REDEVELOPING THE BUNKER HILL PROJECTS INTO SOMETHING BETTER
I read recently where the Boston Housing Authority is trying to get some market-rate housing added to a plan to interest developers into rehabbing the 41 three-story buildings. The BHA is facing shrinking federal funding and has a $10 million operating deficit and really wants someone to come in to demolish and re-build the 1,100 unit Project. Bunker Hill was built in 1941 during WW2.
As I read this news story, I thought about my years living in housing projects. As a little kid, I lived in Cathedral over in the South End and as a teen in Orchard Park in Roxbury. I hated living in the projects because they all looked like prison camps and offered little dignity to residents. Little brick boxes all over the place. Everything looked the same everywhere. Outside in the courtyards, the project administrators would paint the concrete green giving us pretend lawns.
I remember viewing Cathedral as an adult standing at the corner of East Brookline Street and Harrison Avenue and wondered how anyone could survive such living without losing their very identities as a human being. To me, the place still looked like a huge mountain of yellow brick which was apparently dropped down into the existing neighborhood that surrounded it and always totally separated from the larger community. same was true of Orchard Park and clearly the same has been true of the Bunker Hill projects..
Sixty or Seventy years ago therre was a clear need for lots of cheap housing and projects were built for large capacities of folks. Later on in the ‘60s and ‘70s, other projects were built like Castle Island in the South End or Mishawum or Newtown in Charlestown. However, all of theml seemed to use a Depression-era mentality of packing people in liker sardines and expecting folks to survive with very little breathing space.
I can remember one of the best days of my younger life was when my parents moved out of the projects for the last time in 1965. I finally felt free of institutionalized living. I was never good as a project sardine and can I tell you, I hated kids outside the projects refer to us as project rats too.What we need in the 21st century isn’t a mid-20th century concept of housing for working class folks.
I remember a story in the papers about a family living in a project who were the fourth generation of their family living there. I remember someone telling me they had just wallpapered their project apartment and I told them they needed to go back on their meds quickly.No one should ever be proud that their great-grandmother lived in the projects too or that it seemed normal to wallpaper a project apartment.
This society of ours needs to build real decent apartments that folks can proudly call their home. We need to create an environment that you can›t settle you must strive to move on elsewhere as soon as you can.
Can I say, when my parents needed to find a home for the family, thankfully BHA was there but as soon as my father could, we shook the place off and called a moving truck. I now laugh looking back at Orchard Park at Bataan Court, a name remembering a horrible World War 2 death march of American soldiers by the Japanese military.
Any new Bunker Hill Project needs a lot fewer than 1,100 units, it needs mixed housing and it needs not be an island to the surrounding neighborhood. It needs real lawns and not those made of concrete and it needs to build an atmosphere of bonding rather than division.
If a developer comes in and just updates an old idea, the money is wasted. This time in the life of the Bunker Hill Projects is a window that will close again soon. It is time to create something living and not a bunch of ugly brick buildings that metaphorically offer little hope to its inhabitants.