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.

FIGHT THE STIGMA!

FIGHT THE STIGMA!
Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Jan 2, 2012

The Taming of a Public Housing Child - Conclusion

by Rosemary Reeves

If you missed the first 6 parts of this series about a Liddonfield kid attending St. Dominic parochial school, click on the links below:


Trash Day on Carwithan Road

It was 1968.  The age of consumerism was upon us.  Americans were indulging in unprecedented prosperity.  So prosperous was the middle-class that everything had to be new.  Middle-class people threw away furniture because it was the wrong color.  They discarded working televisions for the latest model. They tossed out clothes that were no longer in fashion.  The abundance of delicious food caused them to eschew leftovers.  They threw away food when it was just hours old.

After we moved from the projects to the house on Carwithan Road, I was discovered picking through a neighbor’s trash.  I suppose my rummaging caused a slight disturbance, because the neighbor saw me through her window.  She threatened to call the cops and I was about to make my getaway.  This was the usual turn of events from all the times my brother Kevin and I went trash picking when we lived in Liddonfield.  But then something different happened.  She called out my name and said she knew my address.   

Though I never thought of it before, I suddenly realized that I no longer possessed anonymity.  I was not just any old Liddonfield kid anymore.  There had been armies of us as a buffer against armies of them.  But I had marched away from my comrades and was completely vulnerable in strange territory.  I was totally alone.   I was the one and only Liddonfield kid, and my brother was not there to soften the blow.  

Mom told me to never go trash picking again, because the neighbors would laugh at us.  Consequently, there were days when I gazed out an upstairs window with a view of the back of the house and summed up the content of my neighbors’ trash cans.  I was stunned at the wastefulness.  Just outside our back door was a treasure trove of needed things that I could not touch, for if I was discovered taking them I risked making my family the joke of the neighborhood.  Not that we weren’t already. News had spread quickly among our neighbors that we were from Liddonfield Housing Project and the news was not well received.  

So, I watched the trash men haul away the treasure trove of things we needed week after week, all in the name of appearances.   The obsession with appearances is strictly an illness of the middle-class and upper-middle-class.  Unfortunately, this illness is contagious, so my family came down with it shortly after leaving the housing project.  For those who could afford this affliction, side effects included endless competition with neighbors as to who had the best, the prettiest and the newest.  Especially then, people complained about having to “Keep up with the Joneses.”  They lamented their out-of-control obligation to buy, having to work longer hours to pay for it and sacrificing time with their children.  For those of us who could not afford it, keeping up appearances meant keeping under the radar.  The rules included blending in as best as you can.  Never draw attention to yourself.  Above all, hide your poverty.  In all of American history, the 1960s was the worst time to be poor because most of the nation was rolling in dough.  As whites began to leave their housing projects even as they remained poor, it gave rise to the phenomenon of hidden poverty.  “Forget about Liddonfield,” Mom instructed, “Don’t look back and don’t ever mention that place to anyone.”  Mom wanted me to have a middle-class life and that was so diametrically opposed to life at the housing project that she assumed these opposing norms and values could not coexist in the same person.  

Throughout the rest of my childhood, I was under the same impression.   So, I tried very hard to become like the middle-class people I was exposed to.  Even at a young age, I suspected that I could only be a facsimile at best.  But I hoped for more.  I hoped for transformation.

I was in the throes of social class transition free-fall at eight years old.  My friends from the project were a liability to be written off.  The rules had drastically changed overnight.  I was supposed to erase all memories of the past and replace them with starry-eyed notions about the future.   Like Lot’s wife, I would turn to dust if I looked back.

As I tried to wrap my head around this enigmatic turn of events, I had some assistance from St. Dominic Elementary School, unbeknownst to the teachers there.  The school uniform I so disliked had two advantages.  At St. Dominic, I looked like everyone else.  The other advantage was that I only required play clothes.  That was good because I had only one pair of pants.  And St. Dominic was the one place where I heard kind words spoken about the poor.  When the teachers there spoke about the poor, they did not realize it was me.  My clothes blended into the sea of uniforms in the classroom.  There, I was an equal.  No one was above me.  No one was beneath me.

St. Dominic spent so much time stressing and teaching middle-class norms that the harrowing experience of having to reinvent myself went a little smoother.  I began this journey with resistance, then acceptance of the situation followed by eagerness to learn.  This long transitioning period was heavily marred by my status as an outcast in the neighborhood in which we now lived.  I have myself to blame for mentioning once that my family was from Liddonfield and Goodwill Industries to blame for dropping bags of used clothing on our doorstep for all the neighbors to see.  I had neglected the rules of hidden poverty and the truck driver from Goodwill apparently never got the memo.  Just as I became as docile as a lamb, I suffered an adolescent implosion as a result of the stress and ran away.  I returned with a new resolve.  I did not want to be delinquent.  I did not want to be a statistic.  So, I had to reinvent myself once more and this time it was my choice as to how.

It was easy once I realized that social class is a state of mind based on the company you keep.  Though statisticians attempt to give it a dollar value so it can be measured and sifted into neat categories, my experience suggests that it is a tribal identity created by disparity in wealth.  Once this identity is forged, it cannot be erased.  I could make a million dollars and still be forever Liddonfield.  At the same time, the middle-class norms I eventually adopted have not fundamentally changed who I am.  They are simply the flip side of the same coin.  

The taming of a public housing child was a resounding success, for the child grew up to write about it.  She took the best things from both social classes and made them co-exist within the same person.  She tried to be a bridge between the two. She looked back and did not turn to dust. 

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