Project Girls

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

Doris Smith does care about people, though, and is active in her church, buying and preparing food for the homeless, using her "own money," she adds proudly. And she cares about kids. "Young people are having trouble growing up. Back then kids were boxing. Now they'll kill you, shoot you down. They start kicking teachers before they can even walk. They can't even read." She thinks the Board of Education is not doing its duty to reduce class size and create summer jobs and activities. But that's only part of the problem. "You don't have complete families anymore. Mothers are doing the best they can, but things come up. And the mothers are too young to know how to make decisions. They haven't been raised themselves, so how can they know how to raise a child?" She still sees the projects as a good place to live. "Now, a lot of Asians are moving in. Next door, upstairs. There are already three families." And the housing authorities put you out, she says, almost relieved, if they can prove you committed a crime.


DOLORES JOHNSON, 70

With her mild manner and soft voice, you wouldn't expect that Dolores Johnson is straight outta Hell's Kitchen. One of three kids, her family moved to a mostly white neighborhood called Bed-Stuy when she was nine. Her neighbors think she's from down South because she's "spent many a summer in North Carolina," she smiles, "but I'm a native New Yorker."

At 70, she is astonishingly smooth-skinned. "Just eat healthy," she advises, "no alcohol, no smoking, and all that stuff." She's been in the projects for 48 years and lives with a granddaughter. "God has been good to me." She talks nostalgically about the good old days. "That was the best. Nice neighbors, you felt safe, the place was beautiful, you could bring your children up . . . the mixture of different races was very nice, Spanish, Italian . . . I have to give it to them, they always tried to keep it up, but the people . . . " Her voice trails off.

The mother of two boys and three girls, Dolores remembers the evolution of her neighborhood. "The whites started moving out when they put a cap on income, where you could make only up to a certain amount. That broke up the good combination of people." It was a neighborly place of small kids growing up together. For Dolores, change came when a lawsuit forced the Housing Authority to stop screening tenants. "Up to that point, every family had a husband who was employed," she says. But change is simply that, change. Downfall, however, is something else, and she is clear on what brought down the projects: crack cocaine. "We had a milkman, a soda man . . . all that changed when those drugs came in. They used to sell it in the halls, so bold. Our building was good. There was a couple of murders but not too much. It was one of the best until the children grew up and started selling crack. That was the worst, the crack and all the shooting going on." But she held her family steady, raising two corrections officers, a court officer, a hospital clerk, and a Transit Authority manager.

Back in the days, project life was sweet. Forty-eight years ago, the monthly rent for a four-room apartment was $36.50. Today, it's $619. "We used to have nice places. There even was a movie one time, a cleaners, a pizza shop, the Boys Club. In the summer you used to sit with your doors open and get a breeze, like air-conditioning—better not do that now." As a retired city employee who spent 25 years as a supervisor of income specialists in a welfare center, she has an insider's view of the city's crime crackdown. "David Dinkins set things up and Giuliani came in and did it," she says, "but it's safer, I gotta give it to them. Used to be, we couldn't feel comfortable sitting on the benches. Now I don't feel threatened. But I wouldn't roam around in the buildings at night."

So, does she like living in the projects? She thinks a minute. "I stay here. I'm used to it. Don't want to move." She cites the good transportation—the buses and trains that get you to downtown Brooklyn and to Manhattan. "The projects are starting to come back. Seems like the majority of people moving in now have a job. The grounds and hallways are clean again. Maybe we'll get the right kinda people in here and it'll be like it used to be. A lot of good people come out of the projects. More good than bad." And she wants to stay close to her church.

The influx of young whites into what were the factories just outside the projects has not escaped her notice. "In the DUMBO section—that's for 'down under the Manhattan Bridge'—they took over them lofts. Back up in there it's a different world. They even got their own state park." The changes make her wonder what may be in store for the projects. "The white people would love to take this over and upscale it. Rumors have been flying. They said they'll never sell the projects but you never know what the city will do."

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