An Exhibit Offers A Different Angle On Life In Public Housing An exhibit in Brooklyn aims to upend stereotypes about public housing by profiling residents and their achievements. The curators know their subject well; they once lived in public housing themselves.
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An Exhibit Offers A Different Angle On Life In Public Housing

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An Exhibit Offers A Different Angle On Life In Public Housing

An Exhibit Offers A Different Angle On Life In Public Housing

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Finally this hour, images of public housing and the people who live there. Public housing is often seen through a negative lens, and two former residents are trying to change that. NPR's Pam Fessler has their story.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Rico Washington relaxes on a bench outside Kimberly Gardens - that's the housing project in Laurel, Maryland, where he grew up. Washington's 38 with long dreadlocks and a neatly trimmed beard. He says when he was young he was embarrassed to live here. He had coworkers drop him off down the street.

RICO WASHINGTON: I would wait until they had gone far down 197, and then I would double back and start walking towards Kimberly Gardens.

FESSLER: Today, he's no longer embarrassed. He knows many hard-working, incredible people live in public housing despite the stereotypes of drugs, crime and despair. Washington says it was the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor that convinced him he had to do something.

WASHINGTON: People just could not believe that this woman was from public housing. I mean, she had had 15 years of experience on the bench. She also had two Ivy League degrees.

FESSLER: So he decided, as a writer now living in New York City, to bring other success stories to light. He teamed up with photographer Shino Yanagawa, who had her own images of public housing when she moved to New York from Japan. At first she was excited when her then-husband said they'd be living in the projects.

SHINO YANAGAWA: I thought it was going to be super-exciting. And I know it sounds crazy, but this is what happens when you grow up in Tokyo and listening to a lot of hip-hop.

FESSLER: She says Western hip-hop music made public housing in America seem very cool. Instead, she found crime, urine in the elevators, hopelessness. But Yanagawa says she also saw something else - families struggling for a decent life and people like her ex-husband who emerged from public housing to become a doctor.

YANAGAWA: So I wanted to give the opportunity to the children in housing projects that you can always choose what you want. You can always choose your path.

WASHINGTON: We can start, I guess, here.

FESSLER: Washington and Yanagawa have now interviewed and photographed dozens of current and former public housing residents about their lives. The result is an exhibit called We The People at the Brooklyn Historical Society. They hope it adds something to the national conversation about stereotypes and race.

WASHINGTON: This is Brian Paupaw.

FESSLER: Washington points to one photo on display of a young man sitting on a couch, laughing with his mother. Paupaw grew up in public housing in Brooklyn but got a scholarship to attend Parsons The New School for Design. Washington says while Paupaw was there, a roommate invited him to go snowboarding.

WASHINGTON: He was like, nah, that's something that white people do, you know. Black people don't snowboard. That's crazy. Why would I want to do that?

FESSLER: But he did go, and it changed his life. Paupaw became a prolific snowboarder and started a non-profit called Hoods To The Woods. It takes teens from the inner city to go snowboarding, rock climbing and hiking.

WASHINGTON: Susie Mushatt Jones.

FESSLER: The next photo shows an elderly woman in a striped housedress and straw hat, staring into the distance.

WASHINGTON: She's a centenarian. We interviewed her at - she was 111.

FESSLER: Washington says Jones, who lived in Brooklyn public housing, worked her entire life as a domestic. But she managed to save up enough to help four nieces go to college, something she was unable to do.

WASHINGTON: This is Dr. Tony Medina.

FESSLER: He's now a poet and professor at Howard University. The stories go on and on, from the little-known to those more recognized, like hip-hop artist Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def. Washington says if there's a common theme, it's that almost everyone they talked to said that living in public housing actually helped them to succeed. They learned how to do more with less.

EPHRAIM BENTON: My name is Ephraim Benton. I am 36 years old, soon to be 37. And I am from Tompkins projects.

FESSLER: Which is also in Brooklyn. Benton is profiled in the exhibit. As a teen he was involved in gangs and arrested for felony assault. But he got a second chance - an opportunity to attend acting school. He's now a professional actor appearing on TV and in movies. He says coming from the projects was a plus.

BENTON: Seeing so much, you know, heartache and pain and growing up, it helped me connect more with my emotions as far as characters.

FESSLER: He says he can cry at the drop of a hat. Benton doesn't live at Tompkins anymore but returns often. He's set up several programs, like an outdoor movie series, to keep teens here occupied and out of trouble. He also hopes they see from his example that there is a way out.

BENTON: You know, these kids out here, they don't feel like nobody cares about them.

FESSLER: An attitude that Washington and Yanagawa think is exacerbated by stereotypes and make some of them embarrassed to admit where they live. Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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