Delivering a hot meal to an elderly woman in a public housing project is how my Saturday afternoons begin. Her meal and hundreds of others are prepared in the basement of a Manhattan church. Most are eaten right there, but enough are set aside to accommodate shut-ins as part of a program informally called Meals on Heels--heels because the meal is taken on foot to the project where the shut-in lives. A generous helping of meatloaf, together with vegetables, bread, salad, juice and dessert are placed in styrofoam containers, which are then fitted into two plastic bags.
With one bag in each hand, I begin my walk along Houston Street toward the East River. It takes only half an hour each way, through a part of the city that shows rapidly increasing signs of gentrification. Some former tenement buildings have been rehabilitated; others have been torn down to make room for small, expensive apartment houses.
The long row of red brick housing projects along the East River has acted as a partial bulwark against the invasion of mostly young professionals, an invasion that is spreading through all the poorer areas of the city. The multi-storied high-rises, built in the 1960’s, stretch for many blocks, one after the other in a long line that does in fact represent a kind of wall against developers. How long that wall will stay in place, though, remains to be seen. For real estate entrepreneurs, property facing the East River represents an enormous uncut diamond, waiting to be split into smaller gems that can be sold to well-off New Yorkers.
New York’s public housing projects are considered among the better ones nationwide, in terms of providing living space for the city’s poorest residents. In other localities, though, such projects have been associated with so many social problems, like crime and drug use, that a number of them have been torn down. Such was the fate of the Pruitt-Igo projects in St. Louis and the Cabrini Green high-rises in Chicago. More recently, public housing demolition has taken place in Baltimore too, and members of the Viva House Catholic Worker there have told me that displaced families have been offered little in the way of alternative housing.
The elderly woman to whom I deliver a meal each week lives on the ninth floor of Baruch Houses, named--ironically, given its residents’ poverty--after the wealthy financier Bernard Baruch. Walking through a parking lot and past neatly tended grass plots, I approach the door of her building and wait for someone who is leaving or entering to let me in. Twice the elevator has been out of order, and I must admit that climbing nine flights of stairs with two bags cost me a bit of effort. But the families I passed on the way--many of them far more burdened than I with their Saturday shopping--were taking this inconvenience in stride, smiling and chatting along the way. During these visits to Baruch Houses, I had initially felt somewhat out of place--an Anglo in a world primarily of African Americans and Hispanics. But now I enter and leave feeling like part of the territory.
On the way back, I deliberately straggle a bit. This gives me time to notice what I may have missed on the way over. Once I saw at the rear of one of the tenements facing Houston Street a hand-constructed mini-balcony--a balconette, so to speak--a small projection placed on the windowsill for a religious purpose. Amid containers of brightly colored plastic flowers and a pot of real ones stood a statue of the Virgin Mary; on the sill of a small adjoining window rested a bust of Mary, Jesus’ mother.
The building itself is deteriorating, and may well be on a developer’s hit list, waiting to be replaced by a new and expensive one like the gleaming five-story brick structure nearby. In the meantime, however, Mary, Mother of the Poor, seems to be watching over the remnants of the area’s low-income population. Now I regularly look for her statue and the small bust nearby as a sign of her care for “the least.”