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What I Learned Growing Up in a Bronx Housing Project

One of the great ironies of the last few weeks is that while my Harvard-educated wife (BA and JD) had classmate acquaintances on the short list for the Supreme Court nominees, the ultimate nominee, Yale-educated Sonia Sotomayor was someone with whom I actually had a special connection: she and I both grew up in the same Bronxdale Housing Project at the same time.

At that time, in the 50’s, many of us saw the move to the new “Projects” as a step up. My family came from a tiny 2 room basement flat, and I saw our 6th floor Watson Ave. apartment as heaven! We got to play on new monkey bars and swings on the concrete play area – the grass was chained off – but it was better than playing in the street. Sonia has spoken to the media on how her upbringing informed her adulthood and her court decisions. Here’s a bit of what I learned:

No to Prejudice:
The projects were a melting pot, and at my level (kids), we were indeed all equal. I developed first hand the evidence to reject the shocking and hateful first generation American xenophobia and bigotry that I heard from my parents and their friends. When you are taught “filters”, trying to be completely egalitarian is work, but it is worth it!

No to Elitism: The people I went to school with who dressed better, my cousins whose families owned houses, weren’t better than me. Poor is as poor does (to paraphrase Forrest Gump). We all put our pants on one leg at a time. This has helped me to never be intimidated in business.

Work Pays: People who worked hard moved up. I got my first job at age 11, working in a butcher shop (probably illegal), and the day I turned 12 I signed up to deliver the NY Post, a much classier and cleaner job! I always had money in my pocket that I earned, and the resulting work ethic has served me well.

Direct Communication: In my neighborhood, no one tiptoed around the outside edges; we didn’t invest too much time in “being polite.” We told it like it was; recognizing that there were consequences (but also much value) from being candid. I call the result of this learning “Bullseye Communication.”

Attitude is Everything: I’ve quoted Victor Frankl before, who famously said, “Everything can be taken away from a man except the last of human freedoms, the freedom to chose one’s own attitude.” Thinking As If you will succeed goes a long way to ensuring success. Just from looking around and seeing what worked and what didn’t work, I knew I’d go to college and be a professional, even before I got to the 6th grade.

I’m proud to have grown up in Bronxdale, and in other poor neighborhoods in the Bronx, and to have learned from the experiences. I do think those experiences are valuable in a Supreme Court justice too! Growing up poor, living in a diverse community and having first hand knowledge of the struggles and triumphs of those striving to emerge from poverty is indeed valuable, in any profession or way of life. For me, one significant result is that I can appreciate the little changes that happen for people, in their career especially, that can have a profound impact. Often I have the chance to help those changes along, and I value those contributions all the more.