Project Girls

Five Veterans of the City’s Public Housing Tell Their Tales

Projects. Public housing complexes for the underclass. Dangerous places synonymous with poverty and crime, despair and drugs. Project girl. A young sister with no future. A single mother forced off welfare onto workfare. Undereducated. Holds a GED if she's lucky. So goes the common wisdom about where I grew up.

As with most stereotypes, a tint of truth makes believable the whole distorted picture, at least to those who don't know any better. I know better because I am a project girl. Farragut Houses. Downtown Brooklyn. And yes, too many of the kids I played basketball with, jumped double-Dutch with, and partied with grew up to die early, victims to one of the assorted deaths reserved for project folk as a consequence of our special, dissed place in American society. AIDS, shootings, and suicide. Madness, prison, and fear. Deaths of the body, deaths of the soul.

But a lot of us faced the challenges, were strengthened by the struggle, and went on to live not necessarily large, but definitely full. Some of us became nurses, postal clerks, doctors, cops, musicians, teachers, even fashion models. Others simply managed to survive their twenties, an accomplishment all by itself. And just as there's more to project residents than media clichés, there's also more to the projects themselves. Milk delivered to your door, shoe repair shops, hairdressers, integrated buildings, ice-cream parlors, restaurants, doormen, movie theaters, well-kept grounds—these are images that the word projects doesn't evoke, yet they were once as synonymous with "projects" as violence and drug abuse are today.

From downtown Brooklyn I have traveled far. Paris is my new word for home. Vacations take me back to the projects that formed me, where my mother still lives. I grew up there and am now an international corporate lawyer. Put that in your stereotype. It took some doing, a lot of drama and trauma, but I pulled it off. Recently, I took a trip to New York in connection with the publication in paperback of my memoir, Project Girl, and sat down with some of Farragut's original project girls, its pioneers, survivors, and victors. Witnesses to the good times and bad of public housing, these are their stories.


DORIS SMITH, 79

Don't tell Doris Smith that you shouldn't ask a woman her age. She's delighted to let you know she was "79 on December 22." With her slim figure and bright eyes, it's no wonder she's proud. "I'm so happy to be alive," she says, smiling. "Tell everybody my age." Fresh vegetables and fruits are how she explains her health. "No fast food. That greasy food will make you fat." Her apartment is immaculate, as neat and tidy as she is herself. A devout Catholic, she says the most important things in her life are church and family. She lost her husband, a ship repairman at what was the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 30 years ago. But she counts five children, 13 grandchildren, one of whom lives with her, and 14 great-grandchildren. All of her children finished school and have families. They have careers in education, nursing, and law enforcement.

Maybe all that broccoli and spinach is what gave her the strength to fight a mugger outside her door when she was pushing 70. "A man followed me from the elevator. About 21 years old, well-dressed, nice haircut. No gun or knife. I fought him against the walls, doors . . . my glasses fell off and my shoes got kicked off." She finally let go of her pocketbook, but only after he tried to throw her down a flight of stairs. After the incident, the Housing Authority offered to transfer her to another neighborhood, but she refused. "I didn't want to leave my friends and church. I love the projects and I'm not frightened to live here. That's the only thing that happened in 46 years, and I'm very thankful. It could've been worse."

Run-down tenements full of whites once stood where the projects were built, she says, and she remembers the exact date she moved in. "Nineteen fifty-five. May 8. The day before my son turned six months old." A native of South Carolina, she grew up in a family with eight children. She and her husband were a young couple sharing a studio in Bed-Stuy with a new baby when they applied to live in the projects. Applicants were required to show proof of employment and marriage certificates.

"Servicemen got first preference then, and they didn't allow in young single people. This was for people with children, and you had to have a husband who was working. Wives wasn't working back then. We were so lucky to get in," she says. Doris speaks of whites and blacks living together, a time she prefers. An elderly Jewish woman lived on her floor, as well as two Italian couples. Everybody was friendly and got along. She describes a neighborhood that was "So beautiful, clean, and peaceful . . . with not a mark on the wall." So what happened?

Doris sees it this way. "Money is money, and if welfare's the best you can do and you're decent people, that's fine. But people started moving out and others moving in, and they weren't like the original people in here. Some tenants didn't want them in because they felt the projects would be degraded. Little by little, you'd see a van and white people putting things in it and soon the whites had moved out." She reminisces about the doormen in gray uniforms in the buildings. "We didn't have people urinating in the halls, we didn't have marks on the walls. That's what happens when we don't know how to appreciate things." The projects feel safer now and she goes to church at night, something she couldn't do in the past, but she's still troubled by certain police actions. "Shooting our black people 20 times, that's not necessary. I don't care for Giuliani. Don't care for Bush either."

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