A Public Housing Education

More than 400,000 people live in public housing in New York City, and thousands more are on wait-lists for available apartments.  When Radio Rookie Winnie Guo’s family first moved into public housing, it felt like a big step up.  Then 14-year-old Winnie started wondering about how public housing can affect the aspirations and focus of kids who grow up there.

When I first moved into public housing in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I thought, “Wow!” This apartment was clean and the view from each window was so clear.  It was a lot bigger than our old apartment in Chinatown.

At first, knowing where I live is a project building didn’t really bother me, but that began to change.  When I left my house to go to school in the morning, boys on the corner stared me down, and immediately I felt unwelcomed.  And I’d see the same boys when I come back home from school.  Everyday it’s the same thing: guys in American Eagle jeans, Polo shirts, Yankee fitteds, and Burberry belts, standing on the corner and doing nothing!

I make assumptions about them, just like this girl I go to school with, Temitayo, “All the people that live in public housing use all their money to buy expensive clothes – all those people with the True Religions.” 

I agree with her.  If you have enough money to buy “True Religion” jeans, which are $150 or more and you live in public housing I wonder how you have enough money to feed the rest of your family.

The way I dress is not as fly or expensive, so when the boys on the corner stare at me I feel like an outsider.  If you want to be part of the group, you have to do something that catches their attention to get them to “have your back.” Like my friend Chris, who pays $200 for a belt and still “sags” his pants. I asked him, “Do you think that living in public housing changed you?”

“Yeah, I went from good to bad.  When I was little I used to be a good boy, now when I grew up, I started doing bad stuff like hanging out with the wrong people.  You see those kids that are in school sagging and stuff, I’m actually like a follower. What they do is what I do.  I just want to do it to look cool.”

That is not cool!  Chris never spends time talking to me about school, but he’s always talking about ways he can make money illegally (like shoplifting and dealing drugs), all so he can show off and fit in. That’s what most people expect from young people in the projects.

This guy Antonio was standing outside my building. He said that people expect kids growing up in public housing “to be ghetto, uneducated, the whole nine. But I myself go to school, I’m actually pursuing another degree on top of the pharmacy degree I have. People would never expect any type of education to come from public housing, due to these stereotypes that carry over year in, year out.”

That definitely applies to my friend Chris. He’s even told me he feels like no one believes he can make it through high school. I found a study that NYU did in 2008 that showed students who “live in public housing perform worse in school than students who live in other types of housing.” And both groups of kids had the same income and background.  They didn’t get to the bottom of why but they gave a few possible reasons. The one that stuck out to me is that because the concentration of poverty is so high in the projects it’s harder for kids to find role models to stress how important education is. And instead they give in to peer pressure.

I think because of who lives in the projects, it can change the way a kid thinks about education, but it doesn’t have to. We all want to fit in. Even though I receive support from my parents and my teachers, I’ve given into peer pressure once in a while.  I’ve had friends convince me to skip school and cheat on tests. But mostly, I’m cool with being independent.