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Essay

Dead Ends Are for Cars, Not People: Growing Up in Public Housing

by Caitlin Kelch

One of my favorite JayZ songs (Do U Wanna Ride?) hosts a set of words that always reminds me of the years I lived on Main Avenue.

You know why they call a project a project, because it’s a project
An experiment, we’re in it, only as objects
And the object for us to explore our prospects
Side-step cops on the way to the top (Yes!)
As kids we would day dream sitting on our steps

It was the late 1970s and the world was on fire, trying to assert a new identity that held hope and growth to escape the turmoil of the age. I always wondered about the street name — Main Avenue, not Main Street. It seemed an intentional slight to the people that populated the five rows of housing projects that creeped up the hill in the west end of town directly adjacent to the railroad tracks. The parallel streets at the top and bottom of that hill both displayed Dead End signs, visible from the sidewalks where children played. Those streets did dead end at the tracks. But there was so much more.

Fresh out of a foster home where I developed a mysterious case of amnesia, our apartment was a godsend. The door locked, the windows opened and the bathroom was filled with a family of shiny yellow tiles, each one as uniform as the next. The sunny squares were happy to be counted during bath time and equally as thrilled when they were stroked by my small fingers searching for cracks or bumps. There were none. Just smooth, glossy fronts for miles. My Cher doll enjoyed so many bubble baths in the bathroom sink that, had she been real, her poor skin would have turned into a tan raisin.

Image above: the Author from her personal collection     Image below: “housing projects” by shannxn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

I stayed inside frightened at the idea of playing with the neighborhood kids, but I watched them from our windows on the second floor. The end units were for families of three or less, single folks and seniors. If the kids knew you lived in one of these units, they could be cruel asking where your Daddy was, knowing damn well there was no Daddy. I supposed they figured even if their Daddy was drunk or abusive, they had one and they were going to celebrate it. Good for them.

There were good things.

We had a pantry. It was a tiny room built into the corner of the kitchen, lined with wooden shelves to hold cans of green beans, tiny potatoes and baked beans. It was also a great hiding spot and did double duty as a Cher & Barbie hangout.

Kids played outside. Sure they may have been outside after dark, but there were porch lights and street lamps and a chorus of Moms yelling for them to come in for the night. In fact, there was so much outdoor play that the squares of front lawns were just a few patches of grass with the rest of the squares being dry dirt or mud, depending on the day.

Black steel casement windows. These windows would ring bucks on auction sites these days. We see them in design magazines serving as the background for families with full lawns and no mud paths. My projects were built in the 1950s when casements were a common building element. Boy, did I love to open and close these windows. My mom would pour vegetable oil on the hinges to keep the hinges smooth.

Wood floors. While they were an unremarkable ash color, if you looked closely you could see scratches that held that last round of stain. They matched the closet doors.

Cool walls. The mottled concrete block wall served to keep hammer and nails out of the hands of the residents. Smoothed over with layer upon layer of institutional colors of paint, the walls were always cool to the touch and there were no air conditioners going into those casement windows. Hug the wall, I’d tell myself.

Image above by Rcsprinter123 licenses under CC BY-SA 3.0

My own bedroom. My Mom worked at Friendly’s Bar & Grill downtown so she’d come in late and sleep on the pull-out black vinyl sofa in the living room. That meant I put myself to bed in the only bedroom, where I had stacks of library books and a King Kong poster in the closet nook.

From an outsider’s perspective, the Projects were indeed a project, complete with monthly inspections of our apartments so there would written records of the project. What’s a project without notes? For all of us who lived on Main Avenue (don’t forget the distinction — this is not Main Street), though, we thought of our apartments as our home, not a project and certainly not the contents of a manila folder on a desk at the Housing Authority.

We just had to look down the row or out the window to see the stoop flags and marigolds or the supermarket balls and jump ropes to know that we were all home. In our collective heart we knew that dead end signs were for cars and that train tracks led to the world.

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Comments

  • What a wonderful essay about a truly maligned historic architectural form. As housing projects come of age, more and more are earning a well-deserved place on the National Register of Historic Places. I had the honor of writing several nominations for housing projects in Texas and Mississippi and they remain a career highlight. The history of public housing, both its creation and its design, is fascinating and is an extremely significant part of American architectural, political, and social history. Thanks for posting!

  • I grew up in co-op housing here in Vancouver Canada. So much of this resonates with my experience of childhood. Thanks for writing. Makes me want to try to get it down on ‘paper’ myself.

    • Hi Jen

      It’s so fulfilling to get it down and out. I think you’ll discover all sorts of memories.

      Caitlin

    • Thanks for that. “Get it down on paper” is something I wish I had convinced my mom to do before she passed. I recently realized there is a distinct possibility that we were “on Food Stamps”– something we spoke of with disdain in my recollection. She was proud though, so I don’t know if she would have been truthful. Funny how I pick up a $8.00 chicken at the supermarket these days and remark (mostly to myself) that “Mama could’ve fed our family of seven on $8.00! FOR A WEEK!”

      Your timely comment reminds me, maybe my own story is worthy of “getting down on paper.” Like so many stories I’ve read through the years, the first line must be, “We didn’t know we were poor.”

      • Definitely get it down on paper Chuey. It helped balance my life a lot. And relieved some guilt for buying $8 chickens too! Caitlin

  • Caitlin,

    This is such a beautiful piece. I am a commissioner of the Housing Authority of New Orleans and, because of the demolition of so much public housing post-Katrina, I often hear about the impact of the destruction of public housing in my city. Public housing and affordable housing are misunderstood. The first-person stories of people who have grown up in public housing all over the United States are powerful and very necessary in this time when there are vast nationwide shortages of affordable housing. Thank you for sharing.

    Isabel

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