Broken Homes

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The Friendly Fuld Head Start Center sits surrounded by the huge, abandoned Hayes Homes public housing project in Newark’s Central Ward. If it weren’t for a few cars parked nearby and parents occasionally bringing children in and out the front door, the two-story building with iron bars on the windows and a dismal stone exterior could easily pass for empty.

“We can’t control what the outside looks like,” says director Helen D. Reid. “But when the children come inside, we make sure it’s a nice and friendly haven for them.” In fact, the contrast is shocking. The center is the only occupied building amid 20 acres of dark, 12-story towers. As I stand on the cracked concrete playground during the first of many visits over the course of several months, I feel the eyes of the thousands of paneless windows–some still framed by fluttering curtains valiantly holding on.

A few years ago, the Hayes project was home to 5,000 tenants in nearly 1,500 apartments. Built nearly 45 years ago, the city housing authority never put adequate resources into its maintenance and management. And so by the 1980s, conditions were horrendous, crime rates were high, and city officials were placing one demolition plan after another on the table. Tenant leaders and local organizers fought against razing the buildings for years, but by the early 1990s, Hayes Homes was emptying out.

The demolition began in December. The city has since knocked down five of the towers, including one directly behind the Friendly Fuld Center. The rest will soon follow. The buildings are to be replaced by 206 federally subsidized prefab row houses, developed by the New Communities Corporation, a local community development group.

Inside the Head Start center, the classrooms and play areas are bright and clean, lined with books and drawings by the 93 children who attend. Twenty-three adults work here for Head Start, and downstairs a neighborhood center has an after-school program and summer day camp for children aged 6 to 14. In one form or another, the Fuld Neighborhood House has been on or near this site since 1911, when it was a predominantly Jewish community. It merged with the Friendly Neighborhood House in 1971.

Parents from what’s left of the surrounding community are encouraged to volunteer. Reid says that despite the abandoned buildings that surround them, the center doesn’t really feel isolated because it is still connected to the families that had lived here. Although they’ve moved out into other parts of the Central Ward, they continue to bring their children to the program.

The center also helps some parents go back to school, get credentials and return to work at the center full-time. Others go on to teach in the public schools. School staff nearby say Friendly Fuld children are easy to work with and well prepared for kindergarten.

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Outside the center, I notice people wandering around the buildings, plodding along the disheveled sidewalks or sitting on the crumbled concrete walls like ghosts amid the ruins. Each explains that he or she is a former tenant spending time remembering life in the Hayes Homes.

“This place wasn’t so bad. Everyone knew each other, and it worked out. The elevators broke down a lot, and that wasn’t good,” James tells me. “If these buildings were in Short Hills, they would never have been let go like this. They would have been kept up, and we would still have a place to live.”

“I grew up here,” Lamott says. “I miss it, and I come back as often as I can just to be around the place. You know if the people in charge had family living here, it would never have been neglected like it was. Nobody cares about the poor until it comes time for blaming.”

Shirley says she used to live in Hayes with her mother, who has since moved to Florida. “It was awful. The water was brown and the plumbing was always backed up,” she recalls. But she adds that she finds herself nostalgic for those days: “I come back here because I miss my mother.”

During one of my visits last fall, fences, yellow tape and dynamite lines were in place in preparation for the first demolition, and folks from the surrounding community were carting away anything that could be turned into money before it all went to the dumping site. The blocks around Hayes are among the poorest in the Central Ward, which has the highest poverty rate in Newark.

“The Hayes Homes is an abandoned city in the heart of a city,” says Ray Codey, director of development for New Communities. “High rises are not by definition doomed to failure. They are if they aren’t managed and respected properly. Trump Tower works. There are many high-rise buildings for low-income people in our country and in the world, and if they are well maintained, they work.”

Five years ago, New Communities had plans to use a $24 million federal homeownership grant to renovate two of the Hayes towers into condominiums. The city housing authority refused to cooperate, however, and tenants charged it would create divisions between renters and owners. Now, in addition to the 206 townhouses, the group plans to construct a community center with social services, employment and job-training programs, and daycare facilities.

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When Hayes Homes opened in 1954, Reverend Benjamin F. Johnson, a Baptist minister who spoke at its opening, said the project “would do more to defeat Communism than 100 Joe McCarthys.” Mayor Leo P. Carlin commented at the festivities that those “who live in bright and cheeried surroundings, such as those provided in this project, will lose the feeling of futility of existence and discouragement which breeds crime.”

A few years later, a state law was passed prohibiting discrimination in public housing, and Hayes Homes was forced to change its policy of segregating buildings by race. Many white tenants moved out. Those who held the purse strings began to lose interest.
For the next 20 years, city officials and local leaders argued about who was to blame for the declining physical condition of the project. In 1979, housing authority director Milton Buck blamed union maintenance workers for not doing their jobs and bureaucrats for abusing contract rules, and said his agency simply didn’t have enough money for repairs. The feds shot back that Newark had failed to spend $50 million allocated for modernization. A few years later, HUD administrators charged the Newark Redevelopment and Housing Authority with simply not applying for money it was eligible to receive.

In 1985, Newark filed plans to tear down the complex. From that point on, virtually nothing was spent on repairs, and tenants had to fight for everything.

Helen Reid and I stand looking out at the bleakness of the abandoned buildings through the Head Start center’s metal-barred windows. “They’ll be imploding these apartments soon enough,” she says. “We don’t know what will be happening to us, but I hope we can stay. We are a vital service to so many children whose families desperately need us.”

As I walk back to my car through the weeds and broken glass, I think about the families that had lived here trying to bring up their children, following their hopes amid the dreary, dangerous hallways and broken elevators. Now their memories are waiting for the wrecking ball.

Few outsiders know about the sparkling world alive behind the Friendly Fuld facade. Too often our attitudes are set by what appears to be, rather than by what we would find if we bothered to open the door, sit down and learn what is truly going on. Too often we judge a place by where it is. Not expecting any good in a “bad” neighborhood, that is all we see.

Helen M. Stummer has been photographing the residents of Newark’s Central Ward for 17 years. Her work will be shown at O.K. Harris in Soho from March 21 through April 18.