By Tim Whitaker
Public housing today is perceived by many as a failed social program that did little but create a breeding ground for crime. When public housing projects are portrayed in movies and on TV, nobody works and drug dealers rule.
The most sweeping and vivid imagery arrived with the HBO drama series The Wire, which debuted two years ago with a season-long investigation of an open-air drug market set in the courtyard of housing projects. Nearly everyone on The Wire dealt drugs, packed heat and was under 24-hour police surveillance.
Dramatic characterizations aside, public housing's failing legacy may glow brightest whenever a real-life high-rise project is imploded--a not uncommon TV event in major U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, over recent decades. The razing of a high-rise project always seems to come a decade or two late.
Public housing began with the 1937 Housing Act, a Roosevelt-backed initiative that skirted conservative outcry by mandating new public housing units could be built only if an equal number of old eyesores were removed at the same time. It also dictated that local public housing authorities would be both owners and managers of the new projects. In all that, there was--and remains--lots of room for mismanagement and worse.
The reasons for the failures in public housing are many--political corruption, lack of vision and energy, changing administrations and hard economic times among them.
The early housing alums interviewed for this story cited a number of potentially successful projects in the city when asked about their current views. But there was also major consensus that the policies and operations that guide public housing need be perpetually scrutinized, retooled and rethought.
Perhaps the best place to start any rethinking about public housing is with recollections of what it was like in the day.
Occupation: Dean, College of Engineering, Villanova University.
Education: Roman Catholic High School; B.A., Villanova, 1970; M.A., Carnegie Mellon, 1973; Ph.D., Carnegie Mellon, 1976.
Public housing project: Richard Allen Homes.
Years he lived there: 1946-1965.
How he remembers it: "When I was very young there were white picket fences. The yards and gardens were very well maintained. You would call a repairman and they would come right out and fix things. The plumbers and the electricians had their own yard and building. My mother raised six of us. For an African-American kid coming of age, the projects provided an extended family. It was your whole frame of reference. Everyone you knew and trusted lived right there. Later there were gangs and drugs, and by my high school years the surrounding neighborhood had become pretty sinister. But it never penetrated your home, or at least you felt like it wouldn't. I did have to take a fairly elaborate route to go to my high school, Roman Catholic. After I graduated high school, I went to college at Villanova, where I think I had to be the poorest kid in my class. I had to call on a different kind of tough to adapt and make it through that too. But the projects taught you to handle things. You weren't allowed to run away. You had to stand and fight for everything. By the time my two children came along things were a whole lot better for me economically, for which I am grateful. You never want to put your children in survival mode. But I don't regret anything. The competition to survive in the projects served me well. You learn a lot of skills. I'm proud of the fact I came out of the projects. It gave me what I needed to move ahead."
Occupation: Certified nurse practitioner, HIV specialty.