Project Girls

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

Not only does Alberta Cox not feel safer in Giuliani's New York, she doesn't expect to. "There's not as much shooting, but stuff goes on. A month or so ago somebody said they shot a boy right around here. You're not going to get rid of crime. They had crime in the biblical days, prostitution and everything else. But that doesn't make any kind of sense, a four- or five-year-old having to run from a shooting." She seems relieved to have been able to air her feelings, and is all smiles as she closes and double-locks her door.


GLADYS OLLIVIERRE, 71

Gladys Ollivierre's inner child is alive and well and keeps her laughing and giggling. She dates her arrival in the projects from the birth of her son in 1952. That's 48 years in the projects. "They say people in project is welfare and drugs. Not true. People have worked and retired." Her husband, a veteran, worked in a dental supply company until his death four years ago. Although born in Brooklyn, she grew up with family in Barbados, and you can still hear it in her voice. After spending three years in a "little teeny half-room" in a private house in Fort Greene, her application to Farragut was accepted. "I liked it when I first moved in, and still like it now. You know I had to be very happy to have four rooms." Especially as her three children and six grandchildren came along.

She remembers unpaved roads, newly built schools, and a housing complex that was mainly for veterans. There was the church that had to be "pulled down" and relocated to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Gold Theater, the YMCA full of sailors, and a tattoo parlor that catered to them. Fishermen came round selling fresh fish from the backs of trucks. Milk and bread and soda were delivered to your door. That is, until the service had to be stopped because kids began stealing the deliveries. This memory gets Gladys chuckling and giggling. For five years, she worked for the Bureau of Attendance as a truant officer aide, at a time when schools still wanted to know why children were absent. But mostly she raised her own children, succeeding in keeping them out of trouble and in school.

What are her other good memories of the projects? She bursts out laughing. "Good is going way back. After 10 p.m. people couldn't play their radio loud." A children's store comes to mind, a cleaners, a pizza shop, the Boys' Club, odd- and even-floor elevators. Racial integration. On every floor there were one or two white families and everybody was friendly, a very good memory for Gladys. She doesn't know why the whites began to move out in the late '50s and early '60s, but they did, with an instantly noticeable effect. The Housing Authority changed when the whites moved out. "You used to get service in one day, now eight days." Another change affected the projects even more. "They had to bring in public-assistance families because of discrimination problems. They move the income people out and bring in some families getting help. Nothing wrong with getting help, but they didn't care how their apartments looked."

She recites a litany of project horror stories. "They kill the woman husband when he went over on York Street. He was shot right there. You know, that was tragic. And a fella throw a child off the roof. Gossip said the Catholic school had sent her home. They found a body in the basement. Boys followed a man from the check-cashing place and he wouldn't get on the elevator. Took the stairs and they grabbed him, so he stabbed a 17-year-old. The boy was bleeding, running in panic from floor to floor, so he bled to death." Asked if she would've been afraid to open the door to a bleeding teenager, she says, "You got that right. You have to be very careful and look out the peephole." Then she and her daughter go into hysterics about how she mistakenly opened the door to a stranger identifying herself as "Biscuit."

Yet Gladys feels safe. "I had no bad experiences, thank God. I believe in living and let live. I can go in all 10 buildings." She has never wanted to move from the projects. "I like knowing people, the transportation, being close to the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge." She, too, is concerned by certain rumors. "Gossip says they want to take these buildings, but Housing keeps disowning it. Gossip says policemen and firemen want to move back here from Queens. Where there's smoke, there's fire." The influx of whites down around the docks adds fuel to that smoky fire. "They call themselves Vinegar Hill and didn't want to be known as Farragut. They wanted their own park, wanted to reroute the 61 bus around the projects to serve the whites on the waterfront."

Despite the tragedies she's seen, she feels upbeat about Farragut. "It have improved from what it was. Young people hanging around not as bad as they were when you see a group and better pick up your feet and go. The Tenants' Association made it better by working with the 84th Precinct." But mention of the police sparks other emotions. "They shot the African. Put the thing up the other one's rectum. Policemen prejudiced." So what is her opinion of Mayor Giuliani? "I'm taking the Fifth Amendment," she cries out, laughing and clapping her hands together.

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