There is no denying that public housing provided me with a sense of community in my youth and young adult years. I was the youngest of four children being raised in a single-parent household (not single as in marital status, but single as in my parents were separated-just like to make that distinction) and my mom relied heavily on my grandparents, who lived next door, to look after us. My grandparents also had four children and my aunt was tasked with the responsibility of keeping an eye on me when I was outside. Besides my aunt, there were no shortage of “eyes” in the community. We all looked out for one another, which can also be called “minding other people’s business with scattered amounts of genuine concern.” Whether you were being nosy or really looking out, not much happened in the community without igniting the grapevine that we all kind of relied on for our news and what was happening in the neighborhood. Looking back, I am amazed at just how familiar we were with one another, either through friends, family, or simply knowing who’s who in the area. Even if you didn’t know someone by name, there was someone you could ask, “Hey, you know that guy/girl with the “whatever the description” that lives in “whatever the building?” The answer was usually, “Oh, yeah… that’s “so-and so” or “what’s her name’s brother or sister,” “they cool (or they a trip), why?” And that’s all the information and validation you would need. That would either move your plans forward or halt them dead in their tracks. I loved that! There are numerous accounts such as the one just described that I think of with tremendous nostalgia. I can also recall hop-scotch, double-dutch, loadies, tag, card games like spades and bid whist, DJs in the parks and dance battles, block parties, and a host of other games that required tremendous amounts of social interaction and I participated in most of them. We had a city pool, parks inside and around the development, and a community center to host game nights, parties, meetings and meet-ups. There were organized events by local leaders and days where nothing was going on, but the benches and various hang-out spots provided adequate entertainment (or mischief) all by themselves. What I am recalling are what we fondly termed “the good ol’ days.” And for the most part they were. This is not to say that clouds never found us because they did on numerous occasions but in my opinion they did not define us; however, community did. That cloud of poverty is the primary focus that most journalists or scholars talk about now and is how public housing has been defined. They have defined us by the cloudy days as if there were no sunshine to be found. The few that are beginning to report on life in the projects, as if it were so vastly different from elsewhere on earth, seem a bit surprised to learn that ordinary folk reside in these developments as well. Yes, many are poor and financially challenged. But I think the collective poverty and its impact that I experienced in my youth was realized and felt by the majority which made it somehow acceptable. A few families stood out but it wasn’t the rule, it was the exception – some hated on families that appeared better off, while others looked at it as inspiration. Drugs and crime and gangs all existed but didn’t seem to dominate the landscape as I remember it. Again, those were the exceptions; a few bad apples. They did not occupy the developments. Games, benches, parties and hanging out – those were the dominate activities which is why so many people who have moved out continue to come back for NYCHA’s family day events every summer. Some people travel, while others organize private BBQs or other private events in the area because they know people will return from other cities and states just to reconnect with family and friends. It really is nice to witness how different developments represent pride in their respective community and talk about the good ‘ol days. I have been to a few of these events and can testify as to the joyousness of the days. As an adult who was raised in public housing and have raised two children of my own in public housing, I can say unequivocally that things are very different now. They somehow appear worse, materially as well as spiritually. Stark differences and tangible inequities exist on a range of levels. For one, the sentiment is different. For residents still residing in public housing, it appears that a common fatigue exists; maybe even sadness and/or complacency. Folks are tired and weary and seem to have simply given up. There are very few activities and the glory days of tenant patrol are almost non-existent. When I was growing up, I could count on the ladies in the lobby keeping an eye on everything. It was part of their daily activity – had to have somewhere to sit while waiting for the number to come out. But they knew the kids and most often you knew who your neighbors were, probably more than you wanted to or even should. Now, people keep more to themselves; mind their own business in fear of getting hurt. The dominant activity now are the groups who occupy the benches and parks with mischievous behaviors while shutting in residents who want to simply ignore the problems. There are trash problems, maintenance workers are overwhelmed, little-to-no organized activities exist, and sense of community appears to have vanished.
This is the spirit of public housing now as I see and feel it.
This is why I have so many mixed emotions. It’s such a love-hate relationship. I love so many things about it, especially how I have obtained my graduate degree, how my daughter has hers as well and that my son is in college. I could not have done this in the economic climate that exists or if I had to survive the overwhelming burden of rent I could not afford. I was afforded a certain peace of mind; comforted by the fact that if my economic situation were to change, so would my obligations toward rent. To further explain the range of emotions I experience daily – I want to leave public housing, but there’s now a fear, especially as an older adult, of what happens if I experience financial hardship. So many who do and work from paycheck to paycheck end up homeless. That scares me. I am comfortable and feel secure. I know that I can survive a more challenging housing situation, but hate that I feel as if I should because public housing is no where to remain. The expectation is that you move up and move on but my wages have not kept up with the demands for housing and I remain unsure if I want to struggle at this point in my life. I also want to service my community by fighting for better conditions for those who are too tired to put up a fight; effecting the kind of change in public housing that I want it to be. I believe that the people who best understand the issues and most willing to fight on behalf of public housing residents are public housing residents. If public housing is treated as a mere portal to “better” housing or ownership, the incentive to invest economically, mentally and physically is removed.
Public housing is a right and we should fight for it and protect it!!