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Life in the Projects of Harlem

Updated on October 9, 2014

As a former resident of New York City, I have decided to write an article on what life is like for someone living in a NYC ghetto. It is not quite like what you see on television, but some aspects of it is pretty close. When I was a child, about 11 years old, I lived in Harlem, mostly in the projects. The projects are housing complexes that are government funded for low-income families. This is the definition, but I would like to show you the inside of the projects and what it means to live there. I will provide experiences for a typical day in the projects for its occupants.

When I think back to when I was little, living in the Projects, I think back to a time when I hadn’t known another way of living. I thought every kid walked around giggling at the nodding dope addicts wondering if they would eventually fall over. The sad part was that we knew all too well what a dope addict looked like, as most of us had family members that were heroin addicts. This was typical and nothing to be ashamed of. We talked about it often as kids and even made amusing comparisons of what our strung-out relatives did while high, like falling asleep, while standing up on the corner.

There were not too many playgrounds in the projects where we lived so we usually just walked around the neighborhood making observations. Sometimes we would look around for change on the ground in hopes of buying some potato chips, or something to drink. If we saw an elderly person struggling with his/her bags we often offered assistance for free but was hoping for a tip. Helping people around the area was the best way to make some extra change, unless really desperate. If we were really hungry or desperate we would just come right out and ask people for some spare change. This was not humiliating because everyone did it. It felt natural. But in my home, we got in trouble for it because if you come from a home with a mom and dad you were not allowed to “beg for change”. That was the rule!

That is just the mentality of a child living under these circumstances. I can only provide the experiences from a child’s point of view because I was still a child when I moved out of the projects. But while there, I can tell you that life was different for most that don't live in the projects and the rules are different.. You are used to seeing fights in the streets and police making arrests. Police coming in and out of the buildings were common and never seemed out of the ordinary. They make arrests. They break up fights, and just made their presence known. This kept things civil most of the time. But that was during the day.

People seem to heat up in the summer similar to being trapped in a large can like sardines. There were more fights, car accidents, shoot-outs, robberies and just chaos as the temperature rose. Anyone living in the projects could relate to what I am saying here. But if not, the summer was a time that you can just expect bad things to happen. It was just the way it was and a project reality.

Project crime vs nonproject but low-income areas

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Harlem citizens reaction to the Harlem Shake Craze

I guess the question would arise if whether crime is more abundant in project areas than other areas, such as other low-income areaS? Some NYC areas, such as Washington Heights, which is a high drug area in which shootings and other violent crimes occur at rates pretty high on a high crime area list. The thing that makes projects seem more crime prone is the fact that everyone is compacted into one area. Does this make sense? I think so, when you consider people bunched up, possibly having drug and/or alcohol dependencies, trying to survive day to day in a cramped up environment. It can be pretty stressful watching people around you fall victim to crimes and trying to stay safe in such a dangerous environment.

Living in the projects is very hard on children, when you consider the bullies in the neighborhood and gangs that are hanging around preying on smaller children. Several parents try to keep their children inside in order to keep them safe from the nearby elements. Then there are the children that come from homes with one parent that usually work and do not know what their child is up to throughout the day. These are usually the ones causing the most problems for everyone. They enjoy mischief while their parents aren’t around. When the cat’s away the mice will plan. Often these troublemakers recruit the good kids that are afraid and don’t want to be victimized by them.


In light of all of this negativity, there are some really great things to see in NYC. Outside of the project areas there is the Museum of Natural History, famous Apollo Theater, which is in Harlem, fabulous 42nd street and The Theaters “On Broadway”. These landmarks are reasons for those to come to NYC to enjoy the sites and experience the excitement and nightlife of the famous tourist attractions.

Just an FYI there are some famous, well known people that were born in Harlem. Some names you may recognize are: Al Pacino, Alicia Keys, Cicely Tyson, Colin Powell, Sean Combs aka P. Diddy, and many more.

NYC Landmark Popularity Poll

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Sometimes people ask me if I am embarrassed to speak on such things, but why should I be? It was a part of my life and sometime I had no control over. I have enough self-worth to not let my past experiences and my family’s experiences determine who I am. If we allow society to tell us that we should be ashamed of negative aspects of our lives or disown our family members based on this ignorant perception than we are guilty of the very thing they accuse us of. I am a better person because of my past experience. I am always willing and candid about what my life was like during those times and wouldn't change a thing.

Can you survive project life?


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    • lrc7815 profile image

      Linda Crist 2 years ago from Central Virginia

      Thank you for sharing your story. So many of the problems in our society are rooted in a lack of understanding each other. We judge too quickly and make false assumptions before we give people a chance to show us who they are. I love that you painted a picture of a child growing up in the projects i showing both the positive and the negative aspects. It's so true that until you have stood in someone's shoes, it is impossible to understand fully. I enjoyed your article very much.

    • krsharp05 profile image

      krsharp05 2 years ago from 18th and Vine

      Great work pointing out both the good and the not-so-good things that you experienced while growing up as a child in the projects. It's an exceptional story you have and you make me want to visit New York City. I love that you talk about the negative consequences of being a child who cannot control the environment they are born to because socialization is 95% of who you are and the rest is determination, dedication and desire. Good for you for this article! Loved it. -Kristi

    • nickico profile image
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      Niquel Cozart 2 years ago from New Jersey suburb

      Thank you. I apprecieate the fact that you understood the picture I was painting and I agree with your comment.

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