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Letter From New York
by Lenny Quart

 

Lenny Quart is Professor of Cinema Studies at COSI and the CUNY Grad. Center, and is a frequent contributor to the Berkshire Eagle. This is the first of what we hope will become a regular series in which he reflects on life in New York as reflected in its news and literature.

New York Tenements circa 1930
Growing up in the Projects
Remembering Mayor Lindsay
 

Growing Up in the Projects

 

 

Low-income New York neighbourhoods like Brownsville and East Harlem are still dominated by uninviting brownish-red brick towers, bounded by patches of sad green grass, that define the look of most public housing in the city. When public housing was first built in 1934, its proponents sanguinely saw it as eliminating the crime, disease, and poverty of slums, and providing decent, airy, low-rent apartments for people living in decaying tenements. The first public housing projects were low-rise walk-ups with playgrounds, shops, and community meeting rooms. With the beginning of World War II, the Housing Authority moved to sterile high-rise designs — because such buildings housed more people and were cheaper to construct. Until the 60s the projects contained a large number of working-class whites, but the nature of public housing changed during that decade. Blacks and Hispanics became the dominant group in the projects, and by 1962 nearly 12% of the tenants were on welfare. As years passed, the families in the projects gradually became poorer and less stable.

In the 1970s while public housing projects in cities like Newark and St. Louis became so uninhabitable they had to be demolished— the New York projects, in neighbourhoods like the South Bronx and East New York, became relative havens in a landscape of abandonment. Today, the projects remain generally better maintained and more secure than most market rentals in the same neighbourhoods. Six hundred thousand people live in them— about 20% of the nation’s total public housing population. They are filled to capacity (more than 120,00 people are doubled up in apartments), and 140,000 people are on the waiting list.

Nevertheless, if New York’s public housing is better run and less ominous than, for example, Chicago’s giant projects (e.g., the Robert Taylor Homes which house a minuscule portion of Chicago’s population accounted for 11% of its murders in 1990), they are not free of social fragmentation and violence that exists in both the surrounding neighbourhoods and among a number of the tenants who live in them. The difficulty of growing up in New York’s housing projects and coming out emotionally unscathed was brought home to me in Project Girl — Janet McDonald’s harrowing, honest memoir.

Janet came of age in Brooklyn’s Farragut Houses where she was one of seven children born to a Southern-born couple— a postal worker father and a housewife mother— who believed in the "American dream" for their progeny. In the 50s and 60s the Farragut Houses were a place for black working families like her own, but by the late 60s working poor began to be replaced by welfare mothers and the "excluded poor" (one reason for the shift were changes in the income requirements for becoming a project resident). Black workers then started to flee the projects, and the unemployed and unemployable moved in, transforming it into a drug-ridden wilderness. Despite her family’s stability, the underclass culture in the projects sucked in some of Janet’s siblings. One sister became a drug addict, a brother went to prison for a robbery, and another hard-working sister ended up raising two children by herself and continually attaching herself to destructive men (one of whom turned out to be a murderer).

Growing up in an environment where the greatest danger came from one’s peers and neighbours, Janet McDonald was a bookish smart girl who skipped an early grade, and then entered Erasmus High School in 1968 when it was a predominantly white middle class institution. In high school she felt inadequate academically, and her grades at graduation were so poor that she had to go another term to acquire an academic diploma. The grades did not prevent her from being accepted by Vassar, where Janet’s identity conflicts and an uncontrolled internal rage began to overwhelm her.

Confronted with the need to "resocialize" herself, so she could deal with a privileged, alien world (her "phantom white girl"), that was utterly at odds with her project life, she chose to plunge downwards into heroin and an attempted suicide. She felt like "Icarus" who "had flown high and suffered a spectacular fall." Janet’s memoir is permeated with other traumatic incidents such as a rape and a brief jailing, and emotionally spectacular ups and downs, until she finally rights herself by finding refuge in an international corporate law career in Paris, her "dream city."

What’s most interesting about the book is not the inspirational quality of her triumph over adversity or her depiction of underclass and white upper middle class cultures, but Janet’s evocation of the tormented, divided self that caused her such agony. The ethos of the projects demeaned academic accomplishment and her passion for books, and left few people intact. It was a world that other people who escaped from just let go. For Janet, however, the projects were a home that she wanted to stay true to— "it’s where my heart is." Nevertheless, it’s not Brooklyn or even Manhattan, but Paris she ultimately chose as her home though without rejecting her past.

Like many of us who have left our Bronx, Brooklyn, and small town adolescences behind for a very different life and identity, Janet wanted to hold on to where she came from. Still, growing up in a safe but cramped white lower-middle or working-class milieu is far from analogous to coming of age in the projects. The contrast between the volatile world of Janet’s Farragut Houses and the elite white universities she attended and corporations she worked for, was in her words, "brutal."

Obviously, many black success stories are not rooted in personal histories as tormented and conflicted as Janet’s; but there is a clear psychic cost to being black in America, and even the most balanced lives are not free of emotional wounds. Project Girl is a memoir about one of the more painful and moving of those lives, a life that provides the consolation of ending on a relatively happy note.

Remembering John Lindsay

John Lindsay, the Mayor of New York from 1965-73, died recently. Reading his obituaries made me think about what an intricate, richly textured political novel Lindsay’s career would make in the hands of a writer who understood both the nature of the city’s institutions and culture and the inner life of a New York patrician. Lindsay, son of an investment banker, grew up in Manhattan, went to prep schools and then Yale, and was elected as a liberal (Rockefeller) Republican Congressman to an Upper East Side seat, before he became Mayor. It was a career filled with great promise, and the kind of success that turned out to be more one of style and spirit than of actual accomplishment.

Lindsay was a tall, matinee idol handsome figure, a confident man, who emanated both integrity and idealism. He had courage and aristocratic grace, and in 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, he manifested those qualities by walking the night streets of an angry Harlem, assuring the people there that somebody in power cared. Consequently, New York during his tenure in office remained relatively unscarred, while other cities like Detroit and Washington rioted and went up in flames. Lindsay also attracted talented young people to his administration (e.g., his headline-grabbing Park Commissioner, Thomas Hoving, turned Central Park into an exciting destination), openly condemned the Vietnam War, and genuinely cared about the poor, committing himself to combating racism and poverty and transforming the status quo.

However, his glamour, charisma, liberal ideals, and commitment to make cities a national priority did not make it any easier for him to run the city effectively in his two terms as Mayor. In a city of conflicting, roiling interest groups and infinite social problems, Lindsay faced a number of crises, some of them of his own making. It was the sixties, and many upper middle class liberals and leftists viewed the white working and lower middle class with condescension and contempt — seeing them as politically and culturally retrograde and racist. I doubt that Lindsay shared those sentiments, but he was Manhattan-oriented, exhibiting little sensitivity for the feelings of ordinary people from the outer boroughs, and they, in turn, felt patronised by somebody they perceived to be alien.

A disruptive transit strike, lasting 13 days, marred Lindsay’s first days in office. Led by a demagogic leader Mike Quill, the strike cost the city $1.5 billion in lost productivity and wages, and a contractual settlement that the city couldn’t afford. The strike prefigured other confrontations that were as much cultural as political in nature. For example, Lindsay also put into operation an experimental school decentralisation plan in several impoverished black Brooklyn neighbourhoods, that led to a horrific conflict (dominated by anti-Semitic and racist harangues) with the mainly white teacher’s union. (Decentralisation with its promise of greater community representation and power, proved even more inadequate a solution to New York’s continuing school crisis than the remote, bungling centralised bureaucracy it proposed to reform.) In addition, there was a 15-inch blizzard in the winter of 1969, that the city was slow to react to. The blizzard left the side streets of the outer boroughs impassable, and many of its inhabitants feeling ignored. The result was that the mayor was jeered and cursed out by middle class homeowners when he toured their communities. Lindsay’s second term was even more difficult. Racial and class tensions intensified, and so did the flight to the suburbs of the city’s white population. They were replaced by poorer minority residents who needed increased government services and spending (e.g., welfare and health) to sustain them. White flight and job loss, with a quarter of million jobs disappearing during Lindsay’s second term, meant an eroding tax base and increasing city debt — ultimately leading to a profound fiscal crisis once he left office. Lindsay, like most New York politicians, never acknowledged the city’s dire financial situation, constantly raising taxes, and blithely believing that the good times would roll on forever.

As Mayor, Lindsay made many serious mistakes, some of them deriving from sixties’ left/liberal notions like the commitment to building giant public housing projects for low income residents in middle-class areas that aroused only rage from people in the neighbourhood. Still, he was one of the few Republicans I ever voted for, because he was an honourable man who cared about the powerless — issuing, for example, an executive order banning discrimination against gays in government — and he believed, with his whole being, that the city was renewable.

However, what is ironic is that it has been the anti-Lindsay Rudolph Giuliani, authoritarian, charmless, and rigid, who has been the better Mayor. Giuliani, like Lindsay, alienated a large segment of New York’s population (he’s especially hated by Afro-Americans), did little (until recently) about affordable housing and public education, but his mistakes have not cost him. He’s held office during a less embattled time, when the national economy was robust, and Wall Street has enjoyed the most sustained boom in its history. However, watching him one understands that it’s not noble ideals or a moral vision that make for an effective Mayor. Giuliani has efficiently delivered most city services, and the city under his control exudes a greater sense of well-being and safety than it has in decades. There was something heroic about the glamorous Lindsay, but the fact is that the complex but mundane act of governing a city, may need somebody as clearly defined and compulsively controlling as Giuliani rather than the compassionate, caring Lindsay. That reality disturbs me, but it’s the truth.

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