Not-So-Bleak House

Cleveland's public-housing projects brought blight. And hope.

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Louise Harris, great-grandmother, hell-raiser. - Walter  Novak
Louise Harris, great-grandmother, hell-raiser.
Louise Harris can't help it if she's popular. "You know what, baby?" she declares from her easy chair. "Everywhere I go, people like me. I don't know why they like me. Sometimes, I can't stand myself."

Here are a few guesses: People like her because she's 76 years old and swears like a sailor. Or they like her because she planted tulips in their front yard. Or because, when their kitchen faucet's broken for damn near two weeks, she'll "get in people's butts" to get it fixed.

"Miss Harris is good at telling people what to do," says Ward 5 Councilman Frank Jackson, Harris's friend for 15 years. "If she recognizes something that needs to be done, she doesn't hesitate to give out orders."

A sturdy woman who calls kids "itty-bitties," Harris has lived in Carver Park Estates -- a blocky brick public-housing complex with a fancy name -- for most of her life. She didn't plan it that way.

"Girl, I'm 'shamed to tell you, I been here so long," says the sassy great-grandmother of 51 itty-bitties, who's twice a widow. "I think I'm the oldest thing right around here. I moved in here in '48 in August, and I been here ever since. Lord, I coulda bought this place."

After World War II, when the population of Cleveland was still growing, the city was building up its public-housing projects. "You see, in Cleveland back then, there wasn't no decent place for a family," says Harris. Especially a working-class family on the East Side.

Now, the trend is toward tearing the projects down. But that doesn't change the lives people made there.

A mother of three when she moved in, Harris didn't want her children growing up in a boarding house. "If you had children, [public housing] was the best," she says. "It was fireproof. There weren't nothing to burn except your furniture, so you didn't worry. That's what most people did, because they had families."

She ended up having eight kids. "That's too many," she says. "And I wasn't gonna have no children. I was gonna be a dancer." She married young, "But see, there weren't no birth controls then, and your parents didn't wanna talk sex."

Before 1968, public housing was racially segregated, so Harris wasn't allowed to live in a West Side estate like Riverview on West 25th Street or Riverside on Rocky River Drive.

That wasn't the case for Mattie King, who's 55 and works as a lunch aide at Newton D. Baker Elementary School. King and her four children moved to Riverside Estates in the mid-1980s, after the racial barriers had been lifted.

"My sister always told me, 'Baby, with your children, you should move into CMHA,'" King recalls. But she dreaded raising them in the East Side complexes, "where everybody's stacked on top of you."

At Riverside -- a grassy, renovated military barracks in the runway line of Hopkins airport -- she had her own little house with a lawn to mow. "I was so excited," she says. "My kids had a yard.

"When I first moved here, I was like a little kid running from one door to another, looking at the planes. I used to time 'em and write down their names." In the evenings, she'd keep the shades up so she could see their little red lights.

King's children are grown now, but she still lives in Riverside. Neighbors call her "Mom" or "Grandma," because she's been there so long and volunteers as a bus monitor.

"I never had a problem making friends," she says below the roar of a jetliner flying so close, she can practically wave to the passengers.

Neither woman thought she would live in public housing for more than six months. For Harris, the hard times never completely went away. Her second husband was murdered by robbers, and the paycheck she earned as a housekeeper didn't stretch very far.

"In the '60s, people got better jobs and moved out of the projects," she says. "Most of my friends moved out. But the thing about it was, they moved out and had to move back in. They couldn't afford what they was paying in housing."

Day care consisted of the neighbors taking turns watching each other's kids. "We was very close," Harris says. "And we had lots going."

She even joined the Carver Park Mothers' Club, where the women exchanged recipes, made crafts, and did a little landscaping. "I think a house ain't good without flowers," Harris says. "It make a home."

On Friday nights, families gathered on the lawn or at the community center. "We used to barbecue for the kids, and we'd put the record player on so they could dance. They enjoyed theirselves. We used to have a maintenance service on weekends, so we'd let them clean up."

Harris got so famous for telling people what to do that, in 1990, she was appointed to the board of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, which oversees places like Carver Park.

One of only two board members who actually live in public housing, she's been given many plaques and awards, which she artfully displays on a shelf next to the TV. Mayor Mike White even gave her the key to the city once.

"I don't have the key to the city up there," she says, noting it's in a box somewhere. "It's so ugly, it's messing with my other stuff."

One of her self-imposed duties has been touring every single public-housing complex -- including the West Side projects that were once whites-only. Even after she'd toured them all, she still preferred Carver Park.

"My kids wanted to get me out of here," she says, adding that most of her offspring now live in Cleveland Heights. "Come and live with them. They tell me, 'You so crazy about this place. If you was to die, we'd have to put one of them bricks in your coffin.'"

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