Sonia Sotomayor Built Successful Life on Then-Solid Ground of Bronxdale Houses

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By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

NEW YORK

Walk through the red-brick buildings of Bronxdale Houses, the public housing project where Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor grew up, and find broken elevators; smashed windows, lights and front-door locks; and hallways that stink of urine.

In one apartment, plastic bags are taped onto the walls to cover the disintegrating plaster, the stove is out of service and the faucets leak. It's the kind of place where people fight and no one bothers to call the cops. Kids from the Light Side of the projects, where the streetlights mostly work, are prone to turf wars with those from the Dark Side, where they mostly don't.

"There's a lot of drama," said Ivellisse Velasquez, 18, who has lived here all her life. "A lot of kids are getting caught up into it. They have good hearts, and they have good minds, but they get sidetracked."

The neighborhood was different when Sotomayor moved here in the late 1950s, at age 3. Her story has been hailed as an affirmation of the American dream: She came from the bottom and, against all odds, rose to the top. But these projects in those early years were not the bottom. In fact, Bronxdale Houses was designed for working people like Sotomayor's parents, who needed a steppingstone from the tenement slums to the middle class. And the Sotomayor family moved away when Sonia was 16, before successive waves of drugs and crime began to make the projects synonymous with poverty and violence in America.

"I never perceived myself as a poor child," Sotomayor said in an October 1999 housing authority publication.

In the past few decades, there has been a sense that high-density public housing failed, and many of the bigger projects have been torn down as cities offered residents vouchers, or built new mixed-income developments.

Today, studies show public housing residents are poorer, more isolated and less educated than they were in the '60s. It is "extremely rare" today to rise out of the projects to become highly successful, said Patrick Sharkey, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University. In 1970, some 15 percent of children in public housing who participated in one survey went on to earn a college degree; that number plummeted to 4 percent in 1990, according to an analysis Sharkey did.

Sotomayor's story "runs against the dominant patterns of the past few decades about mobility," said Sharkey. "There's much less economic mobility than Americans think there is."

In 1957, the Sotomayor family moved from a tenement in the South Bronx to Building 28 of the new Bronxdale Houses development. The project consisted of 28 seven-story buildings with 1,496 apartments in an isolated but carefully landscaped area bounded by highways. Average rent was about $51 a month. Planners thought these "towers in the park" would be a key to the modern city and house people cleared from the slums in urban-renewal programs. Most tenants at Bronxdale were working class, including many World War II veterans; about 10 percent were on welfare. It was difficult to get one of the coveted apartments if an applicant was not working, was a single parent or had a drug abuse record, said Nicholas Dagen Bloom, a historian of New York public housing.

About half the residents were white -- mainly Italian and Jewish, and also Irish, longtime residents recalled. At a time when black and Puerto Rican families found it difficult to rent in a segregated market, about 30 percent of Bronxdale residents were black and about 20 percent were Puerto Rican, according to city housing authority records.


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