Project Girls

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

Things are changing all over downtown Brooklyn, with the new Metrotech complex, the DUMBO area. Chinese people, she says, bought the old YMCA and there are a couple of Chinese living in her building. "Everybody gets along." She's not surprised that the area is safer now. "White people don't want no ruckus." Her children want her to move, but "after a while," she says, "you get used to it, almost like home." After 48 years, Dolores Johnson's projects feel almost like home.


ALBERTA COX, 69

Alberta Cox does not mince words. She's lived in the projects for 47 years but answers the question before it's even asked. "If somebody found me a nice place today I would throw out half this stuff and go." And it's not just talk. She's applied for a co-op apartment, where, ironically, she'll pay less rent than in the projects. Her easy laugh softens the toughness of her words, but you know she means them. "It's the environment. There are good people in the projects but they get caught up in it. I raised five children. In the early days, it was beautiful. I loved it so, and loved the people. I used to go home to Virginia and clamor to be back. Now I don't want to come back. I wouldn't raise children here today. Young people are so negative. They have so much to do but they're not doing nothing. It messes with your head to walk out in the hall and smell marijuana. It's not good for young children to grow up in that. It's not right." Her five turned out fine, stayed out of trouble, and have jobs and families.

A native of Virginia, Alberta was 20 years old when she arrived in Brooklyn. First stop: a too-small brownstone in what was then predominantly white Prospect Heights, a neighborhood of doctors and lawyers. She was one of nine children, and her parents were adamant that they should graduate high school. They did. "Today," she says, shaking her head, "kids have their own kids and they haven't even finished junior high school."

She worked mostly in factories until she married and her husband wanted her to stay home with the family. He held two jobs, took college courses, and worked his way up in the Transit Authority from maintenance man to supervisor, where he stayed until he retired. He died in 1992. She talks with pride about "a person who always tried to build himself up." Something she doesn't see in the projects. "I see a lot of stuff I don't like. People stand out here like they don't have an apartment to go to. Garbage in the grass. I know grass. I come from grass country, and that's good grass. And people put garbage in it. I been here 47 years and I never threw anything out the window or hung clothes in the window. We grew up poor but we were clean. The dirtiest place I ever lived was this project."

Fear runs through her conversation. Fear of sitting on the benches in front of her building because of what might be thrown from the roof. Fear of the hallways at night. She describes coming home late one evening to broken elevators. With trembling legs, she climbed the stairs to her apartment, past people selling drugs. "The heroin user gets a hit and stands up and sleeps, but the crack users will kill you." Get her talking about "back then," however, and the joy returns to her face. "Around here, there was nothing but terrible tenement houses with Irish and Italians. It used to be a third white, a third Hispanic, and a third black. The white people didn't stay, and things started going down. They started moving out when their children turned 10 or 11. Didn't want them having little black boyfriends and girlfriends, that's what I figure."

She vividly describes the neighborhood she once loved. "There was a big movie theater on the corner, lots of nice little shops, a bakery, a drugstore, nice restaurants, a shoe shop, a cleaners, a hairdresser, and a barber shop . . . even an ice-cream parlor where you sit up on a stool and have what you want. Every Thursday, an elderly Italian woman would dress up with a hat, like she was going somewhere, sit in that shop and eat ice cream, then come back in two hours. She was nice. We had quite a few Chinese people, too. In the summertime they'd have beautiful kimonos like they wear in China. But the Chinese, once they get on their feet, they're not going to stay in no projects. There's a Chinese lady here now who tries to talk to me, but I don't speak Chinese. I just wave and smile."

There were rules that were enforced, like the $10 fine you got if your kids were playing on the grass. "Today's rules," she complains, "nobody obeys them and they don't do anything. In the wastebaskets there used to be nothing but paper and candy wrappers. Now they put everything in there and it's filthy." Salt in the wound probably comes from the fact that her siblings, still in Virginia, are living better than she is, she who came North for a better life. "They have beautiful homes," she sighs. Her 91-year-old mother still lives in the six-bedroom home where they all grew up.

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