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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.