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 21, 2011

The Taming of a Public Housing Child Part 1

by Rosemary Reeves

Ever since I took my first baby steps upon the sidewalk along Megargee Street, Liddonfield Housing Project has defined my identity.  Liddonfield is synonymous with what I am today, all I was before and all I ever will be.  I was unaware of its significance until I went to first grade, when I was obliged to pass by the Welcome to Liddonfield sign every day on the way home from school.  Each time I saw it, I had the vague perception that I belonged to a class of outsiders.  Because I was young it was not so much a realization as a feeling, like being on the visiting team at an away game of baseball.  For as long as I could remember, there was intense rivalry between the regular citizens of Upper Holmesburg and the project dwellers.  They did not like us and we did not like them.  When I was little I took it for granted that people picked sides.  I knew I was on the unpopular side, but there was something wonderful about being united against a stronger opponent to the boos of a jeering crowd loyal to the home team.

It was at school where that vague perception began to assume clarity because it was there I had to deal with the world beyond the public housing fence.  My mother had returned to work after many years.  Most of her children were nearly grown.  Born long after my siblings, I was the littlest and my enrollment in St. Dominic left her at last with time to dedicate to employment.  The extra money she made paid the Catholic school tuition.  Almost all of the kids from the housing project went to public school, making me an anomaly, of sorts.  

I was a rough and tumble girl in a school that revered gentility, order, sameness and unquestioning obedience to authority.  The staff at St. Dominic was charged with transforming me from a wild child to a little lady, which is what my mother wanted.  She knew quite well that the benefit I would receive from such training would give me a leg up in life.  It was her hope that I would work in an office someday where I would meet a wealthy executive and marry him.  That was what every mother wanted for her daughter in 1965.

In order to assimilate into this institution of learning, it was necessary for me to adopt the prevailing notion that middle-class norms and values were superior to those of my own kind.  Once that certainty was established I ran with it as far away from my humble beginnings as I could manage.  I learned to mimic every nuance of the middle-class and when I grew up, it opened many doors.  In my twenties, I even worked as a legal secretary in a couple of law firms, my impoverished public housing background undetected by co-workers.  But pretending to be an insider was not the same as being one.  In the end, the transformation was only skin deep and carried with it a life-long aching to be genuine. 

It should be said that because the students wore uniforms and my family paid tuition, most of the teachers at St. Dominic did not know that I lived in Liddonfield Housing Project.  They assumed I was a poorly raised middle-class child and responded accordingly to every deviation from the middle-class norm I exhibited.  That some of those deviations were the manifestation of a housing project subculture did not occur to them.  Even if it did, it is doubtful that in that era they knew much about child psychology, particularly as it pertained to social class transitioning.

But functionality was my first challenge.  I remember sitting in the classroom, waiting with great anticipation for the lesson to begin.  Sister M had told us we were going to learn to write.  I gazed at the big letters that were painted high up on the wall.  I knew some of them.  A, B, C, etc.  But I had never attended preschool so I had not learned to put them together into words.  I couldn’t wait.  My mother read books all the time.  Her favorite ones were about English kings and queens, many who oppressed the Irish.  Mom was born in Scotland to an Irish mother who had gone there to teach the children of Scottish coal miners and ended up marrying a coal miner herself.  Mom told me stories all about the bloody British since I was born.  I wanted to read the books my mother read.  “All right, children, open your notebooks,” Sister M remarked.

Sister M was young and had a pretty face.  She wore a long, flowing blue robe down to her ankles.  On her feet were big, black clod hoppers, a cross between sneakers and those wooden Dutch shoes.  Her hair was covered with a white hat-like contraption that went past her ears and settled into a semi-circle on her clavicle.  I opened my ruled notebook.  The pages were blank, just waiting for me to write words on the lines.  Sister M showed us a picture of a hand holding a pencil and told us to hold the pencil that way.  Then she came down each aisle and made sure we were doing it right.  When she came my way, she had a strange look on her face.  “You’re left-handed,” she remarked as she adjusted the pencil between my fingers.  Then she said, as if to herself, “The left hand of the devil.”  

“Huh?” I replied.

“It’s an old fashioned notion, child.  The Church considers the left hand the hand of the devil.  You’re lucky.  We used to make children like you sit on that hand to force them to use the right.  We stopped that last year.”  She smiled and added, “We decided to become more modern.” Sister M moved on to another student.  I looked around the room and realized the desks were made for right-handed children and so was the notebook.  It suddenly flashed in my mind that this reading and writing stuff wasn’t as grand as I thought it would it be.  I did my best to manage this handicap because I longed to read.  After the lesson, there was no way to describe how excited I felt to have written my first words. 

At home in the housing project, I proudly displayed the smudged letters on the lines of the ruled notebook to Mom and my older siblings, from whom I received due praise.  Mom said, “This calls for a celebration.  Let’s put on the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem!”  

“There she goes with that Irish music again!” replied my sister Jean.  Jean was a teenager and much preferred rock n’ roll.  Mom took the Clancy Brothers album out of its sleeve and placed it into the record player.  

Whiskey, you're the devil, you're leadin' me astray
Over hills and mountains and to Americay
You're sweeter, stronger, decent-er, you're spunkier than tea
O whiskey, you're me darlin' drunk or sober

Jean clapped along to the beat while Mom danced the Irish jig as best she could on her swollen, varicose legs.  I joined in, hopping and jumping and twirling about the place.  We knew we weren’t doing it right, but we didn’t care.  The Clancy Brothers made the devil seem like great fun.  Maybe that’s why I was left-handed.  

All of a sudden, Dad opened the door and stepped inside.  He had come home from his job as a maintenance man.  “What the hell is all this noise?” he yelled, “Shut that damn record player off!”

Mom and I stopped dancing.  “The hell I will!” she said.  “You can spoil all the fun around here like you always do, but not the Clancy Brothers, Jim!  Not the Clancy Brothers!”  It was one of the rare showdowns between Mom and Dad.  Almost always, Mom caved in to his tyranny to keep the peace because Dad was so prone to violence.  But every once in a while, she showed him what she was really made of.  “You go ahead and dance, little one,” she told me, “You wrote your first words today.”  I hesitated.  “It’s all right,” she added, “Go ahead.”  The mood had evaporated but I danced a defiant Irish jig to the chagrin of my father, the way a rebel would defy the bloody British.  Mom looked at Dad.  “If you don’t like the music, Jim, then you can leave the room!”

Dad backed down.  He knew what Mom was like when she got that way.  I guess for once Dad wasn’t in a fighting mood, because he headed upstairs.  On his way up, Mom continued the chorus just to annoy him.
Me rikes fall tour a laddie oh
There's whiskey in the jar. Hey!

Next, a horrified nun hears me singing about whiskey in the school yard and then I have a fight with a boy!  This true story about the taming of a public housing child continues.  Part 2 of this series will be posted on Monday, November 28, 2011.

Related Stories:

The Taming of a Public Housing Child Part 2
The Liddonfielders Part One:  War of the Haves and the Have-Nots
Part one of The Liddonfielders illustrates the rivalry between housing project kids and middle-class kids in the Upper Holmesburg section of northeast Philadelphia, where Liddonfield stood.

Hear it for yourself: 

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem singing "Whiskey You're the Devil"

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