Project Girls

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


FLORENCE McDONALD, 73

My mother didn't even have the proverbial banjo on her knee when she came from Alabama to Brooklyn in 1945. Eighteen years old and in love, she hopped on a train with my father, a young veteran, and headed up North. Between the two of them, they had but a candy bar and an address given to my father by an army buddy. Farragut Houses accepted them as tenants in 1951. I was born in those projects, my six siblings were raised in them, my father died there 20 years ago, and my mother still lives there today. Same apartment.

The wife of a postal clerk who believed women should stay home and raise children, Florence didn't work outside the home other than a very short stint as a "piece worker" in a neighborhood sewing factory. She, too, remembers the rules that kept the projects pleasantly livable. "Back then, kids couldn't play on the grass or you'd get a fine. They couldn't ride bikes on the grounds. No dogs were allowed. It was nice. You had plenty of room, it was safe, and everybody was married. Milk, butter, eggs, and big bottles of fountain sodas were delivered to your door." The buildings were integrated, she recalls. "It was a lot of white people. Every floor had black, Spanish, white, black, Spanish, white. Today, it's black, Spanish, black, Spanish. There are some others, too. I don't know if they're Chinese Asians or whatever, but we got them in all the buildings. I call them all Chinese even though I know they're not."

Don't try to tempt her to move elsewhere. She's happy right where she is. "I love the projects. I raised my children here. I lived with my husband here. When he passed, the children wanted me to move, but I've been here so long it's home." It's true, I have urged my mother to move back to Alabama, where her five sisters live, but she won't hear of it. She's a city girl now, she says, and still finds New York exciting. Yet, you'd think seven children, seven grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren would've already provided her with more than enough excitement. Many of us have had our ups and downs, but we all turned out all right and are leading productive lives. Just like the project girl who raised us, who divides her busy life among activities with the seniors' center, church, and her family.

I visit at least once a year, usually for her birthday, and the stories about shootings, hold-ups, and robberies are not reassuring. But I've noticed promising changes. The hallway floors and walls are cleaner, the elevators don't break down as often, and the commitment of neighborhood churches to the community seems to be having a positive effect. But I still watch my back when I'm home, and race, rather than walk, down the stairs if I can't get the elevator. Old habits, maybe.

While she says she has no fear of living in the projects, Florence is not convinced by the city's much-touted falling crime rate. "Every time they say they brought crime down, the next day five or 10 people get killed on the same day somewhere in New York City, so I don't know how they do their calculation." And what does she think of her mayor? She laughs and answers with a "no comment." That's my mother. Ever the discreet Southerner, city girl or not.

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