July 18, 2012 by DKC
First, I did not grow up in public housing but the presence of ‘the projects’ in the city and suburbia has always fascinated me. I have many friends and family who could tell the story of the projects in a much more memorable way I’m sure. Even living in North Philly, one of the most ‘urban’ places on earth, there was yet another place within the city that would cause even the most desensitized to show caution. You just didn’t walk through the Richard Allen projects. No sir! As I stated before, I didn’t live in the projects but I found myself around these communities within a community. In the 70’s and 80’s my dad owned a business located down the street from the Richard Allen Projects. My brothers and I spent many summers viewing the mayhem that would spill out of the projects down the street. There were other housing projects that would evoke strong emotions when the name was mentioned. The reputation of a place named, “Raymond Rosen” would cause a reaction similar to other infamous drug corners in Philadelphia.
My cousins lived across town growing up in the Tasker Projects. I recall dinners, basketball games, slap boxing tournaments, real fights, concrete/tackle football, you name it–it happened there. These homes were rows of 3 bedroom attached homes built to resemble a maze. The Tasker Homes were situated between the 76 Expressway and the oil refineries and the Italian community of South Philly. A rock and a hard place. These projects were originally settled by Anglo families then Black families up to the present. Public housing originally began as a way to address homelessness within urban communities. Eventually, the ‘projects’ became code for violence, overcrowding and third world conditions. My memories are of stench and feeling of isolation and despair. Many kids growing up in these conditions have never been outside of the city limits–these places were a mission field.
Even with all the negatives of public housing I still remember the excitement of hanging with my cousins on Sunday afternoons. I was this impressionable church kid anticipating the next exciting event; where are the girls, when will the next fight start, who will tell the next mom joke? I honestly thought my cousins owned the place–they seemed to effortlessly navigate the labyrinth called public housing.
The Tasker Homes carried some painful memories as I lost two cousins to the violence of the 1980’s. In South Philly vacant lots are covered by murals filled with memorialized names of murdered children gunned down in this concrete jungle. In the 80’s and 90’s the preceding generation battled over these small streets and treated blocks like little fiefdoms. The words spoken by Nathanael in the Gospel of John seems to have special application to the projects, “Nathanael said to him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” (John 1:46) The mindset towards this particular place and its culture may match Nathanael’s impressions of the place called Nazareth.
There may be those who believe in partial redemption, but the notion that God can reclaim certain kinds of people and places is far fetched. Is any place outside of God’s gracious intent? The question, “can anything good…?” is probably voiced by many who drive past run down city blocks filled with the underrepresented inner city populations. Philip’s response suggests hope. It may be that both Philip and Nathanael knew about this place called Nazareth. Perhaps both are keenly aware that it is a dwelling for the impoverished, uneducated, or unloved. We know Nathanael’s lack of expectation, but on the flip we know of Philip’s witness. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones provides an opulent demonstration of God’s redemptive power. The valley is a picture of an irredeemable situation, ““Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! ” (Ezekiel 37:4) The prophet’s words had a resurrective quality.
The old Richard Allen and Tasker Projects, Nazareth and the valley of dry bones are remembered as places of death and despair. However, we must recognize that Christ can show up in the most violent, impoverished places on earth and redeem them for His glory. Philip’s response is an appropriate one–“Come and see”. Christ can convert lifeless concrete into fresh soil where new life can grow. The old Richard Allen and Tasker Homes are no more. They have been either torn down or totally renovated; town homes have now replaced the ominous high rise buildings. These places are a reminder to the church of Christ that no one or place is beyond redemption if Christ is involved.
Just watched (7/27/2012) an important documentary on projects in St. Louis named Pruitt Igoe. I thought it should be added to this post. Here is a link to the connected webstite >> http://www.pruitt-igoe.com/urban-history/