From Bronxdale to Washington

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor grew up in a South Bronx public housing project. But what exactly was housing project life like in the 1950's? Nicholas Dagen Bloom, associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology and author of Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century, and Yvette Williams a longtime Bronxdale Houses resident explain. Did you grow up in NYC public housing around the same time as Sonia Sotomayor? Comment below!


Nicholas Dagen Bloom and Yvette Williams

Comments [41]

Lorraine Ramsey from Rowlette, TX

I grew up in Mill Brook Houses. I lived therefrom 10/1961 thru 5/1974. The projects were nothing like they became. Actually Mill Brook was considered pretty dead back in the 1960's. You probaby can't imagen it. There was way more action going on in Patterson and Melrose. Public Housing was cool back in the days. I've got to give it to New york City, they take care of business. We did not have rats or roaches. I lived in 640 E 137Th St. We had a real good maintance man. At one time we had the cleanest building in that project.
Public housing changed for alot of reasons. Back in the day you could not get in public housing unless you had a intact family.
Meaning a female had to be married or had a husband in the past. You could not move in with a bunch baby daddy's children.
The morals have changed, people do just about anything now. When I lived in Mill Brook, a young girl was expected to keep her virginity. Of course some didn't but you didn't carry yourself like a slut. We did't have a alot of unwed teens. Drug addiction was a problem back in the late 1960's. People weren't shooting each other down like they did in the crack empidemic. I tell you this I have lived a few places and drugs are every where in America, they're getting high in the back woods.

Jun. 01 2009 03:47 PM
DAT from Nathan Straus Projects

I can't understand all this hypocrisy,
by non-Puerto Ricans, in pretending that
they are overjoyed that an individual
of Puerto Rican background, origin,
is now candidate for the Supreme Court.

Puerto Ricans, in general, have never
been thought of, as belonging to the
"Hispanic, Latino community" in general.

Because Puerto Ricans have been accused
of not speaking Spanish well enough,
giving a hispanics a bad name, because
so many Puerto Ricans were on the other side
of the law.

I remember NY Daily News headlines,
reading "Puerto Ricans committed so and so

Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans have
never felt that Puerto Ricans were a part
of their communities.

So just let's stop pretending,
how Sotomayor candidacy to the SC is a
triumph for all hispanics.

Please, don't even try that one.

May. 27 2009 03:37 PM
DAT from Nathan Straus Projects

Years ago, when David Dinkins was Mayor,
the building was overrun by drug dealers
and their customers.

When we complained to then Laura Blackburne,
we were basically told there was nothing that
could be done.

However, immediately after Mayor Giuliani
came in, the NYPD began in aggressive
campaign in my building and they rid
the buildings of the drug dealers.

Gone were the long lines in the stairwell,
of customers, waiting for their heroin,
crack cocaine, from the drug dealers that
lived in the Nathan Straus Projects.

The Bellevue South Park, which was a haven,
for drug dealers and their customers, was
shut down and renovated.

When it reopened, parents and their kids,
now ruled the park, the gang bangers,
drug dealers vanished.

We were given a number by the 13th precinct,
and whenever we saw someone that didn't belong
we were told to call and the Police would

We did and they did.

The NYPD did a fantastic job cleaning up
Nathan Straus Projects.

Drug Dealers families were evicted.

I came home from work, one day, to step over
the legs of drug dealers, while they were
sprawled out on the floor.

The NYPD had used a battering ram to break
down a door of a drug dealers apartment,
arrested the dealer and his employees.

Later the NYCHA personnel removed their furniture, they were placed in flatbed
Sanitation Department trucks and hauled away.

The Drug Dealers families would still come
around, even though they longer lived there,
and if we saw them, we would call the Police
right away.

The building was clean for duration of
Mayor Giuliani's term, now it is resorting
back to where it had been under Mayor Dinkins,
a garbage dump.

That being said, I personally know many
people that have made a success of their life,
by graduating from college, and going on
to having good jobs.

Sonia Sotomayor is not an exception.

May. 27 2009 03:31 PM
DAT from Nathan Straus Projects

I am now, 58 years old, and have lived in
Public Housing since the age of 5.
I haved lived in the Robert Wagner, John Adam,
Millbrook Houses, Dyckman houses and as of
1986 reside in the Nathan Straus Projects.

When my parents first moved to the Robert
Wagner Housing Projects, in the mid 1950's,
my mother was a housewife and my Dad was
a Merchant Marine, he retired after 33 years.

My mother became a supervisor in the Welfare
Department and retired after 25 years.

The screening process was much more rigorous,
more intense during the time my parents were allowed to be the first tenants in the Robert Wagner houses.

In the Nathan Straus Houses, there were majority city workers and state workers, including a NYC Police Officers,
NYU Medical Center clerical workers,
Medical Assistants, etc.

But now, the building will be Section 8
only, because Section 8 is funded by
the Federal Government and NYCHA needs $$$.

As a result, the working people are being
forced out and replaced by Section 8 tenants.

And you can tell the difference right away.

Now there are gang bangers in the elevators,
fights breaking out in the hallways,

The quality of life in the building is
plummeting downward, as a result of the section 8 only policy.

May. 27 2009 03:31 PM
Claudia Cruz from Washington Heights

Re: Housing in NY

My family obtained an 8020 apartment in 2001 and the tax exemption that the developer received will expire in 2021, at which point the rent will be raised to market value. The apartment is located in the midtown near the United Nations.

My concern is that in 2021, my family will not have made the income required to continue living in that 'borrowed' apartment at market value rent. My mother lives on a fixed income and my sister, who makes a decent wage in this economy, wants to be a social worker. How will they afford to pay rent in 2021? Will they have to move back to Washington Heights? Will they be able to afford rent there?

May. 27 2009 11:17 AM
Jose Martinez from Midtown, NY

Artista: Puertoricans do HAVE full voting rights outside the island. IRONY here??? They can not vote for President when in the island, but they COULD if they move to the mainland. Is not that insane?? Second-class American citizens since 1917.

HJS: We latinos come from Latin American and NOT Spain. We have MATERIALIZED the mix of 3 peoples which the US will (aspires to?) become one day. The Nixonian-crafted term 'Hispanic' as applied to a population has only been used since the 70's.

1500 is the century Spaniards (not native/mixed populations later called LATINO AMERICANS) settled into the Western Hemisphere. I may speak Spanish and not be Hispanic.

Trivia: What about Brazilians, Cape-Verdean, Mozambiqueans and Portuguese-Americans?

Are they 'Hispanic' too or should we call them "Portuguesic"?

May. 27 2009 11:08 AM
Brett Harvey from Brooklyn

Sotomayor does indeed have a record vis-a-vis intellectual proterty. She ruled against writers in the New York Times v Tasini case in 1997. Here's the story:

"From CNN Political Research Director Robert Yoon
WASHINGTON (CNN) – During Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's 17 years as a federal judge, the U.S. Supreme Court has reviewed her decisions on at least eight occasions. CNN has reviewed those cases and has summarized each in a series of posts. The names and citations reflect the cases as they were known when they first came before Sotomayor.

Tasini vs. New York Times, et al (1997), 972 F. Supp. 804: As a district court judge in 1997, Sotomayor heard a case brought by a group of freelance journalists who asserted that various news organizations, including the New York Times, violated copyright laws by reproducing the freelancers' work on electronic databases and archives such as "Lexis/Nexis" without first obtaining their permission. Sotomayor ruled against the freelancers and said that publishers were within their rights as outlined by the 1976 Copyright Act. The appellate court reversed Sotomayor's decision, siding with the freelancers, and the Supreme Court upheld the appellate decision (therefore rejecting Sotomayor's original ruling). Justices Stevens and Breyer dissented, taking Sotomayor's position."

Not enough to sour me on her nomination, but, as a writer, it's always left a bad taste in my mouth.

May. 27 2009 10:57 AM
hjs from 11211

hispanic has been used since 1584 to mean spain and the spainish speaking people or the spainish language.

May. 27 2009 10:42 AM
artista from greenpoint

Jose, you are so right... Sotomayor was an American citizen from birth. That evoked in me a question : could she run for president?
Puerto Ricans do not have full voting rights, I think (shaky ground here)
BUT you surely know that many Puerto Ricans (not a majority, it seems) would like to regain their independence. Puerto Rico was part of the loot of the Spanish american war, no?

Many people of Latin American origin on the west coast prefer the term latino/a, though the term Hispanic is widely used as a way of referring to a demographic--a potential voting and consumer bloc.

Brendan, thanks for your comment. What do people think about the attempt to charge working poor families in homeless shelters up to FIFTY PERCENT of their income?

May. 27 2009 10:42 AM
Shari Garretson from South River, NJ

The commentator that called in during the discussion of Sotomayor kept inferring that Sotomayor was a product of "public education." From what I've been hearing, her mother worked two jobs so she could afford to send her and her brother to Catholic school. Was that just for high school?

May. 27 2009 10:36 AM
Brendan from Brooklyn

Sotomayor is the product of what historian Joshua Freeman calls the "social democratic polity" that was New York City before the 1970s economic crisis. Giuliani and Bloomberg have done much to dismantle the opportunities that this city used to provide for working-class people.

May. 27 2009 10:35 AM
Lee from Brooklyn

I am a woman. I am African American. I am Latina. These facts are all central to who I am. I have been a first of my gender, race and ethnicity in a number of spaces in my life. Acknowledging this is not for me reductive of my personal experience but embracing of its special flavor and my singular journey. I don't see the headlines acknowledging her ethnicity or ledes focusing on the childhood in the projects as somehow reflective of anything subtly racist. I see them as an honest statement of the facts of a life that has been lived in the distinctive realities of people of color in this city and this country.

May. 27 2009 10:34 AM
Patricia Jones from Brooklyn

Public housing was created to provide affordable rental housing to "the deserving poor" i. e. working families. Clearly, Sotomayor had a great American childhood and frankly NYC's children should be able to have that kind of childhood right now --we need more affordable rental housing. Projects are no better or worse than regular apt buildings that can be 5, 25 or 30 stories high-it's about quality of maintenance & respect for tenants. Clearly Ms. Sotomayor grew up in a time when tenants were repected.

May. 27 2009 10:34 AM
artista from greenpoint

glad that you talked about the housing projects, Brian, and that you got past your own early-days assumption that the residents were a world apart from, say, your own audience.
THe discussion was very interesting, and it was a great choice to have a historian and a resident commenting. But what was delicately left out was the politics and most of the policy. The "undeserving" and "deserving" poor were terms of art in the era the first commenter was referring to, by the way.
The high rise model was based on Le Corbusier's utopian radiant city model but has been shown not to work well, especially in the pernicious way it was implemented. The decision to isolate the projects and make them high rise ghettos was a POLICY decision, and the DESTRUCTION of the projects model involved its demonization and the gutting of the federal housing construction budget under Ronald Reagan, complete with a vocal campaign about the problems of public housing.
The iconic explosion of the Pruitt-Igoe projects in St Louis in the late 1960s (?) was considered "the moment of postmodernism," that is, the withdrawal of public support for the idea of housing improvement on a large scale.

May. 27 2009 10:34 AM
Jose Martinez from Midtown, NY

Colombian-Americans, such as myself, are thrilled with Pres. Obama's nomination of Hon. Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

I am saddened, however, that the NYTimes and Associated Press (both NYC-based organizations) are biased (even inadvertently racist) to say that Judge Sotomayor's parents "IMMIGRATED" to NY, ignoring that Puertoricans have been full-fledge Americans since 1917.

Would we say that if her parents came to NY from OH or Oregon???

Also, I dislike the term 'Hispanic' because it does not reflect what we have chosen to call ourselves. We are a mix of the 3 races (indigenous, black and European) and descendants of the peoples from LatinAmerica, therefore we should be called Latinos (as in from Latinamerica). The Nixonian-crafted 'Hispanic' is a eurocentric term that refers only to people from Spain, and that is the way and contextt that this word is used in the Spanish language.

May. 27 2009 10:34 AM
Larry from Queens

The media had widely reported that Santomayor is a product of Catholic (not public) schools in the Bronx (contrary to what one of the guests has regularly stated). Cardinal Spellman is the name of the school, I believe.

May. 27 2009 10:33 AM
seth from astoria

I don't care where she came from. Anywhere can have a troublesome aura to it. She could be a farmer turned lawyer turned judge from the midwest and could be the first ever "Farmgirl" Supreme Court Justice.

What worry's me, is that she doesn't have the chops, and that she was picked because she is a Latina from the Bronx. We've had an entire election of First (btw Hillary, Obama, Richardson) if she got the job just to be another first, I hope she can live up to it.

May. 27 2009 10:33 AM
Baez from office

Brian, there is nothing wrong with the word Hispanic. You say it with a hiss, showing your own discomfort.

May. 27 2009 10:29 AM
Patricia Jones from Brooklyn

Public housing was developed to provide affordable rental housing for poor working families-the deserving poor, which frankly is not such a bad term. We need affordable rental housing now and frankly if they are 5 stories or 25 it really is about consistent, high quality maintenance and respect for tenants. Ms. Sotomayor clearly had a great childhood and the fact that her family did not have worry about housing is just wonderful.

May. 27 2009 10:28 AM
Mark Erson from Queens

"AMAZED TONES" - get over it Brian

Do we not still talk with amazed tones about Lincoln growing up in a log cabin? Americans love a humble beginnings rise to greatness story. Public housing is the 21st century's log cabin.

May. 27 2009 10:28 AM
Ellen from Manhattan

I live across from 2 public housing developments on the upper East Side. Families are hardworking, children well-cared for, older people friendly. There's a senior center and a nursery school. There are 4 playgrounds and lots of nice, new benches and gardens. At the same time, in the 6 yrs I've lived here there have been 3 gang-related shootings, two of which I witnessed, and that's more than in all my 40+ years living all over the city. Groups of teens are on the streets until 3AM weekday nights and despite being only 100 ft from the site of a proposed garbage waste station, only one person showed up at a City Hall protest. I guess I conclude there's more of a sense of frustration and helplessness than in the city as a whole.

May. 27 2009 10:27 AM
Peter J. Russo from Gowanus, Brooklyn

For a thorough account of unrealized projects in the Bronx and elsewhere during the Lindsay administration, see "He Is Fresh and Everyone Else Is Tired" at Triple Canopy:

May. 27 2009 10:26 AM
Lori from Forest Hills

I grew up in the Dyckman Street projects in Inwood. When I lived there, it was a diverse community - Jewish, Italians, Afircan Americans, etc. I am Jewish and have fond memories of living there and had no bad experiences. I now live in a doorman building and I find that people were much more caring and giving in the projects. I do remember getting stuck in the elevators all the time!

May. 27 2009 10:25 AM
the truth from bkny

Really took you aback Brian??? EVERYTHING is about race in this Country! I have said it before.

May. 27 2009 10:23 AM
Judy Epstein from Long Island

Re: the comment by Bronx historian about the projects being for "deserving poor":

I'm sure he was using quotation marks; it sounds like exactly the kind of judgment that all too many people made, back in the 1950's and 1960's.

One good bit of fallout from our recent New Depression experience: we now know how meaningless those divisions can be.

Let's hope we remember that, going forward.

May. 27 2009 10:22 AM
David from Manhattan

It's clear that growing up poor and in low income areas puts one at a disadvantage. Most don't rise to the highest level of corporate America or government. The amazing thing is the determination to remain focussed with all of the distractions that can easily derail someone's ambitions and dreams.

I went on to be a very comfortable and successful doctor. There were many times that I was on the edge of the cliff. I understand Obama's view, having looked over the edge and pulled myself back and make it. Unfortunately, one only has to look and see that most do not.

May. 27 2009 10:19 AM
Robert from NYC

The whole thing has been set up by the media over the decades. I grew up in the "South" Bronx and I remember when I first heard (read) that term I thought, what's the "South" Bronx!! I'm from the Bronx!! It just ticked me off more and more to hear the term "the South Bronx". It was and is a media term and as almost always has become the usage that has established itself in the American psyche so that even in Iowa when one hears "the South Bronx" the "horrors" of said location are conjured up in the minds of even the world. Even in Europe I've experienced people who know of the South Bronx and with that media taint. It stuck and it still irritates the hell out of me. I'm from the Bronx!! born and bred.

May. 27 2009 10:18 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I grew up in the Projects in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Nothing wrong with the Projects. What was wrong was with some of the people who were brought in. My folks -holocaust survivors - were happy to get from then tenement into the Projects. But a criminal element came in and essentially took over much of the neighborhood. It went from mostly white and Jewish to black and Hispanic in short order, and chaos descended. I'm not blaming the majority of blacks or hispanics either. It's just that a mass of poverty moved in from the South and from rural Puerto Rico, and with it came antisocial and criminal elements. But the apartments in those housing projects were fine apartments. Very sturdy. It was the environment that was created that made life sometimes traumatic.

May. 27 2009 10:18 AM
mel from brooklyn

It's almost as though Brian and his guests are trying to equate having a steady job with being nominated to the Supreme Court. Of course, anyone who works hard, plays by the rules, etc deserves lots of credit, but it simply isn't even remotely comparable to the success of Judge Sotomayor.

May. 27 2009 10:17 AM
nyc_mom from nyc

I think the point is exactly what Brian is saying. Not that being from the Bronxdale Houses is "not so bad" but that the image of the of The Bronx and public housing in the wider media is that we were all "raised by wolves." That in order to recognize a difficult and productive journey through life (in this case SS's) the difficulty needs to be mythologized via certain tropes. For example, "Bronx" always becomes "South Bronx." Or the implication that public housing corrupts souls and anyone who leaves has "escaped."

May. 27 2009 10:17 AM
Hugh from Brookyn

Nicholas Dagen Bloom needs a little reality check. The city, under people like Robert Moses and today Michael Bloomberg, deliberately planned large housing and development projects as part of social engineering.

In particular, traditional, ethnic, often-poor communities were carved up and displaced. All part of a strategy of separating the haves from the have-nots.

May. 27 2009 10:16 AM
Susy from manhattan

Oh, please. Can't we just be happy for her? For our country???

While I understand why people might be taken aback about all the project commentary, I think that people making less $, living in public housing would HAPPILY accept better resources and opportunities if offered.

Nobody is saying that people from the projects are not worthy or intelligent or deserving. They are saying that despite their difficulties-- economic, classist, they are resilient enough to survive and thrive.

May. 27 2009 10:15 AM
Mary from Westchester

The NYC projects were a welcome, reasonable, safe place at one time. Too bad tenants fled thinking they'd be better off in Co-op City!

May. 27 2009 10:14 AM
mel from brooklyn

I agree with comments above. Why isn't it remarkable that she grew up in a housing project? Has a single other Supreme Court Justice, or Second Circuit judge for that matter? It is absolutely remarkable; let's not pretend otherwise.

May. 27 2009 10:14 AM
the truth from bkny

OK Brian don't try to make it seem as if the President said a bad thing "SPEAKING IN AMAZED TONES" You are incredicbly negative!!


May. 27 2009 10:13 AM
the truth from bkny

OK Brian don't try to make it seem as if the President said a bad thing "SPEAKING IN AMAZED TONES" You are incredicbly negative!!


May. 27 2009 10:13 AM
Hugh from Brookyn

Bravo for the Bronx!

But, sadly, Sotomayor sounds like a likely sell-out, like Obama.

If Sotomayor has a record of protecting corporations and big business from The People, it would be a perfect match with Barack Obama.

The single clearest feature of the Obama administration is protection for private property when that property is held by the wealthy. Protection of big banks from justice regarding financial crimes. Protection of big health insurers against demands of health care for all. The "massive cut" in Pentagon pork amounts to about 4 percent of the Pentagon budget, compared with the massive cuts Obama is entertaining in public programs even including Social Security.

May. 27 2009 10:13 AM
LaTasha from Paterson, NJ

Why would yo cringe at the term "deserving poor"? There is a distinction between poor people. people who work, save their money, obey the law and have good hoest family values are VASTLY different from those who live next door to them and have mutlile children out of wedlock, use drugs and refuse to work. There is a such a thing as a deserving poor.

May. 27 2009 10:12 AM
Samuel from Amsterdam NL

Brain, I find you comment about Sonja being from the projects very dubious. Are you saying that there are so many success stories of people coming from the projects that we should not act so surprised by someone "making it"?

May. 27 2009 10:11 AM
Robert from NYC

The Bronxdale Houses is not exactly Melrose Houses nor Paterson Houses but that said public housing then and now is not exactly and "advantaged" lifestyle neither in the 50s nor now. That said things were quite a bit more "tough" shall we say in the 60s thru the 80s. Some areas are more disadvantaged than others.

May. 27 2009 10:03 AM
Raymon from Bronx

I hope Brian is not trying to make the case that Sonia Sotomayor did not have a disadvanatged upbringing.

By insinuating that her public housing project was not as bad as today's state of the public housing system.

I hope I am wrong!

May. 27 2009 09:02 AM

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