Recently, on Facebook, I participated in a conversation going on among other former dwellers of the Bronx housing project in which I grew up. They mostly remember it as an idyllic place, filled with children, all seemingly available to play at a moment’s notice.
I too remember the joy of having so many playmates available at all times, such a different world from my now 12-year-old daughter’s, in which I have to arrange dates well in advance with her friend’s parents, while figuring out the logistics of getting her back and forth to Brooklyn and Queens from Manhattan, since, unlike me and my project brethren, she doesn’t attend a neighborhood school, and her friends are far-flung.
I do remember some less-than-idyllic things, though: the occasional mugging; the teenage boy who threw a knife at me in the lobby of my building because I wouldn’t “take a walk” with him; the maintenance workers who made kissing noises to me as I strolled the grounds.
Still, mostly it was good, and my life revolved around the projects. I didn’t yearn for more. My life was tidily circumscribed, and I wasn’t much aware that other families, living far from the projects, had more than we did. My friends all lived in apartments like my own—small, cramped, devoid of personality, inexpensively furnished. Yet each family found a way to make the apartment seem more personalized—some had pianos, some had pretty, modern furniture. In our case, we had my father’s original artwork hanging on the walls.
As I grew up and my world got increasingly wider, I never dreamed of pretending that I’d grown up anywhere else, despite the fact that many people I met made it clear to me how housing projects are “lesser” and looked down upon. I cringe when I hear people make comments about a school not being “good” because “too many of the kids are from the projects.” Or when someone tells me to avoid taking a certain route because one has to “pass by the projects.” Despite the fact that I grew up with my own fears, I know that the majority of people from the projects are hard working and honorable, as my family, and our friends were, and I feel sad hearing such overt bigotry.
I’m honest, when asked where I grew up. I reply, “The Bronx,” which I’ve come to understand, carries its own negative associations. If pressed to be more specific, I add, “The Gun Hill Projects.” Often, this is a conversation stopper, although one of my college professors said, after a moment of awkward silence, “Hmm … you sure don’t seem like a girl from the projects. I never would have guessed.” I knew he meant it as a compliment, but it also was an insult. “This is what a girl from the projects looks and acts like,” was what I should have said, instead of just shrugging with embarrassment, for him and for me, which was what I did.
Sometimes, just for fun, when asked where I grew up, I say, “Up on housing project hill,” quoting Bob Dylan from “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” which goes on to say, “If you’re looking to get silly/you’d better go back to from where you came.” Well, I have no intention of returning to life in the projects, no matter how silly I can be sometimes!
I prefer the building in Manhattan in which I now live. It has a spacious, attractive lobby, and diligent doormen who make me feel safe. I can’t say I’m exactly “proud” to be from the projects, the way so often people talk about being proud of where they come from (“a friendly, small town in Nebraska!” “One of the affluent Five Towns in Long Island!”).
I had no hand in where I lived, and I’m certain that my parents, had they had more money, would have chosen to live elsewhere—but I’m also not ashamed. The projects are just part of the truth of who I am, and I’m OK with that. I expect others to be, as well.