The Projects

November 15, 1990|By Maura Casey

NEW LONDON, CONECTICUT — New London, Connecticut. UNTIL I WAS 7 years old my world was defined by the seven-story high-rise in which my family and I had an apartment. Others call the cluster of buildings where we lived low-income housing. We just called it the projects.

Eight of us lived in a three-bedroom unit. We slept on mattresses on the floor until we could afford beds. The apartment was located on the seventh floor where the rent was cheaper. The reason why became obvious in the winter, when the top-floor units were buffeted by Buffalo winds and the rooms became frigid.

By the time I was 5 my brothers were giving me boxing lessons and the rules of the projects had become second nature: Don't go outside alone. Keep an eye out for gang members who could cause trouble. At any sign of trouble, run. It all seemed normal to me.

Those memories came back when I spent a recent afternoon in high-rise housing projects. the buildings had virtually the same layout as the one I lived in for seven years. They had the same cinder-block walls, the same hallways in the shape of a cross; two stairwells to each floor; two elevators.

There the resemblance ended. Graffiti covered walls and ceilings, with a favorite message, ''Kill all police.'' I stepped over bags that once held drugs, all stamped with the seals of the drug pushers who sold them. Food and garbage littered hallways. The air stank. In one elevator I took to the ninth level, it was impossible to avoid standing in a puddle of urine that covered the floor. And even though the only sound was the cry of babies and the thud of rock music, even knowing that at 2 p.m. the drug dealers were asleep, I was afraid.

Heaven knows what genius decided it would be a terrific idea to take all the poorest people in America and stuff them in these high-density warehouses. You'd have to be as dumb as a peach pit not to see that problems would result.

The federal government began to build projects in 1935 as a low-cost way of providing housing to those of moderate income. Later, during the 1950s and '60s, as urban renewal cleared blighted areas, high-rises became the replacement for poor neighborhoods.

Architects couldn't have devised structures more difficult to police. With its many hallways that foster crime, elevators that can be stopped to slow down drug raids, stairwells ideal for fleeing suspects, projects are nothing but trouble.

Some, when turned over to tenants, can be made to work, as experiments in Washington, Boston and St. Louis have shown. But the tenants have to have leadership, a rare quality under any circumstances, and must overcome anger and apathy in order to accomplish anything constructive.

It would be fashionable to say that my family was an urban version of the Waltons while we lived in the projects; that we didn't know we were poor. Baloney. The vision of the happy poor has about as much accuracy as that of contented slaves singing in the cotton fields.

The projects in which we lived gradually became more dangerous. My brothers began to get in fights with local gangs. My mother asked an aunt to pray for us so we would find a way out. Instead, Aunt Lillian gave her a check for $3,000 to make a down payment on a house.

We left. But the place ended so scarred by graffiti, so filthy and so dangerous that the city ended up closing the buildings entirely.

After I ended my recent visit to the local projects I wrote an editorial about the experience and was rebuked by one of the tenants. I was too tough on the projects, she said. Management had poured millions of dollars into the place, installing new kitchens and new security doors for all the apartments.

In the next breath she mentioned that the security doors had come in handy recently, when drug gangs blasted gunfire at one family's apartment. The new door stopped the bullets.

This is normal?

The Reagan and Bush administrations have shunned building more projects, and instead give rent vouchers to the poor so they can find their own apartments. It is an approach that works best in areas unlike New York, New England or the West Coast, where rents are in the stratosphere. Tenants have also been encouraged to participate in management and even take over apartment buildings in some areas.

But the typical response to the grime and crime of the projects is that of any bureaucracy: throw more money at the problem. Our local housing authority, after pouring $2.7 million into renovating all the apartments in three buildings, plans to redo the lobbies of all the buildings. The director admitted to me that the projects are dangerous and expensive. But he said, ''Building projects is something the country decided to do years ago, and something we have to live with.''

Do we really?

You have to wonder, at this point, whether trying to fix up the projects isn't just putting lipstick on a corpse.

Maura Casey is associate editorial page editor of The Day.

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