Don't Look at Me Different

A new book by Tucson's teenagers documents life in the city's projects.

The reason I stayed writing the book was because I thought that it was my opportunity to tell people that the projects are not a place where you pass by and get killed. I want all you people to read this book and learn and see how life in the projects was. Some of you know the projects as Connie Chambers. I lived there. I know that people have said it was a bad place to go. Some people were afraid to even pass through there because they were scared that the people from the projects would assault or kill them. But that was not how it was.

My childhood in the projects was the best. I had so much fun. I had friends that would tell me, "Oh, you live in the projects." They thought they were better than me. But I didn't care because the projects were my home.

--Carolina Sevilla, co-author of Don't Look at Me Different/No Me Veas Diferente

ON A HOT AND DUSTY April day almost two years ago, city dignitaries gathered on a dais at Connie Chambers Homes, on South 10th Avenue near 22nd Street. Kids with flowers twined in their hair danced folklorico, mariachi bands played sweet Mexican music, and suitable political oratory was delivered. This was a red-letter day in the war on poverty, the officials declared, and as if to prove their point they ended their florid speeches with some sweaty manual labor. Everaybody from City Housing director Karen Thoreson to City Council member Steve Leal took a swing at the apartments with a sledgehammer.

The demolition of Tucson's largest public housing project--the pjays--had begun.

The federal government had provided a huge chunk of change, some $14.6 million in Hope VI money, to knock the old place down. The Chambers Homes were shabby and run down, but their low-rise buildings in no way resembled the high-rise public housing projects in large cities elsewhere that had become poster children for disastrous housing policy. Nevertheless, the new monies required demolition of the old places, and Chambers had to go.

In its place new houses are already going up, designed according to the ideas of new urbanism. Apartments for the poor will be mixed in with "affordable" apartments and even some single-family homes. Gone are the units crowded in on top of each other, and dark central plazas removed from the city streets. Instead, under construction are new two- and three-family houses, designed in Sonoran vernacular styles. Their front yards and front doors facing the streets will make them safer, housing experts believe. Other units have been replaced by "scattered-site housing": houses and apartments mixed into middle-class neighborhoods all over town.

The city has been loudly declaring the virtues of the new enterprise, which will also deliver to the newly constructed neighborhood an array of services, including day care, a health clinic and a learning center.

But there are some dissident voices.

A few local activists objected to Hope VI on the grounds that Connie Chambers was salvageable, and that all the money being spent on demolition and reconstruction would not add a single unit of housing to the city's stock. And just recently a group of local teenagers published a new bilingual book, Don't Look at Me Different/No Me Veas Diferente, offering a more complicated picture of life in the projects than outsiders usually get.

At the book's heart are 20 interviews of people who lived at Connie Chambers and at La Reforma, an earlier project that was demolished in 1983. These oral histories are rounded out by personal essays written by the young authors, a historical timeline and a cornucopia of family photos dating back to the 1940s. While the book acknowledges some of the usual problems that haunt public housing, most notably gangs and drugs, the authors argue that the projects fostered a deep sense of community.

I thought that we should destroy the negative stereotypes about public housing residents. I have friends that live and have lived in the projects, and all of them have had a bad name at one time or another because of where they lived, and I don't like that. I said that positive things should be emphasized. I wasn't saying to not talk about any bad things; we have to cover that, too, so the book wasn't fake.

--Aaron La Chappelle, co-author

THE KIDS PUT THE BOOK TOGETHER in an after-school project run by Voices: Community Stories Past and Present, a non-profit group that specializes in hiring disadvantaged teens to compile histories of their communities. Led by executive director Regina Kelly, Voices has already published Snapped on the Street: A Community Archive of Photos and Memories, a visual history of downtown. Before they started up Voices with a group of activists and writers, Kelly and her husband, Stephen Farley (the artist who created the photo murals in the Broadway underpass), worked on three similar book projects under the Tucson/Pima Arts Council, documenting Tucson's westside neighborhoods.

"The basic formula," says Kelly, "is personal photos, spoken word written down, historical context given and youth trained." Not only do the books "archive" the community's stories, they also help the kids improve skills that make them more successful in school--researching, interviewing, writing, editing, and in this first bilingual project, translating. (A professional translator, Silva Terrazas, was hired to work with the apprentice translators.) Kelly, who takes credit in the book as editor/mentor, notes that all students working on the project are paid.

In February 1999, with the demolition of Connie Chambers imminent, Barb Perez at CODAC Behavioral Health services called Kelly. "Barb said, 'I've read your work, I love what you do with youth. They're tearing down Connie Chambers and the kids are reacting. This is their childhood home.' The idea of doing an oral history of Connie Chambers had been kicking around," Kelly remembers. She got the go-ahead from her board to start up a new youth book chronicling the history of Tucson's projects. She held a series of community meetings, inviting residents to share memories and suggestions, and 10 teenagers were recruited to write the book.

The kids tracked down some 20 residents of La Reforma and Connie Chambers, interviewed them in teams and then transcribed the oral histories. The work was sometimes tedious ("Transcribing is something that I would never wish on anyone," writes teen author LaChapelle in the prologue) but it yielded moving stories that might otherwise have been lost.

All of us that lived at La Reforma, we were all one kin. We were all poor. I remember there were fights, but not like what people do now. We were close because we were poor, so we helped each other out. Say like, if my mom was sick, people would come over and help cook. And if someone else was sick, my mom would go over there and clean and cook. If there was a death, we would go over and see what people needed.

--Josie Madrid Santiago, resident of La Reforma 1948-1959

TUCSON FIRST GOT INTO the public housing biz in 1942, with the help of money freed up by the federal Housing Act of 1937. Despite an intense campaign waged by real-estate brokers against subsidizing housing for the poor, the plan prevailed. The city's top architects, Roy and Lew Place, were enlisted to design La Reforma, a complex of 162 apartments built on land to the east of where Connie Chambers later rose and fell.

Roy Place was celebrated for the red-brick elegance of the UA's Centennial Hall and Arizona State Museum, and he and his son used their prodigious talent to make the low-cost housing as attractive as possible. Built around central courtyards, the brick houses boasted red-tile roofs, wooden ceilings and outdoor arched entryways that framed views of the mountains. Porches looked onto grassy courtyards that served as communal front yards; paved sidewalks around the perimeter were a paradise for kid bicyclists and roller skaters. The mothers regularly gathered for conversation and hard labor in central laundry rooms.

There were a lot of families, and it was a great time because each unit or section at La Reforma was a court. In other words, the apartments were around the outside, and inside, in the middle, was a large court. We used it as a playground. We were very safe, very secure, and that's where we did all our socializing. We were very connected; it was a great time. It was like one big family. It was a lot of fun. I miss it a lot.

--Carlos B. Nava, resident at La Reforma 1948-1958

LA REFORMA OPENED DURING WORLD WAR II, SO INSTEAD OF housing the city's poor, its first slots went to families of white workers in the defense industries and railroads. Around 1947, the better-paid defense workers were asked to leave, to make way for the poor families La Reforma had originally been intended to serve. Segregation eventually fell by the wayside and Mexican and then black families moved in. The houses gave some of the poorer residents their first taste of modern domestic amenities.

Those La Reforma homes, for a lot of us, were the first real homes with all of the necessities--like an indoor bathroom, shower, our own bedrooms--that we had. For us, La Reforma was the beginning of something good.

--Sabina Valenzuela, resident at La Reforma 1946-1951

BY THE EARLY '60s, LA Reforma was chockablock, inhabited by 160 families with 518 children. And the city was growing. Connie Chambers, a city housing executive, proposed adding additional apartments to the west. Again local Realtors and the press opposed having taxpayers foot the bill for housing the poor, but urban renewal forced the issue. In 1967 the feds paid to bulldoze Tucson's historic heart; hundreds of hand-built adobe homes, along with stores and commercial blocks, were leveled in the city's oldest barrios. Many former barrio homeowners ended up in the new apartments.

The new projects, which the city called Connie Chambers and the residents called the New Reforma, didn't get the same primo architectural treatment as the old. The style was motel-modern; instead of handsome, secure courtyards, Chambers had oddly shaped open spaces outdoors. But residents remember the same kinds of relationships earlier families had enjoyed at La Reforma.

It felt good when we first moved in because everybody was very friendly. All the neighbors were very nice. We just would visit with each other and help each other out. I had a lot of friends. ... We would go out and play in the recreation center there. ... I think if it wouldn't have been for the projects, I don't know where we would have ended up, my family, because that really helped us out. We were honored to be allowed to live there.

--Mary Couturier Sierra, resident at Connie Chambers, 1967-1970

BUT THINKING ABOUT PUBLIC housing began to change. Urban critics chastised the government for concentrating large numbers of the very poor together, arguing that the density only exacerbated the social problems of poverty. Activists retort that the government now favors scatter-site housing because it dilutes the political power of the poor, but even admirers of the projects acknowledged that Connie Chambers was too crowded. Families lived on top of one another in two-story buildings, four families sharing a single porch.

Ismael Galindo, who moved in in 1980, writes that "The projects was a pretty interesting place to grow up in--what with all the gunshots, police sirens, and the helicopter lights flashing through the windows nightly." Though the young authors document that public housing had a concentration of crime no higher than some other parts of the city, the projects developed unsavory reputations. A couple of well-publicized murders, of Bobby Ray Harris in 1975 and Beto Casillas in 1996, reinforced the idea of danger. La Reforma was torn down in 1983. The last remnants of Connie Chambers soon will go.

But the kids who chronicled the story of these two places found much to celebrate: the murals, the Head Start program, the football games, the multiple Virgens de Guadalupe who long stood guard. Some of the former residents will move into the new houses now under construction; others will remain scattered to the four corners of Tucson. And many are ambivalent about their loss.

Looking back, it means a lot to me because this (Connie Chambers) is where I grew up. This is where I met my friends, my real friends. My people. And, it's like, the people that I'm used to, the people that I am comfortable with--now we are all separated. Everybody lives on either the north side, the south side or the west side, the east side. We got all separated, and it's sad because we don't see each other anymore and if we do, we don't talk that much like we used to. ...

I hope this (book) helps you realize that you shouldn't judge something without taking the time to know what it really is. No matter how people live, they are still human beings, and they deserve to be treated like human beings. Like the title of this book says, don't look at us different.

--Aracely Carranza, co-author

The authors of Don't Look at Me Different/No Me Veas Diferente will give a reading at 2 p.m. Saturday, January 20, at Reader's Oasis, 3400 E. Speedway Blvd. Published by Tucson Voices Press, the book is available for $25 at Antigone Books, Reader's Oasis and Borders. For more information call Voices at 570-7066.
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