Powerful Photos Show What Life In The Projects Is Really Like

Photo: Courtesy of powerHouse Books.
As of January 2015, over 403,000 people call the New York City housing projects home; another 212,000 live in semi-privatized public housing (where the city pays landlords to provide affordable residences). Year after year, headlines continue to highlight New York's enduring affordable housing crisis: particularly the city's lack of available units for low-income families. And, while we hear about the median rent in New York rising 11% in just seven years; the absurdly-high amount of applicants for an absurdly-low number of new housing developments; and Mayor de Blasio's just-announced plans for improvement, we rarely hear from the actual tenants who call these sometimes dangerous and frequently run-down places home.

In 2010, photographers George Carrano, Chelsea Davis, and Jonathan Fisher founded Developing Lives, a nonprofit program encouraging project residents to explore their creative sides — and provide realistic insight into a subject that is normally only seen through the lens of journalists or filmmakers. Five years later, the work (and narratives) of some of these participants —  from 72-year-old Nancy Morales, who has lived in public housing for over 30 years, to Aaliyah Cohen, an 11-year-old Manhattanville resident who's never lived anywhere else — has been compiled into an incredibly moving book. 

Project Lives,
 allows readers to "journey into a world [they've] never seen, invisible because these images of the New York projects don't have sensationalist appeal," its introduction explains. "Anyone living in the New York projects has absorbed much of what life can throw at people. But none of our photographers, not even the seniors lamenting that things used to be better back when, take this opportunity to complain, but rather simply demonstrate pride in their homes and in their lives."

These images, and their accompanying text, are "less of an accusation than a plea for change," the trio says. The pictures also serve as an unbiased, unfiltered look at life in New York's housing projects, at a time when living conditions have never been more shocking.
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Photo: Courtesy of powerHouse Books.
"I love how when I'm in the school, hallways are so quiet when I walk through, it's just great because you can just hear yourself think about how you are going to plan once you get in class. Just stay focused on what's around you," writes 11-year-old Aaliyah Colon. "Last week I asked God if he could help me love my enemies for who they are, even though they tease me and bully me, to help me try my hardest to do good in school, and to bless everybody in the community center," who she considers her family.
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"Mi esposo y yo antes de casados, el tiene 20 años y yo 16 años (My husband and I before we were married, he is 20 and I am 16)," Alina Navarro explains. Her daughter, Rosi, her son-in-law, Adolfo, and their children all live in the Fort Independence Houses in the Bronx.
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"We roam around this spontaneous block sticking together as brothers. Yet we are cousins," explains 12-year-old Jared Wellington, whose mother grew up in the same complex.
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"Do I really have to go to church this morning?" Margaret Wells captions this image, taken in her home in Harlem's Manhattanville development. Despite ongoing expansion by Columbia University, she says her buildings still "stand regal in the community."
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"On Christmas, I photograph my cat and I dance with my cat," writes Susana Ortiz, who lives with her numerous pets (she also has a turtle). "She likes that I dance and I feel content. She is as happy as a person. I love my cat."
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"Cloud formations. Impending rain," says Sheik Bacchus, capturing natural beauty amidst the urban grit of the Manhattanville Houses.
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Photo: Courtesy of powerHouse Books.
"I like living here because I get my grandma to cook for me," writes Elodie Jean-Baptiste, whose entire family lives in the building. "When I stood right near my grandma [pictured here] while she was looking at basketball she told me, 'Pa fe sa tout tan anko sod si mwen gen rad bon pour mwen,' she said, 'Don't do that ever again unless I have good clothes on me.'"
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Wellington's outlook on life is incredibly powerful for such a young boy: "The neighborhood I am in is so surprising," he writes. "Anything can happen, good or bad. The sun rises on our faces."
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Photo: Courtesy of powerHouse Books.
"Remember when the ball field was a dust bowl?" Wells reflects on the playground she grew up with. "Now paved, kids love to play basketball."
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