In the leafy Detroit suburb where I grew up, poor always seemed like a dirty word. But not when we were by my great grandmother “Blab’s” place.
As kids, we’d drive downtown to visit her at her high rise, River Towers, a project-based Section 8 building that sits on a prime piece of land at the bank of the Detroit River. My brothers and I would sit at the nook in her kitchen and nibble on government cheese and toast smeared with butter handed out at a food pantry that would set up in her lobby.
River Towers was massive. At 14-stories with 474 units, the building was four times the size of one of the high-rise public housing buildings that once stood at Cabrini Green or the Robert Taylor homes. Just like those notorious Chicago buildings, each one of the apartments was occupied by someone poor–just like my Blab.
For roughly four decades, she lived in public housing in Detroit. She first moved in Herman Gardens, a community of two-story brick buildings, in the late 1950s. The way my family tells it, “The Gardens” “was a nice little place” at the time. Some of its former residents — including Judge Mathais and the Motown group, The Spinners – went on to claim fame. Blab likely outlasted them, staying until 1974.
By then, Herman Gardens was in rapid decline. If tenants paying too little rent were responsible for the downward spiral, officials could easily point to my Blab as the culprit. She cleaned and cooked for a couple of priests in Detroit and took in laundry and ironing for extra cash. In other words, she was a hustler. There wasn’t much income to report. Even in the 1990s, Blab’s share of the rent was never higher than $130 a month.
Every time a reader left a comment on my recent investigations into federally-subsidized housing–“Subsidized money pit” or “One and done”–deriding single mothers who live there as welfare queens, I thought of my great grandmother, a white woman of hearty German stock. But I knew they weren’t talking about her. I read between the lines and knew that they were really talking about “the blacks.” How? Because that’s what members of my own family, including Blab, used to call her neighbors. Always in a hushed tone, a whisper.
Even in my family, which believes deep down that everyone can pull themselves up by their boot straps, no one ever thought for a second that Blab was mooching off of everyone else’s hard work. In our family, she was a hero; a young widow who managed to scrape by and raise five children on her own. As far as we were concerned, she needed the help. And she deserved it.
I couldn’t tell you how many of Blab’s children went on to graduate from high school. But I do know that not all of them did. And her youngest, my great uncle Henry, had a serious drinking problem for decades. From time to time, he would squeeze into her tiny apartment at The Gardens. Had Uncle Henry been arrested for fighting or drinking on her stoop, Blab would have faced eviction if the same one-strike standards upheld by the Chicago Housing Authority and public housing agencies across the nation held true then. If she had a landlord that was skimming from her building, no one would turn the blame on her because she was too broke to move elsewhere.
No one in my family ever blamed Blab for being poor. No one thought she was a failure because of it. No one resented her for living on the public’s dime. What strikes me is the double standard, and contempt, that people hold for the overwhelmingly black mothers and grandmothers living in Chicago’s subsidized housing today. And, honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if even my Blab felt the same way.
© Community Renewal Society 2012