she spurned me.  “My mommy told me not to play with you anymore,” she said, “You’re from Liddonfield.  That’s where the poor people live.” 
I ran into the house and asked, “Mommy, are we poor?”  Everyone in Liddonfield had been economically disadvantaged.  I didn’t find it unusual that there were things my parents couldn’t afford.  All of my friends had it the same way and it seemed to be just a fact of life.  Until we left the projects, I had no idea that the word “poor” applied to us and that it made us different, even despicable, in the eyes of others.  Mom was upset when I told her what happened.  She said the world can be cruel to people like us.  Others look down on you when you don’t have enough money, she explained, and there was nothing we could do about that. 
The resentful homeowners who drove past the projects with scowling faces were now our fearful and class conscious neighbors.   Our leap to homeownership was not seen as an admirable advancement, but an invasion.  As much as the homeowners resented the people in the housing project, at least they were separated from the rest of the community.  Our arrival into their midst was taken as a sign of impending and alarming change in a neighborhood divided by class.  It didn’t matter who we were now.  The prevailing notion was once a deadbeat, always a deadbeat.  And what they feared more than anything was that there were more of us to come.
Mom’s contention that their hostility was simply something we had to accept was left undisputed.  Mainstream society did not perceive it as a form of prejudice.  The fact that we were fair game for their mistreatment was too much to comprehend and so I turned inward to blame my undeserving self for being different, for being poor.
In those days, no one bothered to follow or record the experiences of public housing tenants striving to become upwardly mobile within a society that stigmatized them.  This lack of diligence by public housing officials bred a false assumption that once a family left the projects, their financial struggles were over.  For my family, at least, nothing could be further from the truth.
On the first rainy day after we arrived, it soon became evident why my parents had gotten a bargain on the home on Carwithan Road.  The former owner had not kept up the property.  The roof was a disaster.  During a heavy rainfall, water leaked from the ceiling in different parts of the house.  Mom sent Kevin and me to the dime store to buy buckets.  “Get as many as you can with this money,” she said.  When we returned, we placed them under the leaks.
My parents could not afford to get the roof fixed. Rainy days soon involved a kind of ritual.  Kevin and I had to get the buckets ready.  We’d go from room to room staring up at the ceiling, looking for telltale water droplets.  When we spotted the first signs of a leak, we’d say, “Here it comes!” Within minutes, one leak turned into four or five, as we spotted another and another. 
Kevin and I thought it was funny.  Dad never got mad about it.  He’d just say, “This house is falling apart.”
My mother counted every dime.  A visit to the grocery store was a reminder that our family was barely getting by.  I didn’t know what produce tasted like.  Mom said fresh vegetables were too expensive and so were blocks of cheese.  When it came to purchasing meat, Mom only bought what the supermarket had on sale and they were always the worst cuts, full of fat and gristle.  By now at least there was food, though it tended to be the same thing every night. We ate mainly potatoes, canned vegetables and small portions of cheap ground beef.  While bland, it was hearty enough.  I was skinny but not malnourished, like my brothers and sisters had been during the leaner years. 
 An air conditioner had come with the house but Dad never let us use it.  In the summer, we sweltered inside.  In the winter, we were allowed to employ just enough heat to keep the pipes from bursting.  Every penny had to be accounted for.  A dollar seemed like a great deal of money.  It did not appear to make sense that my mother insisted on sending me to private school under the circumstances.  Were it not for that, I might have had more of the things that normal children had.  Dad was not the only one in the family who thought Mom was foolish for spending much needed money in the wrong place.  But Mom was trying to assure my future.  Times were hard, but they were better than they had ever been and that gave me an advantage over my older siblings.  Timing was on my side. 
At St. Dominic middle-class norms were considered ideal, a model for the way one should live his or her life.  The nuns taught us right from wrong, both in the moral sense and in terms of how we should conduct ourselves in the world.  We were required to wear uniforms to get our brains accustomed to conformity.  Every morning, we pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.  We were encouraged to believe that ours was a democracy above reproach, with freedom and justice for all.  I thought that since the American way of life was perfect, then it must be me who was flawed because I came from a family that did not measure up.  Anyone who worked hard was guaranteed success, but my father worked hard and somehow success had eluded him.  I envied the people I saw on television every night, who never had concerns about money.  The dads were cheerful when they came home from the office and their wives cooked sumptuous meals for their families in kitchens equipped with shiny new appliances.  They always had wonderful food to eat and nice clothes to wear.
Being a product of the lower class was a handicap, but I was not beyond hope.  Any traits I possessed that were deemed undesirable by middle-class standards were hastily excised, removed from my personality with thorough instruction.  Though well intended, as a child I interpreted this to mean that I was so imperfect I required transformation.  The good news, though, was that transformation was possible.  All I had to do to be perceived as middle-class was to act middle-class, because people believe what they see.  I also learned that speech can signify status.  Speaking in a certain way can raise one’s status, something the nuns at St. Dominic were well aware of.  ”Can I be excused?” I asked one day when I was in class and needed to use the restroom.
Sister J. frowned. “Yes, you can,” she said, “but you may not until you say it correctly.  What were you taught about the words can and may?”
This was not difficult for me to answer.  I had simply slipped. “Can is to be able to,” I replied, “May is to have permission.”
Sister J. stopped frowning. “That is correct.  Now, say it properly.”
I tried again. “May I be excused?”
“Very good,” she said, “Always speak the Queen’s English.  Now, you may be excused, young lady.”  I got up out of my seat and headed toward the door.  Sister J addressed the class. “Never forget, children, that when you speak like proper ladies and gentlemen, people will see you as exemplary and the world will become your oyster.”  The nuns were always using big words like “exemplary.”  Every word out of their mouths was worth a million dollars, especially when it came to adjectives.  If you neglected your homework they didn’t call you lazy, they called you lackadaisical.  If you talked too much, you were loquacious.  I did everything I could to keep up with this flowery language.  Almost daily, I had to ask my mother for definitions of words.  Mom bought a used dictionary and together we looked up their meanings.  As time passed, I began speaking like someone well beyond my age.  This was something adults found charming, but it only set me farther apart from my peers. 
One day, as I was being picked on by two other children, I said, "It's ridiculously immature of you to act that way and you ought to behave in a more exemplary fashion."
"Huh?" replied one of my tormentors.
"You talk weird," said the other.
Dad was the opposite of the middle-class ideal.  He tucked his cigarette packs into the sleeve of his undershirt.  He ate with his mouth open.  His speech and mannerisms were that of a laborer, and his hands were calloused and rough.  He had a stocky build, a barrel chest and muscular arms.  He had the pugnacious bearing of a man who carried the world on his shoulders and was furious at his destiny ─ an aging and unwilling Atlas.
From time to time he said to us, “Other people brag about their kids, but not me.  I’m ashamed of my kids.  I’m ashamed to be your father.”  Though I had no feelings for him, those words hurt me to the core.  It made me think I was unlovable.  No matter how much Mom tried to make up for it by being sweet and tender, I always doubted whether I could ever be good enough.
We still depended on charity for basic necessities.  Goodwill dropped bags of used clothing on our doorstep.  This was a source of amusement for the neighborhood children, who teased me relentlessly whenever I went outside.  Though my manners were impeccable, I was being well educated and spoke formal English, there were things over which I had no control that made others see me as inferior white trash.
On occasion, Mom would scrape up enough money to take me shoe shopping.  For my ninth birthday, she bought me a new pair of shoes.  A couple of days later, I was on my way home from school when a group of boys and girls from the neighborhood followed behind me, taunting me about Liddonfield and the clothes from Goodwill.  I walked faster, but they kept up.  I started to run and they chased me until I reached an apartment building surrounded by a padlocked fence.  I climbed the fence to get away from them.  The sharp metal scuffed my shoes and tore a hole in the toe.  I got away.  Not even the boys could scale a fence faster than me.
Mom asked, “What have you done to your beautiful shoes?”  She thought I had simply been careless.  I was too ashamed to tell her that I was the joke of the neighborhood.  She couldn’t afford to buy another pair, so I had to wear them like that for a long time.
My brother, Kevin, was also singled out by the neighborhood children and so he had difficulty making friends as well.  At least we could keep each other company.  Kevin made no allowances for the fact that I was a girl or that I was three years younger, and so I did with him the rough and tumble things boys do, like climb trees, fish at a nearby hatchery and search for interesting rocks to collect. 
Spending so much time with an older brother made me precocious for my age.  Kevin was so enthralled by science and nature that he begged Mom for a set of encyclopedias.  Mom said we didn’t have the money, but then found an old set at a flea market.  We looked up astronomy in Volume A and searched the night sky for the shining light of the planet Venus and the various constellations, such as the Big Dipper.  In the anatomy section, there were fascinating pictures of the inside of human body which outlined the placement of the organs and major arteries.  We liked to watch birds and consult Volume B to find out the scientific names for each species.  Every volume held fascinating facts our brains were eager to absorb.
This did not seem like studying to us.  Looking up things was fun because they were things about the world that we wanted to know.  Soon, grammar school books were not challenging enough.  I was given assignments to read Old Yeller and Black Beauty.  I read a few pages of each and then never finished.  Needless to say I received a bad grade.  My teacher thought that I had been unable to comprehend them and that I must be slow.  Mom knew better.  When she asked me about it, I told her, "Those books are for babies." 
In fourth grade, I began to memorize all the words in the dictionary in alphabetical order, just to have something to do. This benefited me in more ways than I expected.  I scored exceptionally high on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the top thirteen percentile in the nation.  St. Dominic wanted to put me into an accelerated program, but my parents couldn’t afford the additional classes.  This was good news to me, because I was not at all motivated to do extra work.  I applied myself only to things that I found interesting and neglected subjects I didn’t care for.  Consequently, though I had much potential, I did not always put forth the effort.  My grades were up and down like a see-saw and the teachers were at a loss as to why I was excelling in some subjects and barely passing in others.
Part 8 of this series will be posted on Monday, June 13. 

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