We Carried Ourselves Like Villagers

Catina Bacote

The following essay is reprinted from the anthology This Is The Place: Women Writing About Home (Seal Press, 2017).

I go back and whole apartment buildings are gone. Brush completely covers the brook. There are no basketball courts, clotheslines, or cellar doors. The wooden logs that marked the bus stop have been taken up, too. Even the sign, green with white letters, EASTERN CIRCLE has been done away with.

I watch a few kids run around in the cool evening air, under a darkening sky. My childhood here may not have been so different from theirs, but then again maybe it was, because even though the layout is the same—apartment buildings strung along a sloping hill, thin trees scattered here and there, and a handful of parking lots—the spirit of the place has changed.

The projects lie on the easternmost edge of the city and when I was growing up it seemed as far away from the mall, McDonald’s, Burger King, and the Coliseum as any neighborhood could get while still being in New Haven. It felt like we were more in the country than in the city, and it wasn’t just the shallow brook that we jumped across or the rust-colored cliffs that broke the skyline; it was the way we just about lived outside in the summer and how we could recognize someone from far away by the cut of his face or the curve of his back as an Allen or a Diamond or a Ricks. It seemed like only a dozen or so families lived in the neighborhood because so many of us had relatives there, whole clans with long-standing ties to the projects stretched from the top of the hill all the way to its bottom.

We carried ourselves like villagers—charming, quiet, territorial—and even though our well-being didn’t hinge on the rotation of crops or a robust rainy season, our rhythms were still in tune with the seasons. Regardless of what the calendar announced, we marked summer from the first warm day of spring to the last balmy day of fall; winter was no more than a holding pattern, a time to cool down and rest, because as soon as the days got longer, Eastern Circle opened up.

Picture the first hint of clear skies and rising temperatures: shorts yanked from the bottom of drawers, feet slipped into dusty sandals, apartment doors thrown wide, and hundreds—and I mean hundreds—of kids waking up from a short slumber, a hypnotic haze, and fanning out across the projects. We didn’t just settle for jump rope or Mother-May-I, we put our hands on everything Eastern Circle offered: stacking mud pies along the side of buildings, catching caterpillars in mason jars, and we spread eagle on the ground, one eye opened and the other closed, aiming our marble for the makeshift hole.

The ground below our feet and the sky hovering above our heads belonged to us and nothing in our line of sight was off limits, except the woods that stirred behind the brick buildings. Once nighttime came slow and easy, and made its way over the day, snakes, dogs, skunks, raccoons, and possums scurried into the projects. Only the small striped skunks left something behind. And since I had lived in Eastern Circle all my life I recognized the stench of their spray—musk and rot—as easily as the mouthwatering smell of bacon and grits and sweet potato pie. But most of the time the shadowy world of knotted trees and thick branches served as only a backdrop to all our fun.

Except for the day my friend and I skidded back and forth in my grandparents’ yard kicking up dirt. Around the time when I called safe and she whined no fair, the massive trunks and twisted branches unleashed a pack of dogs. They didn’t seem to move toward us as much as drop down on us, a sudden hailstorm of muscled jaws, dark gums, and teeth. I ran one way and my friend ran another, and the dogs chased her. She stumbled up a rocky hill on the side of the yard before the dogs pinned her against a wall. Up on their hind legs, they growled in her face. She cried. They moved in closer. Her ponytails bobbed in and out of my sight. I jumped up and down and hollered.

My grandfather rushed through his screen door with a huge wooden stick, charging right into the pack of dogs. His voice boomed. The span of his broad back widened. Dust rose as high as his cheekbones. And just as quickly as they had come, the dogs retreated.

Living in Eastern Circle and being under Dada’s watchful eye were one and the same. Stories from my family and neighbors about his acts of rescue were varied: Dada found a finger that had been severed and flung into the grass. Dada caught the pregnant woman flying down a flight of stairs. Dada arrived a moment before the bully threw his first punch. And even if you hadn’t heard any of the stories or spent time hanging out with him on his porch you knew his garden.

The twenty rows of fruits and vegetables stood out from everything around it. The projects’ two-story brick apartment buildings looked identical. Each one had six apartments, all with the same white metal screen door. The garden broke up the monotony; its shades of emerald, ruby red, burnt orange, and gold deepened with the day’s changing light; from week to week, buds spread and leaves unfurled. Even the dirt, raked and moist, yielded variation: smooth stones broken into bits, tiny sand crystals, dark clay.

People came by the house just to be near it.

I lived up the hill from my grandparents with my mother and brother. Whenever I walked to my grandparents’ house Dada’s garden slowly came into view: tomato plants wrapped around branches, yellow squash tucked between leaves, eggplant suspended from vines like dark half moons. The last time I visited him I was a teenager and his work from the morning had left its mark. The loosened soil and watered roses buds gave the yard a sweet, earthy smell.

We sat on the porch and dealt with matters big and small, like what kind of grades I had earned during my freshman year of high school and what he thought of my new boyfriend. He didn’t go on and on about what needed to be done or spin corny homilies like do your best or be careful. It wasn’t his style, plus he liked to hear me talk. He thought all my words lined up just right, even my beginner’s Spanish. So with great exaggeration I shook my mouth loose and told him to repeat after me: azul, marron, dorado, violeta. Raising only one of his eyebrows and clearing his throat, he asked me if I was ready. I pretended to think about it before I nodded. He didn’t speak Spanish, but he like to put on a show, so he gave a lot of weight to each word and rolled his r’s way too long. I leaned into his shoulder and laughed.

I’ve come back to Eastern Circle because my memories of my grandfather rest here and even though it’s been over twenty years since I lived in the projects I’ve never found a place that felt so much like home. My grandparents moved into the development the first year it opened, in 1960, and four generations of my family have settled on this land. Sometimes I conjure up the neighborhood as more mythical than real, and I let my memories have their way, because there is an understanding to be gained in the mythical too—a way to get at a truth that can’t be reached any other way.

When my family lived in Eastern Circle it was one tight-knit neighborhood. Twenty-one apartment buildings and one hundred and twenty black families all held together by the circle: a ring-shaped street in the center of the projects. Now walkways and signs divide buildings into distinct sections. And the porches flanked by two white columns look separate from everything around them. The kids have fewer places to gather, too: most of the grass fields have been replaced by concrete. The neighborhood seems like a scattering of apartments with nothing at its center.

As I come closer to the building where my grandparents used to live, a strange sensation comes over me. It’s not a feeling of dread or anxiety, but something else. I’m trying to understand exactly what’s happening as the past comes into view: their front door, the porch, the two living room windows, the small dirt yard. I think I expected to feel only one thing when I got to their old apartment—comfort or distress, certainty or confusion—but I’m experiencing the pleasures of my childhood and the pain of my teenage years all at once.

A couple of days after sitting with my grandfather on his porch and laughing at his showmanship I made a decision that I’m desperate to undo. I spotted my mother’s journal on our stairway; it was brown with musical notes on the cover and for the first time ever I picked it up. I was searching for an answer, about how to deal with my feelings or at least understand them. Flipping through the pages I found the day, June 11, 1987.

My mother had only written: My father died.

I convinced myself that those words were enough. Dada had been shot and killed while breaking up a fight. I figured the only way to survive losing him was through restraint. I didn’t talk about him to my friends, I wouldn’t put up any photos that had him in them, and I’ve still never been to visit his grave—all a feeble attempt to move forward.

After Dada died and after I had left Eastern Circle for college, a mural went up in the projects. It was spray painted on the side of one of the apartment buildings, not far from where my grandparents used to live. The guys from the Circle chipped in to pay a graffiti artist from another neighborhood to paint it. The letters R.I.P. were huge and around it were the names of a handful of residents who had been killed. Like my best friend’s brother who was nineteen years old and found shot to death in a nearby park. The mural was large enough to be seen from the circular street in the center of the projects, which was where I stood. I could make out Dada’s name easily: James Allen Jr.

I thought it was nice of the guys to include Dada since his death wasn’t a part of all that had happened. He had been killed right around the time that coke and heroin bowed down to crack, when users became addicts, and small guns were put aside for Glocks. The guys in Eastern Circle became the East View Posse to set themselves apart from the other gangs in the city. All these years later I’ve found out that the fight my grandfather was breaking up was between them and outsiders. At one time Eastern Circle, nestled away from the rest of New Haven, afforded us a safety we couldn’t count on anywhere else. But it also meant that when drugs and guns flooded city streets we were on our own.

I look toward the brick wall that the mural had been painted on—the wall is still there, but of course, the mural isn’t. I wander further up the hill taking in everything that’s been revamped or done away with and wonder what it takes for an entire neighborhood to change course.

Twenty years after my grandfather’s murder all the residents were made to leave Eastern Circle, and a demolition began. Nine apartment buildings came down and even part of the street that made up the circle was broken apart and carted off. What was left was built back up. Since my grandfather’s death I’ve tried to start over, too, but have managed it in only fits and starts.

From my vantage point at the top of the hill I can see all the changes the housing authority has made to make the projects safer. Their office is very visible—as are the security cameras attached to the side of buildings—and the circular street was cut off because they figured it made it easy for people buying drugs to come in and out. At one time, the circle felt like a symbol for our lives in the projects. But maybe with its allusions to peace and harmony, it had promised too much.

The name of the street leading into the projects has been changed, too. Later I find out that it was named after Levi Jackson, who grew up in New Haven. In 1946 he enrolled at Yale University and joined its football team as its first black player.

Eastern Circle is now Jackson Lane.

Renaming the street establishes a new beginning for New Haven and for the projects, and I understand the impulse to sever the past, to uproot it completely. But even so, some things remain: there’s still so much sky and the smell, of bluegrass and dandelions, is the same. And of course in the distance I can see East Rock, an ancient ridge of sandstone that shoots up three hundred feet in the air. Its brown ridges can be seen from anywhere in the projects. I’ve never been to the top, but I know that people go up there to take in a view of the city: the New Haven Harbor feeding into the Long Island Sound, the downtown office towers, the grand arches of Yale, the railroad tracks and lines of trains. From where I’m standing I can see the monument that rests on the highest summit of East Rock, a tribute to soldiers who gave their lives in war.

The city, like the nation, stamps the past with one battle or another. Statues are built to remember the fallen, to honor sacrifices, to recognize all the terrible losses, and I think there should be a marker for those who died in Eastern Circle, something more lasting than the mural that was painted on the brick wall.

I can’t imagine a shrine or a heroic bust but I can envision a stone pillar etched with the story of what happened—an acknowledgment of the drug epidemic that swept the country and ravaged our community. It would make it harder for the violence to be forgotten, or denied, or justified, or diminished. I’d hold it in my mind as a stark contrast to all the monuments that put forward the idea that American splendor and victories serve everyone to the same degree. Throughout the country, in housing projects like Eastern Circle, the landscapes could be dotted with the pillars dedicated to those who died and those who survived. Each one, a record and a reminder.

Catina Bacote’s nonfiction has appeared in Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, The Common, The Sun, Southern California Review, and Trace: Transcultural Styles + Ideas. Her work has been supported by the Ann Cox Chambers Long-form Journalism Fellowship from MacDowell Colony, the Alice Judson Hayes Social Justice Fellowship from Ragdale, and other residencies. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and is an assistant professor of creative writing at Warren Wilson College.