I hate thinking about where I grew up.
I’ve written about it before. That housing project. The poverty. The ugliness. The emotional damage.
The fear. The lack of safety.
Being a lone white face in sea of black. Persecuted for the color of my skin.
RZA, the brilliant rapper, actor, producer and mastermind of hiphop group Wu-Tang Clan called out my neighborhood in what is considered one of his best songs, “Impossible.”
“Stapleton’s been stamped as a concentration camp.”
Today, I want to remember what was BEAUTIFUL about growing up in that housing project. And to reclaim, and yes- embrace,
BEING A PROJECT GIRL.
It took work to fit in. But in a housing project, there is a sense of community.
My God, it was a beautiful thing.
In the middle of all of the buildings was a huge playground. ALWAYS filled with laughing children, even in winter.
You didn’t have to have anyone “watch” you. There were always parents outside, and they looked out for everyone’s kids.
Where I live now, in the suburbs, nobody plays outside. When I take my son bike riding around the neighborhood, we spot the occasional kid running around in his back yard.
He’s always from Brooklyn.
In the projects, when you stepped outside, there was magic.
Skelly. Hopscotch. Bikes, scooters. Basketball. Really, really good hoops- banging a jump shot was an ART form. Little Dude is not that into sports, but he plays basketball every week at the local Y because…because.
And jump rope.
I was REALLY GOOD at Double Dutch.
The TRICK is to enter from the side, not the middle– to stand close enough to the turner to where you could touch her shoulder.
I cannot adequately express how it feels to be a white girl working it on a housing project playground.
Executing a perfect Double Dutch circle turn, which is all about turning speed, leg position, and listening, yes, listening to the ropes…
Then touch the ground while jumping, and exit, all without missing a step.
Damn. If it’s even 40 degrees this weekend, I’d love to see if I still got it.
Everyone here has swimming pools.
What they don’t know is the sheer ecstasy of unleashing an icy cold blast of water from a fire hydrant on a 95 degree day. That oasis from the baking heat.
The city got tired of kids jimmying the fire hydrants open with monkey wrenches, and eventually installed sprinkler caps that could be opened on those hot days.
The only way my kid could ever appreciate this is to have him hang out in a blistering heat wave for 4 days straight –
with no air conditioning.
And then unleash the COLDEST WATER EVER on him and his friends, while they jumped and screamed like maniacs.
I know that the image of an opened hydrant for many signifies “ghetto.”
But for me, an open hydrant is a joyful NYC tradition of a working class neighborhood in the summer.
I had older brothers school me in rock. But the soundtrack to the playground was R&B. That was the beat that throbbed through the projects, and in my blood, where it traveled to my heart and lives forever.
It gave me RHYTHM. Shit, I can DANCE.
I was 10 when that first explosion of rap tore up the housing project and laid eggs in my brain that never left.
Sugarhill Gang “Rapper’s Delight.”
I’m a sucker for old skool stuff. And those 90’s rap jams? When I was clubbing?
I know why I don’t always fit in here. Even though I turn down the music when I pick my kid up at his friend’s house, it’s so loud the parents can hear NWA blasting “Kill the Police” as I roll up the street.
And it probably scares them a little.
Because you could. A housing project is it’s own microcosm of society. Everything is within walking distance. Schools. Stores.
Broad Street had everything.
Store of a Million Items, (you could DIVE in with 3 bucks and not surface for DAYS), Mauro’s Pizzeria, Tung Bo Chinese, Andy’s Candy.
And in the 70’s, a kid could walk 4 blocks to a candy store alone and it was okay. Which led to wondrous journeys.
The place I walked the most was exactly 5 blocks from my apartment.
And walk there I did. Starting at the age of 7.
When I searched for pictures, this came up. This gloriousness.
The original library is now THE CHILDREN’S ROOM.
The New York Public Library renovated my old library, doubling its original size. It now includes a light-filled, sleek, 7,000-square-foot addition connected to the original 4,800 square-foot-branch.
HUGE. HEART. SQUEEZE. Right. About. Now.
I endured a lot of racism.
But I also grew up comfortable around all kinds of people, which prepared me for life in the real world, as it should be.
And I get to pass that on to my son. Although it’s challenging to find that kind of diversity where we live, he is growing up with the kind of acceptance that most adults around here lack.
We are surrounded by racism, but my background has afforded me the ability to spare my child, he who is the consciousness of tomorrow, that ignorance.
Perhaps, this was the greatest blessing of all.
I AM A PROJECT GIRL.
It’s such an odd duality of my existence – my educated side, the spiritual and loving person; juxtaposed with this ghetto project girl.
Being a project girl is a double-edged sword. It gave me a toughness and an ability to survive things that most people do not possess. But I sometimes respond to the challenges of life like a trapped rat, lashing out in anger.
As brilliant Brenda from Burns the Fire articulated it,
“I am fearless and filled with fear.”
I’M A PROJECT GIRL.
When my kid came home from kindergarten 6 years ago, and told me some kid had been messing with him at recess, I did not do any of the things a “typical” suburban mom would do.
I did not call the school. Email the teacher. Reach out to this other child’s parents.
I leaned in to my boy’s face, and said, “the next time he messes with you, you just PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE.”
And the next time this kid tried to mess with Little Dude,
SHIT GOT REAL, YO.
And my kid, while no bully, has never been picked on since.
My then husband just laughed.
“You can take the girl out of the projects, but you can’t take the projects out of the girl.”
I’ll lead you out with LL Cool J’s 1990 ode to the Project Girl, “Round the Way Girl,” which he was singing Just. For. Me.
What was it like where you grew up? Did you fit in?
Talk to me. I’m listening.