“This community was always a family”: Voices from NYCHA’s Gowanus Houses
February 2, 2023
In Summer 2022, past and present residents of NYCHA's Gowanus Houses gathered for the annual Old Timers Day. As part of an ongoing storytelling project, we spoke to event attendees about memories from the Houses and what community means to them.
Working On:Gowanus Houses Community Center
All interviews were conducted by Andrew Brown and Lauren Vespoli.
What’s your connection to the Gowanus Houses?
I lived here from birth until my family moved out in 1970. We were the first family in Building 175. I found recently in my father’s papers the lease that he and my mother signed to move in February 1, 1949.
I used to live at 14G. That’s my bedroom up there. That’s my old bedroom.
I used to be the project babysitter. There was a collective of mothers, mostly single, but they absolutely 100% looked out for one another. And I was the project babysitter, because they used to have their little card games and their little outings and needed to get away.
I grew up here when I was a child, and I come back annually for the Old Timers’ Day. Some of my friends are still here, some come from far away, so we come back to show love for each other.
What are some of your favorite memories?
It was a village. Everybody looked out for one another. We never felt that we lived in a concrete jungle. We had fun living in the projects. Living in the projects back then was a step up, because the apartments that were around were cold-water railroad flats. My father’s cousin had a coal stove in the kitchen to keep warm, but we had indoor plumbing and closets. We thought we were living large back then, and we were envied by the people who didn’t live in the projects.
You were loved and cared for by people who were not part of your immediate family. It was always an extended family type of atmosphere. Because life is what it is, there were a lot of single mothers and they looked out for one another. Everybody knew the other person’s child, where they should be, where they shouldn’t be. When I left my home, I still was embraced and loved outside of the doors of this building.
From ’49, ’50 to about ’67, it was a wonderful place to be. It was the iconic village. No one locked their doors. It was interracial. And we had every convenience, all the projects do. A shoemaker, bakery, egg store, library, everything you need. It’s a community.
This community was always a family. Everybody looked out for each other. I remember a time where you could go in people’s houses and the doors were kept unlocked. You can’t do that now, but when I was growing up, it was a normal thing to go from house to house. Everybody’s children came to my house, and vice versa.
All the parents looked out for us, made sure we was okay. The parents would sit out like this, and watch all the kids. Not just me — all the kids. I liked that. That was cool.
What do you remember about the community center?
When I grew up, we had a place to go to after school. And had it not been for that, I don’t know what would have happened to me. The community center, back in the day, was run by this gentleman Eddie Herbert. Eddie Herbert fought to keep it open. He wrote and reached out for grants to keep it open.
He had people from different colleges come speak to us, to show us that there’s another way. I could have done football — which I did, Division I — but he showed me that there was another way: intellectual education. I got selected for a private prep school up in Andover, NH, and I got an academic scholarship. It was partly because of my effort, but the introduction and the availability came from [the community center]. That’s where they told me, Darrin, you can do more. You don’t got to be a professional basketball, football player. There’s more out there. And I latched onto it.
That community center, oh my God, it was so instrumental. It literally saved my life. Literally. Not figuratively, literally.
They hired me for Youth Corps when I was 14 and I was in love with my counselor. She was from Barbados and I never heard a voice like that, so I had a crush. And we had a darkroom where I learned how to develop pictures. I got the photography bug early. Still take pictures everywhere I go to this day.
They had summer daycare for kids, and there were after-school activities so kids had something to do, somewhere to go. When we became teenagers, we had parties on Friday and Saturday night, so there always were things to do. It was really positive.
That was the early 60’s, so everything was Motown and we had every song imaginable. Each of us had groups of clubs, and each club would host a party so there was always something going on.
I used to DJ the community center. Yeah, we had good times there. We’d fellowship with everybody and there were never no problems. It was good.
What does community mean to you?
Community means a form of living where the people who live amongst one another know one another, look out for one another, encourage one another, and try to uplift one another.
Community means unconditional love. There’s an understanding that you may come from different backgrounds. You may have different starts, you may have messed up, or you may have done some things, but community says, “We’re going to look beyond that. We’re going to look behind your behavior and we’re going to see you as a whole, as someone who came from us.” Community means you’re one of us, regardless of your inception. You’re one of us.
A group of people, not necessarily like-minded but like-involved, working toward similar goals.
People who have a common cultural and societal connection. Everybody has jobs. Everybody has burdens. But when you have a connection about how you want to see your community, that’s that social connection. That’s what makes a community.