Monday, December 22, 2003

The Projects – Part One

I awoke this morning remembering Patty and Cathy. They were the girls upstairs when I was growing-up in the Mission Hill Housing Projects.

The projects were built right after World War II about a mile southwest of downtown Boston. We were surrounded by Harvard Medical School, and State Teachers College, to the West, by Wentworth Institute of Technology, and the Museum of Fine Arts to the North, and more projects, abandoned industries, train tracks, and failed urban redevelopment to the East. To the South was the huge Catholic church.

Map taken without permission from MapQuest.

The majority of the people who called the projects “home” were Catholic, mostly Irish, all poor. We all attended Mass at The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (a/k/a Mission Church), and most of us attended the Catholic school, as well.

My earliest memories living there are about playing in the well-kempt grassy yards at the front and back of every building. There was always a huge crowd of kids. There were twenty-three kids, six mothers, one father, and one grandmother living in the six apartments of our building.

Mary and her children lived upstairs. She worked at the Museum of Fine Arts, down the street. Though I made my way to the museum as often as I could, I never saw her there. The kids, Jimmy, Patty and Cathy, were older then me.

Patty had been my babysitter when I was a toddler, and she was very responsible. The world was a different place and you could leave a child with a teenager for a few hours without an attempted kidnap by a stranger or over-zealous government official. Patty was popular and all her friends would be with us. They would fawn over me and give me soda, er . . . tonic, and play with me.

Cathy was much closer in age to me. She was just a few years ahead of me in school and I would see her with the older kids in her school uniform during recess. The school yard was strictly segregated, so there was no way I could ever go talk to her; but she was always nice to me outside of school.

My favorite memory of Cathy was being invited up to their apartment to watch The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. The buzz around that broadcast was the most exciting thing on television since the Kennedy Assassination.

There was no end to my amusement when The Patty Duke Show was aired and the two characters were named Patty and Cathy. I was almost proud, as if the coincidence of names was somehow proof that my friends were special, and I was connected to their specialness.

I remember that Jimmy went off to Viet Nam. I watched the news each night and I knew it was a war; but everybody seemed so happy that he was going. There was a big celebration upstairs. Jimmy looked so handsome and spiffy in his uniform. I was just as excited as the others. I don’t know if he was drafted, or volunteered, or if it was part of a plea-bargain, but off he went. Mary kept a portrait of him in his uniform prominently displayed. All the mothers in the building worried about him.

I cried when I heard he was shot. I don’t know where he was stationed when it happened, nor do I remember how long he had been gone, but it wasn’t fatal and it was a ticket home for him. The hoop-la surrounding his return was much bigger than the celebration for his departure.

Things started changing in the projects in the late sixties. More and more white families moved-out to places like Jamaica Plain and Quincy and Braintree, and more and more black families moved-in from places like Alabama and Mississippi and South Carolina.

Summers started peacefully. Then there would be a fight at the basketball courts between the white kids and the black kids. Then there would be a gang-war between all the white guys and all the black guys. Then we would have to stay inside the apartment after dark, because the battles shifted to a war-like battle between the police and all the residents.

It wasn’t all bad in the Summers of 1967 and 1968, there was Summerthing, and the Red Sox, but the race-riots were memorable.

Some time in 1968 or 1969, the maintenance men and management staff stopped coming to work. The maintenance office was closed. The sidewalks were no longer swept. The incinerators began malfunctioning so trash was just burned in a big pile. The landscaping was ignored, so grass stopped growing and trees began dying, the clothes-yards became unusable, and chain link fences began disappearing.

These change hastened the departure of most of the families in our building, and in 1969 we moved to Forest Hills.

The projects are gone now. It’s a sign of your own aging when the building you were raised in is demolished for new construction.

On Easter Sunday in 1998, I drove down into the projects to see my old building. The eastern end of the projects near Parker Street had already been demolished, but the western end was still in use. 104 McGreevey Way stood at the corner of Oregon Court, a little worse for the wear: dilapidated windows keeping the cold out and a patch of mud where the grassy yard had been. Scores of cars, some parked on the sidewalks and walkways, contradicted the poverty of the residents. I wanted to get out of the car and walk around, but it didn’t look safe. I drove slowly back and forth a few times, until an angry man appeared on the steps of the building glaring and pointing at me. Nothing good for him could come from a white guy in a new car driving up and down the street looking at the buildings. I drove away.

The projects have been replaced by mixed-use housing. Little townhouses all in a row, interspersed with apartment buildings. Poor families live with young middle-class families and students from the nearby schools. It’s supposed to be a better design for living.

Patty, Cathy and the entire family moved out of the projects shortly after Jimmy’s return from the war. I never knew where they went. I wonder where they are now?