Sunday, July 17, 2011

Leah's Basement

October 1, 2007

I keep thinking about Leah’s basement. Cinderblock walls, cement floor, no windows, and by the washing machine, a smaller, soundproof room with a built in bar. An old speakeasy, Leah says. Empty now, and waiting.

Nothing motivates me more than underuse. Give me a boarded up house, a discarded toy, a blank page, and I am compelled to rebuild it, re-furbish it, refill it; to pour myself into it and remake it as a reflection of myself. It’s a rather fascistic impulse, really, and I fear it undergirds my interest in the class that’s giving me so much grief this week: Housing Law & Policy. Today’s class was a presentation on HOPE VI, the federal program which funds the demolition of the most decrepit, crime ridden & unpleasant public housing projects and their replacement with new, safer, cleaner communities. We saw pictures of the derelict MLK apartments in Philadelphia before HOPE VI, with graffiti covered stairwells, and narrow slivers for windows. After HOPE VI, in its place stood MLK Plaza, a block of townhomes and new trees fronting the street. The buildings look nice, but there were few pictures of people.

Residents of the housing projects remade under HOPE VI have a “right of return”, but many do not take it. “Some get a voucher for Section 8 housing, and they like it so much that they decide to stay there,” my professor said. It seems too obvious to mention that the place they left behind isn’t there to go back to, for better or for worse.

When I have to come up with a password, I still use the number of my first apartment. That place, East 11th Street -- “the worst neighborhood in Austin,” as one of Jamey’s old co-workers put it – now looks like MLK Plaza. But back then, I joked, it was like living through the plagues of Egypt. There were ants. Then rats. Then rains. There was no heat, and the kitchen tap water was brown. But still, I was afraid I’d get kicked out. When crazy George moved in across the hall, he got it in his head one night to rip up the carpet. I went over to check out his handiwork, and stood in his threadbare apartment, the splinter-y floors pocked with nail holes and industrial stapes. “Don’t make it too nice,” I told him, “or they’ll raise the rent.” I needn’t have worried – soon after, a cigarette discarded carelessly during a long night of domestic turmoil started a fire which scorched his apartment and charred the hallway. “Your building smells like barbeque,” my friend Scott said, months later.

When the new buildings went up on E. 11th Street some 3 years later, only Ms. Williams and I came back. I visited her new beauty salon, with shiny linoleum floors and a modern shampoo station. I told her about my new house, just a few blocks away, and we shared our pride. “This relocation was the best thing that ever happened to us,” she whispered to me, somewhat conspiratorially.

Who knows what the revitalization of our block did for everyone else. I heard that one older man bought a big car and a house in San Antonio. The last holdout from the old neighborhood – Freddie, a homeowner on the adjacent block – told me that the old guy would drive up from time to time to visit his old stomping grounds, which was considered somewhat miraculous because he always arrived drunk as a skunk. But last week, I heard that Freddie is moving. His nephew needs surgery, and the house upkeep is too much for him anyway, so he’s going to sell and cash out. One of the last things he’s doing in the neighborhood is starting a petition in support of the organization that was charged by the city to carry out the whole revitalization project. They’ve done a lot of good, he says. Even though he won’t be around to enjoy it.

My professor is proud of her work with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and rightly so. They took this housing of last resort, broken down and beat up, feared and avoided, and remade it into a vibrant, healthy place. No more defaced hallways, no more plagues of Egypt. There residents there now choose to live there, and not because they are afraid that they have nowhere else to go. And the people that were there before have new places, and old memories. It is, my professor says, a remarkable change.

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