Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Memory Lane ... The Projects

As Salaamu Alaikum and Greetings of Peace:

Insha Allaah this finds you all and yours well!  How is everyone coping with the upcoming Winter?

Me, in addition to my usual complaints, Alhamdulillah, I've been dealing with severe pain in my wrists and fingers.  Haven't been doing too much online except commenting on blogs here and there, and updating/venting on Face Book ...

I've been reading a lot, but I've also been a lot busier than I like to be.  Since retirement, I have enjoyed doing exactly what I want to do and not what others want me to do.  At this point in my life, my constant reflection is on my akhirah.  Approaching old age is an opportunity from Allaah t'ala to catch up, do things one has always wanted to do but never had time for, and most of all ... an opportunity for good deeds and tauba.

I went to Pittsburgh last week for a business meeting.  I used to live there from about age 11 or so until my early 20s.  So, there are many traces and tracks of me there.  It's been at least 10 years or so since I last visited Pittsburgh.  While there, I visited the graves of my family.  After that, I decided to go down Memory Lane.

Someone told me that the old housing project where I used to live is no more.  Because it had became so crime and drug infested, the government tore it down.  At one time, there were 20 buildings there.  We used to live in 17G.  Strange how those kinds of details stick with a person.

A lot of the old housing projects in America were originally built as housing for veterans returning home from World War II.  Once the veterans got situated and on their feet, the government converted them into low income housing.

Our entire project was situated around an oval road.  And the road is all that remains of the lives of the people who had lived there.  Grass and weeds now replace the row houses.  It was so weird to drive my car around the oval, remembering where everything and everyone used to be.

I was practically born and raised in the projects.

The first one was in the Bronx.  Today the area is called Harlem, but it was the Bronx back then (the 1940s).  The hospital where I was born, Bronx Hospital, is no longer there.  We used to live in a high rise on E. 113th St. and 3rd Avenue.  I remember trying to visit the building while on a "tour" of New York City with an Urban Sociology class in college.  But, our class couldn't get past the drug dealer who stood sentry in the entry foyer.  Because they do business in the foyers and stairwells of the high rises, the punk wouldn't let anyone in who wasn't a resident of the building.  One wonders how people live like that.  But then again, the fear of the building residents and the lack of protection by the city both play into the condition there.

When I was about 4 years old, we moved from the Bronx to Chicago - for a better life.  All of us went except for some of my great aunts/uncles and my great grandparents.  A few of my great grandparents' children stayed there to look after them.  They didn't want to leave New York City, the place they immigrated to from the "old country."

I still can remember the caravan to Chicago:  my paternal grandparents, my aunt and her kids, and my parents and us.  We lived there until my parents got divorced when I was 11 years old or so.  That's when we moved to Pittsburgh to live near my mother's people.

After a short stay with my maternal grandmother, she kicked us out.  My mother was an alcoholic, and one alcoholic in the house (my grandfather) was enough for my grandmother.

So, we went to stay in the projects with one of my aunts, my mom's sister.  She had a three bedroom place for herself, her daughter, and her five sons.  Once we got there, we were two adults and eight children living in a three bedroom place.

My mom and my aunt slept in one room.  The little kids slept in the other room.  And us four older kids slept in another room.  As one of the older kids, I slept in a bedroom with three of my older cousins. 

It was in that room where I was sexually molested by my two older cousins while the one who was my age watched.

It wasn't the first time ... actually the first time was by an uncle when I was about three years old.

After a few months, we got our own place in the projects.

A lot of people reflect on the negatives of project life, but there were also a lot of positives. 

First of all, everyone knew everyone.  And everyone knew everything about everyone.  It's impossible to maintain total privacy in the projects.  If you try, people will put their heads together and make up stuff about you.

Domestic violence, divorce, rape, child abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and much more ... it was all there.

So was love and friendship.  And camaraderie.  It wasn't all bad.

I remember us all going down to the township building to stand in line to collect our allotment of surplus food - flour, sugar, lard (!), pasta, powdered eggs, butter, cheese ... the best part was when we got home and our neighbor, Mrs. Berger, used to make cakes from her supplies.  There was always cake in her home!  Her specialty was chocolate mayonnaise cake.  She always gave every kid in the project who came to her house pastries.

It was in the projects where I watched the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show.

Most of all, I remember that my mother always thought that we were better than everyone else.  She always held on to the fantasy that we were different from everyone else, that we were only there temporarily, that we weren't like the rest of the residents there, that the projects wasn't our lifestyle ... she was bound to get us out someday.

And get us out she did.  She got married to a wonderful man who took us out of there and bought us a real house in a real neighborhood. 

So I guess in the end it seems like a fairy tale ending.  It wasn't.  But, I guess that chapter of my life ended up well.

8 comments:

American Muslima Writer said...

Dear Saf,

I'm so touchewd you shared this with us. Memory Lane is always a tricky thing either making us happier or sadder and it's hard to balance them out.

Your outlook is balanced though and Masha'Allah for that.

I know what you mean about busy buys busy. Tonight is my first night checking emails and blog in ages...*sigh*
I miss it.
I miss you.

Good old Memory Lane....
But you're never out of my memory :)

C said...

Asalaamu alaikum

Did you ever tell anyone about the abuse? I can relate to some of the stuff you posted;the alcoholism for one. Going back really makes you grateful for being a muslim. I saw one of the old houses I lived in when I was married to my ex. It was burnt to the ground, and thank God for that..it was a bootleggers house.

C said...

this is a little off topic but did you read this?

http://www.villagevoice.com/2010-12-08/news/religious-slumlord?utm_source=Newsletters&utm_medium=email

Safiyyah said...

Salaams Brandy: I'm so happy to see you! You are always in my memory, too :)

Salaams C: No, I never told anyone about the abuse until I was an adult and in therapy. Part of the therapy was to "tell." I shared with my grandmother, father, and mother. It was part of the healing.

About the slum landlord stuff. I didn't read that particular article, but I used to live in New York City and know that this is a problem with a lot of the Orthodox Jews there, especially in Brooklyn and Queens. Incredible, isn't it? Actually, a LOT of the landlords in NYC are slumlords. I lived in a place in Brooklyn, above a Jamaican restaurant. When the owner closed for the night, he turned off the heat and the hot water :(

Rukhpar Mor said...

I came to your blog after a while. You've been through many struggles. InshAllah, Allah gives you a restful and beautiful place in the Hereafter. Ameen.

Matthew Smith said...

Chocolate mayonnaise cake?! That sounds disgusting.

Safiyyah said...

Salaams Sis: Jazaka Allahu Khayr for your good wishes for me :)

Salaams Yusuf: LOL - actually, it is quite good! The mayonnaise has eggs in it and it makes the cake moist and rich. Many people substitute it for the eggs, especially us poor folk :)

Marahm said...

Thanks for sharing this very personal reflection. Reading it allowed me to get to know you a little better.

If you ever do the Chicago Memory Lane, please let me know. I live near there, and I'd love to meet you.