Mark Naison: Sonia Sotomayor's Appointment Highlights a Time When Public Housing Was a Place of Hope and Possibility for Working Class Families in the Bronx
[Mark Naison is Professor of African American Studies and History, Fordham University.]
There are many wonderful things about Sonia Sotomayor's appointment to the US Supreme Court, but one of special interest to me, as a scholar of Bronx history, is the way it highlights an era when public housing was a place of hope and possibility for working class families in the Bronx.
Today, public housing is widely viewed as a failed experiment in social policy, a place where poor and troubled families are warehoused in prison like conditions that breed crime, violence and apathy. But Sonia Sotomayor's experience of growing up in the Bronxdale houses, a low rise public housing development in the Soundview section of the Bronx that opened in the mid 1950's, recall a different reality. The Bronxdale houses, like many other public housing projects that were built in Bronx in the early and mid 1950's, were filled with families of World War II veterans looking to escape crowded tenements and rooming houses, and their airy apartments, spacious, well kept grounds, seemed like wonderful places to bring up children, Not only were the projects designed with green space, playgrounds and outdoor sitting areas where parents could watch their children, they had community centers on premises and schools conveniently located within walking distance of the buildings.
In those years, there was no stigma attached to living in"the projects." To the contrary, many residents took tremendous pride in the beauty of their surroundings. Allen Jones who wrote a book about his Bronx experiences called"The Rat That Got Away" recalls friends and relatives of people who moved into the Patterson Houses in Mott Haven walking through the grounds in sheer wonder at the meticulously maintained lawns and litter free walkways, while Connie Questell, in an oral history interview she did with the Bronx African American History Project boasted that the Japanese Gardens in the nearby Melrose Houses was a favorite Sunday strolling site for Bronx families
But for many residents, the social atmosphere of the projects was as much an attraction as spacious apartments and well maintained grounds For Black and Latino families especially, who experienced extreme segregation in the private housing market during those years, public housing in the Bronx represented their first experience with living in an integrated neighborhood. Taur Orange, a college administrator who grew up in the Bronxdale Houses at the same time Sonia Sotomayor did, remembers Bronxdale as"a little United Nations" and recalls Black, Jewish, Italian, Latino and Asian mothers sitting on the project benches watching their children and sharing stories and recipes. Vicki Archibald Good a social work supervisor, who grew up in the Patterson Houses with her brother, basketball legend Nate"Tiny" Archibald recalls families of every nationality playing together, raising children together, and sharing each other's food and music. Allen Jones and Nathan Dukes fondly remember days when everyone regardless of race or ethnicity, sang doo wop, danced Latin and would defend their project against all rivals, on or off project grounds.
From 1950, when the Patterson Houses opened, through the early 1960's, public housing in the Bronx, low income and moderate income, located as far north as the Edenwald Houses (near the Mount Vernon border), as far West as the Sedgwick Houses (near the George Washington Bridge) as far east as Castle Hill Houses (near the Whitestone Bridge) and as far South as the Millbrook Houses (near the Triboro Bridge) represented a great urban success story, a place where tens of thousands of working class families found a safe, healthy envirnoment to raise children, and where thousands of young people grew up to become successful, productive citiznes, some of whom would make a tremendous mark on their nation as scholars, scientists, writers, musicians, journalists, athletes and leaders in government and public service.
Over time, the atmosphere in the projects would deteriorate. As the first generation of families moved out to buy homes or middle income Co-Ops, they would be replaced with poorer, more troubled families, many of them on public assistance, and a combinatinon of job losses, drug epidemics and white flight would erode the spirt of community and feelings of optimism that these developments had once been known for. These problems would be intensified by budget cuts that would reduce the quality of project maintenance, leaving lawns poorly cared for, hallways and grounds filled with debris, and elevators in need of repair, and local community centers deprived of needed staff.
Nevertheless, Bronx housing projects never became the broken, hopeless urban concentration camps that many people imagine them to be. The Bronx River and Bronxdale Houses, along with many other projects in the South and West Bronx, were important sites in the development of Bronx Hip Hop, hosting the early parties and jams of pioneering Bronx DJ's like Afrika Bambatta, Jazzy Jay, Disco King Mario, and Grandmaster Flash. And even through the present, Bronx projects house thousands of senior citizens who have lived in them for fifty plus years, and who refuse to move because their neighbors look out for and take care of them.
But the most important thing to remember, at a time when develoment of affordable large scale multiple dwellings has been neglected for more than a generation (while huge high rises for the rich dot the urban landscape throughout Manhattan and North Brooklyn) is that public housing was a tremendous success when it was rich in social services, provided excellent daily maintenance and was careful in its tenant selection.
Sonia Sotomayor's inspiring life story is one of many nurtured in the heyday of public housing in New York. There is no reason we can't provide this kind of opportunity for a new generation of children growing up in families of modest means.
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