by David M. Loucas, M.D.
The Marcy Projects were an oasis of symmetry, order, structure, conformity and strength... Oz, the Emerald City, in the midst of the gray tenements, broken sidewalks, poverty and squalor of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. These Projects were a biosphere, an ecosystem for the thousands of people who lived there. Here was a Black and White, racially mixed, community- in 1948! This was a remarkable place- a bold and dynamic, social experiment that, had it been nurtured, would have worked all too well. Clearly, success of the Marcy, mixed racial, social experiment was an outcome that did not fit the vision of how the greater society was to be. I have a cynical nature when it comes to elevating the motives of social planners to any level higher than that of self-serving. It just seems that 'humane reasons' and 'good intentions' are lures (sucker bate) which invite the blind and the self-deluded to bite. Outcomes are the only meaningful quantifiers of intentions. Everything else is pabulum. A practical demonstration of racial harmony and cooperation especially among lower, middle class working people was an anathema to the animus staged and needed by powerful, political, economic and social forces. Power and control were secured only by division and derision. The Marcy Project was just that, a project; it had its hypotheses, methods and predicted outcomes. In a sense this was cruel. Human Beings were being treated like laboratory animals. The experiment was designed to end- to self destruct. The life of that viable community would not have been snuffed however, with the weapons of the past- Suspicion and Fear. It would take the next generation of dehumanizers: Television and The Welfare System to do that job.
In 1948 my parents moved to 585 Park Avenue, Apt 4E in the Marcy Projects. Sounds more like an executive address for a penthouse in Manhattan than for a low income City Project. I was five then, and my earliest recollections of that move were visual and olfactory. There was the smell of fresh paint, polished floors, bright cleansed walls and the pungent odor of window putty. The lobby was stark, but not barren. There were cinderblock walls that were glazed-tan, several rows of brass metallic mailboxes, and white enamel light fixtures that looked like miniature commodes for incandescent bulbs. The door to the elevator was maroon and it was locked closed when the car wasn't there. A smooth, gray painted concrete floor carpeted the lobby. There was a heavy metal door with wire mesh encased in glass; this was the door to the stairwell. The emphasis in the lobby, and in fact throughout all of the buildings was on functionality, durability and longevity. If there was an aesthetic quality to the Marcy it must have been the calm and surety that comes with collective conformity and uniformity. More than being a tenement storage place for humans, it was a training camp for the socialization of its occupants- the Black and White lower income, working class. Interestingly, it was this very socioeconomic class of people who had been manipulated into believing the worst about each other...
The dwellers of the Marcy Projects were all strangers in a strange land. Working men and women, families, husbands and wives and their children- all yearning to share in the promise and the dream of a better life in post WWII America. There was a feeling of renewal and of hope. Maybe the intolerances of the past would be buried, only to be resurrected as a reminder of how ugly we did become as a Nation, and as a caution for all generations to come that the within hate and prejudice lie the seeds of our ultimate destruction too. The pioneers in this experimental social integration were 'The People'- as in 'We the People…' They were bus and trolley drivers, park attendants, workers and laborers from Brooklyn Naval Shipyard, workers from Domino Sugar and other factories, steelworkers, builders, fabricators, concrete pourers, loaders and unloaders, production assembly line workers, along with other jobs where work was measured in foot-pounds and in force times distance. These were the jobs which lower-middle socioeconomic class working men and women who lived in the Marcy Projects in 1948 went to and came from. The cement that forged the human community of the Marcy Projects was even stronger than the steel and concrete which made up the dwellings; and that bond was the intact and functional family unit.
To this day, my mother has some crisper recollections about our family's day to day life in the Marcy than I do. She recounted that in the beginning she was concerned: "Can you blame me? All my life the only images of 'Negroes' I had were those of surreptitious, different looking people who, through stories and images, were treated as if they were tainted or hobbled. They were trivialized to the point of irrelevance, and were characterized as inept and inane. I actually believed that they were defective in some way…"
There was no prior American societal construct which would have had Frances Loucas and Dotty Dennis as best friends. They might have smiled at each other in passing, politely catching a brief glimpse of something shared and indelible that was not to be. They would have passed without losing stride, to the boundaries of their separated, segregated worlds. However, because the Marcy was the community in which they lived together, this en passant never happened (the way it had already happened thousands and hundreds of thousands of times before to so many others who missed the connection with a true to the heart friend.)
Our families lived on the same floor in Building 585- Apt 4E for my family, and 4B for the Dennises. Dotty's husband, Leroy, was a Merchant Marine; he was gone for several weeks at a time. Leroy Dennis was a tall, strong man; he had a warm smile and a powerful presence. His children loved and unquestioningly obeyed him. Their three children Leroy Jr., Linda and Lydia, were older teens; I believe that Leroy was over twenty-one. Dorothy Dennis was a stocky very ordinary looking woman, in her early forties. My mother soon learned the fallacy of programmed generalizations about people. Dorothy was wise far beyond my 27 year old mother, and for my mother, she was both friend and mentor. Dotty taught my mother how to bake. Mom taught Dotty to knit and to crochet; they were inseparable. For the four years that we lived in the Marcy I spent about as much time in the Dennis' home as I did in my own. Dotty was the pianist-organist for her church. Her home smelled of fresh creamery butter, sugar, cinnamon and corn bread. It was fastidiously clean and neat. And there was music, wonderful music: Jazz, gospel, classical, blues. On Christmas our families would come together, and share the joy of hope, love and redemption. Members of Dotty's church would come over, and they would sing Christmas songs and Gospel music while Dotty played the piano. To this day I remember Gospel Angels singing 'Silent Night' on Christmas eve. The joy of that music, and the feeling of peace and love at that time reverberate in my heart and in my soul; these memories will be with me until the day I die...
I was five, she was six, and she was at least 50 times smarter and better than me. She had an imagination which I would describe today as florid and ebullient. We met at the Marcy's Children's Community Center. This was a place where kids played games, read, danced, drew and sang. Marsha Harris and I met there, joked, laughed, competed, danced, drew and sang; she was my very best friend. We moved comfortably through each others homes and throughout the parks and grounds of the Marcy. This full mouthed, coarse haired child would walk with me and we had our arms on each others shoulders. When I least expected it she would leap-frog off my shoulders, or I off hers. To me she was my favorite pal and buddy. And unlike my three year old, yucchy, pain-in-the-butt, younger brother, Marsha had the following superior and more desirable attributes:
1. She was fun to be with.
She wasn't pugnacious, but she wouldn't let anyone push her around. She taught me how to fight to win. And Marsha could do this amazing thing which even today, I find absolutely impossible: She could jump Double Dutch, and she was great at it... Rhythm, dance, syncopation... Calculus, physics, coordination... Spatial geometry, interpretation: Double Dutch Jump Rope.
The changes which took place in terms of human interactions and associations were totally unexpected by the dwellers of the Projects. A place becomes a community when it becomes an entity greater than the sum total of its parts. The word 'community' itself has a spirituality as in 'commune' or 'communion'. This was happening in the Marcy. Children played with children (without qualifiers). Parents watched out for and cared for the children (without qualifiers). People smiled and spoke to people- conversations about family and community and schools… (without qualifiers). Instead of pandering to their lowest expectations of each other- animosity, distrust, prejudice and fear, people chose respect, courtesy and civility. For a while, and for a time The Marcy Projects in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section was a good place for Humans to live, to grow and to be safe and secure.
Early Television: Racism with pictures and sound
By 1950 the cost of a television had bolted down to a price that a working lower-middle class family could afford. Just about everyone bought a TV for Christmas in 1950... Grainy, coarse images, which at times rolled vertically or collapsed horizontally, presented staged moments in time with moving pictures and sound. The rapidly sweeping electron beam of the TV as it composited a picture, had a hypnotic effect on those who watched it. I can remember how mesmerized we all became as we watched and followed the action before us. Transfixed and captive we were like dry sponges, ready to absorb and to ultimately to believe what ever words or images were shoved at us. Like the 'Borg' we too were becoming part of a selective collective. For Whites it was a visual world of White power, White dominance White control- kind of like a an old pair of shoes, can't imagine why you ever stopped wearing them... the kind of shoes that let you trample over the Rights of other Human Beings; that let you do this without remorse or conscience, and in a most cowardly, but entirely comfortable way- ipso facto acquiescence to a lie. Television was, from its inception, a vehicle for stratifying and ordering our American culture. This parsing and partitioning had no basis in nature nor in natural selection. It had everything to do with an agenda driven by greed, advantage and money. There were no real checks on the use or abuse of Television; it was an electronic license to discriminate, segregate and isolate anyone who did not fit the image of who Americans were, and how they were supposed to appear. We all watched dumbly and our House became further divided, and our eyes were deceived. Like the Biblical images of the expulsion form the Garden, we looked upon each other and saw our nakedness, our frailties, our pseudo-egos; and drew upon the superficial to defeat our Humanity.
In the beginning a television channel selector had thirteen channels to choose from… Well, not exactly, since channels 1,3,6,8,10,12 had no programming. That left seven channels to choose from. However, four of the seven (Dumount, WOR, WPIX, WNET) had nothing but test patterns on them much of the time. This left only three remaining channels- ABC, NBC and CBS- the Networks. On these channels Caucasians were everywhere. A city of Caucasians, a state of Caucasians… a whole country of Caucasians. Caucasians telling stories; Caucasians reading the News- which was about Caucasians telling other Caucasians just what it meant to be Caucasian.
Television was a full frontal assault and insult for people of Color; the psychological effect was chilling. The isolation of Blacks would be codified and escalated. Blacks wouldn't be seen sharing soft words of wisdom with their mischievous children; Blacks wouldn't be seen driving new cars, having upward mobility, having hopes and dreams of a better life, using modern appliances, having comfortable homes. Blacks were not given air to public opinions… Indeed television was a muting experience for them- one which was contrived, calculated, malignant and neglectful. And the message was about everything that wasn't seen or said. For people of Color the ceilings were lowering, the walls were closing in; the isolation was becoming pain. From its inception, Television codified and institutionalized bigotry, prejudice and indifference by deliberately excluding American Blacks- this to foster the myth of Caucasian supremacy and dominance, and the self-assumed ancillary privileges and licenses associated with the self-designation, 'Superior Race': The right to demean, demoralize, discriminate, use, abuse, lie to and just generally to screw Black people overtly (by means of the 'law') or covertly (through simple and complex neglect). Television in the early 50's weakened the reality of everything we saw, heard and lived. It presented a virtual model which catered to our baser instincts. We, the dwellers of the Marcy, might have preserved our dignity and our integrity however, against the assault of the video tube, but there was one disease for which the body of the community could not survive...
Welfare: Another Stupid Human Trick
Welfare: 1. a. Health, happiness, and good fortune; well being. b. Prosperity
Jumbo shrimp, military intelligence, closed space, black light… welfare- all are oxymorons. Welfare is inherently oxymoronic because it is antithetical to what it proposes to be and to do. The system was set up as a 'safety net' by naïve and presumably well intentioned, over inflated, liberal urbanite planners and bureaucrats. In the wake of their 'noble' efforts to corral and control poor people (especially people of color) followed havoc, decimation and the creation of a trans-generational class of humanoids who would become entangled in the tendrils of a system which serendipitously provided a way to storage a burgeoning underclass of people without enhancing them. Poor Black Americans who had been denigrated to the point of virtual obscurity could be kept contained like soot under the carpet of society. The system was elegant in enabling the creation of a racial cast system, one in which mobility was lateral or downward. It subliminally appealed to every arrogant, bigoted and ignorant notion which contemporary Caucasians wanted to hold on to- needed to hold on to. Welfare was social Rube Goldbergism and like the Shakespearean 'tale told by an idiot- full of sound and fury signifying nothing', it was a remedy worse that the disease. It was nothing more than a token payment for our intentional neglect-by-design. It was ineptly managed and so bureaucratically top loaded that its inertia assured that it would be immovable, unmanageable, and at the same time, portable. It was wonderful for so many Caucasians who had just bought a few more generations of racial neglect and abandonment for their own gain for what amounted to nothing. Welfare worked by not working!
By the beginning of 1952, the year my family moved from the Marcy, they began to arrive... tired, poor, homeless, tempest and tossed. At first they were only fragments of families- social units broken down or breaking down- hundreds of Humans, filled with unresolved anger and frustration- mostly Black. They metastasized through the Project community. Like an antigenic invasion they smeared their lives over the walls, floors, parks and community centers of the Marcy. Simple fixtures of utility and strength began to break and not function. Cracks and glass charades became a danger to little feet. Stairwells, no longer safe. Neighbors and friends who shared four years of their lives felt a sorrow for the separation that was inevitable. They would go their separate ways, pretending to live their lives as if they had never met, never cared about each other, never saw each others equality and humanity- in step again and returned back to the race-color cognizant American fold which would fuel them on empty calories and deep fried lies.
To the assault on the Marcy was a new generation of single mothers on welfare... It's not just a way of life; it's an experience in controlled deprivation. Thus, human chattel were to be housed then placated to a subsistence level of existence, and allowed to spread and fester throughout the body of the community. The Marcy was being willfully erased. Enhancement turned to containment. Homes became storage compartments. Amnesty turned to enmity as the squalor of hopelessness spread, soiled and spoiled the healing and care which had been budding. When the invasion of the feral Humans was complete, Oz, The Emerald City, was composted into a profane place in purgatory- a place once fit for the living, now a receptacle and depository for the shunned.
Marsha Harris's father died shortly before I moved from the Marcy. The day that I had moved, she was already gone- not to be found. I never said good-bye to my best friend. I would revisit this loss years later...
Post Script: 10 years later.
…The Nostrand Avenue Bus trekked slowly toward Williamsburg. Measuring its progress in inches rather than in miles, the bus approached our terminus, the Marcy Projects, as it passed under the elevated Myrtle Avenue Line Overpass. In a few weeks I would be inducted into the Air Force, and this phase of my life would be closed forever. My brother, Gary came with his friends, Willie and Bobby Bowden. They had an aunt and several cousins who lived in the Marcy. For them this was a family outing. For my brother and me, it would be a retrospective and an update of the past.
Deja jamais: The sense or feeling that something which should be known or familiar is strange or foreign, as if never seen before: This was how is was for me all that day. For one thing, the project buildings looked sooty and old. The grounds were littered with torn papers, bottles and beer cans. Ill spelled spray paint profanities etched graphic reminders of the mindset of the Project occupants. Building entrance doors required keys to gain admission. Young teens clustered in predatory packs, ready to maim or to neutralize anything or anyone that posed a perceived threat.
After a few games of handball (for my brother it was basketball), after the bonding, banter and laughter that comes with physical competition and collective sweating, we all went back to Willie Bowden's aunt's house for cold drinks. The sun was hanging low in the August sky, and we knew that our welcome would wear very thin once night came. I went off on my own to take what I knew would be my last ever look at the flora and fauna of the Marcy. Walking along the scarred paths between and among the red-brown seven story buildings with their flat brick exterior, I realized that what Milton said in 'Paradise Lost' was so true: Indeed, it is the mind of man which makes a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven. I recognized this place, but I didn't know it... Two hands pressed forcefully down upon my shoulders firmly. 'Spin, cover and protect from the first blow, then strike back hard', the words flashed quickly in my mind. My response was brisk. Looking between my upraised arms I saw a full mouthed, coarse haired young woman, with deep set, bright brown eyes. MARSHA HARRIS. Amazing! She told me that she had noticed me much earlier. Even watched me play handball from a distance. Made sure that no one messed with me. Marsha was tall, wiry and strong. She wanted to pick the time and the place to show herself, and this was it. We walked, smiled at each other with our eyes, and began each new sentence with, 'Remember when...' She told me that she was married to a fellow named James. He worked at the Domino Sugar Factory. I told her that I was about to join the Air Force. She laughed as she put her arm on my shoulder. We walked to a children's play area where Marsha collected her two children from a friend who had been watching them.
"Here is my baby. He's eighteen months. His name is James- after his daddy. And here is my Little Man. He's two and one half. His name is David. I named him after you…"
Eventually, I had to say good-bye to my best-friend-in-the-whole-
The Nostrand Avenue Bus crawled away from Williamsburg. The Marcy was engulfed by the distance and the darkness. That which had been accomplished there fourteen years earlier would go mostly unrecognized- rationalized as a statistical glitch, a non-reproducible foible, a perceptual astigmatism. But the truth is the truth, even if its light shines only briefly. As I began to nod on the bus I realized that the life of that Project would always live with me symbiotically. I would never relinquish my humanity by denying anyone else's.