As a kid, I visited the DC area a couple times a year to see my dad's older sister. She was a Minnesotan by birth, having been transplanted permanently to Maryland when her husband had gotten a job there. My aunt was a great tour guide. She knew all the places to go and things to see. I loved hearing her speak of the sights and sounds around us as we drove from College Park to the interior spaces of our nation's capital. I was enthralled by her interpretation of history and culture. As I look back, she was a highly opinionated person, contrasting sharply with my father's reserved introversion. I learned in time I did not agree with her about everything.
I remember driving through the outskirts of DC. My aunt in her usual fashion was giving us a play by play tour as we drove. I was fascinated by the shift in architecture from run down rowhouses to towering apartment buildings to the gleamy classical monuments surrounding the Mall. I had a hard time reconciling the differences around me in my pre-adolescent brain.
During one of our drives into the city, I commented about the apartment buildings I saw, saying something about wanting to live some place like that: someplace you could see the whole cityscape. My aunt responded quickly,
"You don't want to live there. Those buildings are the projects. They are for black people."
Confronted with racism and classism for the first time, I quickly shut my mouth.
Recently I watched a documentary film on a famous failed "project" in St. Louis. The Pruitt Igo Myth is a heartbreaking story of the city of St. Louis's selfishness and greed salted with altruism and misunderstanding in its decision making to clear out the city slums and replace them with a number of high rises within the city's core in the 1950s. The documentary aptly describes how history and culture came together to create a perfect storm of variables that doomed "the project" to its ultimate failure.
The story made me curious which buildings are considered to be "projects" in Minneapolis. So I did what we all do, I Googled to find my answer: "Minneapolis Housing Projects." As I glanced at the images before me I was surprised to see how many I had been in at different times in my life. I would have not known these were "projects" because all I have known are the people I met within their walls. In a flash, the documentary's telling and my aunt's comments collapsed together to become the faces of real people.
I admit it is easy to sometimes condense complicated issues into neatly ordered categories. They are easier to control that way. They don't require much of us. We don't have to wrestle. We can quickly get back to our day and our own plans. Let us remember the real story is always contained in the people themselves. They are never a project.