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OPINION: When 'the projects’ were a great place to live

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

For the past week, the New York City Housing Authority has been under constant attack for, among other things, leaving $1 billion in federal money unspent while tenants in the city’s housing projects often have to wait a year to get simple repairs.

The scandal comes on top of the public’s basic perception that housing projects are basically drug-ridden, crime-ridden, gang-ridden developments where most of the tenants are single mothers on welfare. While this is a gross exaggeration, as a one-time assistant manager of the giant Edenwald Houses in the northeast Bronx, I can testify that there’s a grain of truth to this stereotype.

But earlier, between the ages of five and 19, mainly during the 1960s and early 1970s, I grew up in a city housing project — Marble Hill Houses in the northwest Bronx. And at that time, the projects were seen as desirable places to live.

The projects were not all low-income: they were divided into low-income projects and middle-income projects, such as Marble Hill. There were quite a few projects in Brooklyn that were similar to Marble Hill in Brooklyn, such as Sheepshead-Nostrand Houses, Marlboro Houses and Wyckoff Gardens.

The great majority of the people in Marble Hill were working people, and many of the fathers, like mine, were veterans. They came from all of the major ethnic groups in New York in those days — Irish, Italian, Jewish, black and Puerto Rican and I can’t think of one incident of ethnic bias. The parents may have made prejudiced remarks — my father did — but these remarks remained behind closed doors. As for the kids, they were more interested in heading to the playground to play basketball or handball, or to go on the monkey bars or the slide.

Until I was 16 or so and the project began to change, I don’t remember any robberies or burglaries. And while some of the wilder teenagers may have used drugs, they used “goof balls” and “pep pills,” not heroin and cocaine. The housing cops were always around, curtailing any uncomfortable situations.

What many people don’t understand was that in those days, you had to prove that you were a “respectable” person to get into the project. You had to prove that you paid your gas bill, your electric bill, rent on your previous apartment. If you said you were married, you had to show a marriage certificate.

In my elementary school, about half the kids were from the project and the other half were from the nearby small apartment houses and private houses. I can’t remember one occasion where one of these kids said anything disparaging about people who lived in the projects. We all basically had the same amount of money.

Also in our neighborhood were the “Catholic kids” who went to St. John’s School. I can only remember one incident in all those years where any of them made fun of the many Jewish kids who lived in the project. And that one time, the nuns from the school came out, yelled at the perpetrators and made sure that they never did anything like that again!

What happened? For one thing, beginning in the 1960s, the state began to build Mitchell-Lama apartment houses to attract the same kind of lower-middle-class people who lived in many of the projects. These buildings tended to be more modern, with terraces and air conditioners in the apartments.

  • The projects’ “XD” procedure, in which people who earned over the income limit were told to leave, robbed the projects of many of their natural leaders and model citiens. My own father was told to leave after he passed the CPA test and got a new job. As one of my co-workers at Edenwald said years later, “We knew the XD procedure was ruining the projects, but there was nothing we could do about it.”
  • The 1960s and early 1970s were a period of great economic opportunity, and many people were able to move out of the projects into co-op apartments or private houses.
  • Above all, the projects’ strict entrance requirements were changed around the same time. Some people said this was because of pressure from politicians. Others said that there were so many “emergency cases,” people who were burned out of their apartments due to constant fires in areas like Bushwick and the South Bronx, that the Housing Authority had to let them in as soon as possible. Many of the new people seemed, at least to me, to be rather unfriendly, and soon you began to see graffiti in the lobby and to smell urine in the elevators. For the first time, the established residents felt the need to establish a tenant patrol with a desk in the lobby.

By the time I was of college age, one of the reasons I decided to go to one of the SUNYs rather than to Lehman or CCNY, like many of my friends did, was to get away from the projects. Within a year, my parents had moved out, too.   It’s very unlikely that the city’s housing projects will ever be the way they were in the 1950s and ‘60s. Still, my intent in writing this piece is to capture a moment in time, a moment that so many people nowadays don’t even know existed.

Raanan Geberer is managing editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

August 8, 2012 - 5:37am


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