As an infant, Juanita Brown lived in Southwest Washington with her mother and eight sisters and brothers shoehorned into a two-bedroom townhouse. Then the family moved into a five-bedroom apartment in Southeast Washington. Now she has her own family and apartment just down the street.
Though Juanita Brown has lived in three different homes in Washington in her 30 years, each has had one important element in common with the others:
All have been in one of the city's public housing projects for the poor.
"I'm not ashamed to live in [public] housing," she says, "Because . . . it's not where you live, but how you live."
Brown lives in Fort Dupont Dwellings, one of the 10 worst public housing projects in the city, according to city officials. Those 10 are in such advanced states of decay because tenants treat them so poorly and the city has neglected their upkeep -- that it could cost $60 million to make them livable again, city officials say.
"These are now places of death, destruction and drugs," said city housing director Robert L. Moore.
Over the years Brown has seen the projects transformed from tidy communities of poor, who took pride in their homes, to places where neighbors do not trust each other and children smash windows or scrawl obscenities on walls.
"People fuss at me because I fix up my yard and they say, 'Why are you doing that? Its not yours,' they say. But I feel they rent me this house and for each month it's mine and I'm going to keep it up" Brown said.
It wasn't always so, Brown recalled.
When she and her brothers and sisters moved into their five-bedroom apartment at Stoddert Terrace in 1959, "the houses were beautiful. There was grass. Nothing was broken. Everything was completely new," she said.
Tenants took a special pride in the projects, she said, and periodically they would organize cleanup campaigns to keep the complexes tidy.
The people were friendly and community-oriented, too. At the James Creek Dwellings complex, where she lived until 1959, "all of us were poor, but we'd help each other out," she said. t"If a child needed to go to the hospital, everybody pitched in."
The same used to be true at Stoddert, she said.
"People . . . spoke to you and they got to know each other and they were concerned about the kids," she said. "Every Halloween, for instance, the parents organized a carnival and they baked cookies and cakes."
And when a child stepped out of line, parents, neighbors or even the recreation director "would give you a whipping," she said.
By the time of the 1968 riots, however, subtle shifts in tenant attitudes and makeup were beginning to have an impact on life in the city's public housing projects, Brown and city officials say.
For one thing, the number of young, husbandless women with children was increasing, flooding the projects with youngsters. According to one informal 1972 survey conducted among public housing tenants along East Capitol Street, for instance, half of the girls in that year's high school graduating classes were pregnant either before, during, or shortly after graduation.
At the same time, the poor were becoming more militant in their relations with the city government. In 1969, about one third of the city's public housing tenants went on a three-year rent strike in protest over proposed rent increases.
The loss of those revenues caused further deterioration in the public housing projects, officials say, because part of the city's public housing maintenance bills paid for by tenant rent.
Further deterioration occurred because stable families, which had long lived in public projects even though they could afford to move, were being frightened away by the increase in crime and poor conditions.
In addition, the city housing agency in 1974 violated federal public housing regulations, prompting the Department of Housing and Urban Development to freeze the amount it contributed toward operating and maintaining the city's public housing. Since then, inflation has made repairs even more costly, while the city has had no more to spend than it had before.
By March of this year, the public housing department's maintenance crew had a four year backlog of more than 17,000 requests for repairs or maintenance, according to a city report submitted to Mayor Marion Barry in April.
In all, the report noted, 25 percent of the city's 11,284 public housing units reported problems such as lack of hot water, lack of heat in the winter, or stoves, refrigerators, toilets and bathtubs that did not work.
"I fault a lot of the tenants" for the delapidation, said Brown. "Maybe the NCHA [National Capital Housing Authority, the city's old public housing agency] was slow [to make repairs], but if the kids didn't break up things, they wouldn't have things to fix.
"The kids, some of them, seem to have just gone wild," she said. When they are not defacing buildings or committing other acts of vandalism, she said, they spend the day smoking marijuana -- "That's the biggest thing on the street."
Brown said that today "everybody just stays to themselves. I don't think people trust each other. People still speak, but you seldom hold a conversation. You ask parents to come to the parent's meeting and they say they aren't coming.
"There are a lot of good families in here, but a lot of problems in public housing, [like] the deterioration, is caused by some of the kids destroying the property," she said.
"Some people are just destructive," said city housing director Moore. "They destroy private housing and that's why they're in public housing. They feel that it's the government's and as long as it's the government's it doesn't make a difference. They feel the government has to take care of them."
In many ways, Browns own story is typical of those who have grown up in the midst of the deepening despair and violence of the city's public housing.
Not only was she a husbandless mother of two children by the time she was 18, but she had also dropped out of junior high school and seemed doomed to working odd jobs to support herself and her family.
But Brown is something of a success story. At the urging of her mother she returned to school and earned her diploma, attended a secretarial training course, and eventually got the job she now has as chief secretary in an office of a federal agency. Through it all, she has steadfastly refused to apply for public assistance.
"I have scuffled [worked hard], she said with pride. "I ironed for people. I baby-sat. I used to crochet. I made blankets and pillows earning money here and there . . .
Now married, she and her husband are saving their money toward the day they will be able to leave public housing and buy a place of their own.
Meanwhile, Brown says, some improvements are being made in the projects.
Last year, for instance, new sliding windows and bars were installed to replace the old casement-style windows that dated from 1940 when the project was built. The year, maintenance workers planted grass in her yard and a few weeks ago she came home from work and found two new trees there, too.
"I've seen it beautiful. I've seen it destroyed. And now as an adult I'm seeing it improved." she said.
But she expects to see very little more. "I don't want to live in [public housing] all my life. I want to better myself. I give myself another two years and I won't be here."