Father Panik Village
( originally named: Yellow Mill Village)
(Note: The following article, from the March 3,
2005, edition of the Fairfield County Weekly,
is used here with the express permission of the author, Brita Brundage.)
It's difficult to find a reference to Father Panik Village that doesn't have the adjectives "notorious," "crime-ridden" and "drug-infested" strung ominously alongside it. The name of Bridgeport's former mammoth housing project conjures images that are the living nightmares of any city: crack dealers, prostitutes, heroin needles, broken windows--a blight of poverty seeping into surrounding neighborhoods, punctuated by the sound of exploding gunshot and wailing infants. That the 46-building affordable housing complex was built in 1939 as part of a nationwide effort to save the impoverished working class following the stock market crash and the Great Depression, as a place where parents might raise their children in dignity, grow vegetables out front and hang clothes on community lines until they could afford homes of their own, was all largely forgotten. The urban legend of Father Panik Village had consumed all else. The stories of the former residents, until now, had all but been snuffed out.
"I was inundated with people talking about the village," says Pearl Dowell-Young, president and CEO of Hall Neighborhood House, a large, one-story brick settlement house whose employees worked alongside the former Father Panik residents in Bridgeport's lower east side beginning in 1957. "We watched the village go from a nice place to live to a place that was demolished. We were there. We became a cornerstone of that community."
In fact, Hall Neighborhood House provided Father Panik's struggling residents with job training, college preparation and senior citizen services that the city should have, but didn't. Still, the stories Dowell-Young heard from residents over her 28 years at Hall Neighborhood House did not resemble the bleak pictures presented in sensationalized headlines of shootings and gang violence. They were stories of resilience and survival. "It helped them have good self-esteem, even though the environment was very negative," she says.
The public needed to hear the real-life narrative of the sixth-largest housing project in the nation, so some five years ago, Dowell-Young contacted PBS producer and playwright Ruth Sloane to capture the housing project's oral histories. She, in turn, began a quest for collecting the fond and sometimes tragic remembrances of more than 50 people who called Father Panik home for a docudrama play infused with music and dance, called simply, Father Panik Village: The Untold Story . The Southern-bred Sloane has a passion for history, and the Father Panik story, for her, was a microcosm of the larger cultural shifts happening around the country post-Black Tuesday; it was real, honest, and, overall, uplifting.
When the housing project was first opened in 1940, it was called Yellow Mill Village, and monthly rent averaged $19, a fee that included "light, heat and janitor service," according to the old Bridgeport Times-Star. Later, the property was renamed for Rev. Stephen J. Panik of Saints Cyril and Methodius Church, the first chairman of the Bridgeport Housing Authority under Bridgeport's 24-year-running Socialist mayor, Jasper McLevy. While the name "Panik" would in later years elicit a certain knowing chuckle due to its association with crime and degradation, in the early years Father Panik, the man, was associated with civic action in a way few clergymen are.
"No sermon is more effective than to take poor people out of dirt and filth and place them into sunshine," the Reverend is quoted as saying in a 1938 Bridgeport Post article. "Give them a little park and a little playground for their children and you have done more to increase their faith in mankind than all the sympathy and relief that is paid from each of our pockets with no appreciable results."
When Alfredo Ribot's family, with eight children, moved to Father Panik in 1950 from a cramped attic apartment on Coleman Street, they couldn't believe their good fortune.
"When we first moved in it was a beautiful, beautiful place," he says. "We had a vegetable garden and a fruit garden in front of our building. Each tenant had a little plot. And there was grass... there were many elderly in our building, building 44, which is right on Pembroke Street. Because we were a large family, we got a penthouse apartment, which had two floors there were three bedrooms on the second floor, we had two bathrooms, it was great. I loved it. We really were happy as children."
The Ribot's were the first Latino family in Father Panik, and lived there for 22 years, many of which were spent surrounded by the protective innocence of stickball games, marble tournaments, hitchhiking across the rickety wooden bridge to Pleasure Beach amusement park to spend pennies on cotton candy and carousel rides and delivering newspapers door-to-door. The community he describes is one in which the police were friendly helpers who encouraged good behavior, and even made it possible for Ribot to save some money.
"We had the Police Athletic League, a community based, police-community relations situation," Ribot, who is now 60, says. "In one of the apartments there, we had a meeting place where we would go and they basically worked with the kids. We got a shoeshine box, and were assigned a strategic corner every week, and we'd shine shoes and the cops would come by and pick up the money and deposit it in our savings account. It was a great thing; I remember saving quite a bit of money that way."
At 9:30 p.m., one officer known as "Al the Cop" would patrol all the buildings, reminding the kids of the 10 p.m. curfew. By that hour, says Ribot, "you could walk through there and it would be deserted."
A couple former Father Panik Village residents, 62-year-old Bert Ortiz and 59-year-old Dewey Barnett, now work at the Fairfield Post Office on Commerce Drive and recall a similar age of innocence in the housing project's early years. "It was crime-free," says Ortiz, whose family moved from Puerto Rico in 1949, and moved into Father Panik in the late '50s. "You could leave your windows open."
"People were a lot friendlier," Barnett agrees, "they might take a week and scrub the hallways, keep it clean. People looked out for each other."
"It wasn't an 'I' attitude," Ortiz says. "It was we.'"
Sloane, who has researched the lives of the residents extensively, recognized Father Panik as, initially, a place of great opportunity. There was no stigma associated with living in public housing at that time.
"The president [Franklin D. Roosevelt] was giving people a place to live that was decent, clean, with a beautiful exterior, flowers and trees. Most people understood it was an opportunity to bring their lives together and move out, not a place to stay 50 years."
For many, moving into cities like Bridgeport for the industrial and mill jobs from rural, segregated Southern areas, a place like Father Panik Village also represented a cultural melting pot the likes of which they'd never experienced. "It was an opportunity to learn and share each other's culture," Sloane says. "That opportunity hadn't presented itself before."
But as the cultural makeup of Father Panik started to change, there were clashes. Some of the families, as Ribot recalls, dwarfed his eight-children family, with one family, the Blackwells, having as many as 16 kids.
"They were huge, huge families," he says. "With all the children, the misbehavior started." He remembers that the Southern families, too, had different standards. "I loved going to their homes and eating their food," Ribot says, "but they were basically rural individuals, so their sense of things was somewhat different they tended to do things that were not that acceptable, like repair cars in the yard. That kind of took away from the aesthetics of the place."
During the 1960s, violent incidents were already beginning to erupt in the once-quiet village courtyards. According to early Connecticut Post articles, a policeman fired a warning shot into a large crowd there while investigating a broken window, and was later arrested for beating two unarmed men with his blackjack. Five men were arrested at the village for stoning a police officer in a 1963 incident. Three of the four Bridgeport slayings that year happened in the housing project. By 1968, there were articles detailing another clash with police, in which approximately 50 young people threw "rocks, bottle and firebombs at police and passersby" during a two-night spate of violence. Youth gangs had taken the place of stickball leagues, and "Al the Cop" wouldn't be able to usher them home to bed at night.
While the initial impetus for projects like Father Panik--to provide clean, attractive, affordable, transient dwellings for working-class families--was noble, the cost of removing problem tenants, maintaining the landscaping and repairing windows, pipes and elevators taxed the city's good will. It was cheaper, and easier, to pave over the grass, take down the community clotheslines and let the whole complex fall into disrepair. What once resembled a park, with trees and fields and flowers, had become a wasteland.
"The mid- to latter-'60s is when the gangs started and the violence started," says Ribot. "It was Father Panik against P.T. Barnum [another city housing project]. And the gangs would visit each other, it was just a horrible thing. Pot and drinking and all that started, where the kids really started becoming destructive."
The stories from those years are filled with despair, of residents afraid to leave their buildings for fear of being shot. By the '80s, four buildings came to be known as "The Hole," a constant hive of drug dealing and shoot-outs. Alfonzia Booker, the project's superintendent at the time, related to the Hartford Courant that children as young as 10 were selling marijuana and cocaine in parts of Father Panik. Poor residents who wanted a better life but couldn't afford one were trapped in conditions so miserable they eventually filed a class action lawsuit against the Bridgeport Housing Authority in 1987. They spoke of filthy hallways, lack of hot water, mice and fleas, junkies shooting up in the hallways and drug dealers taking over dozens of apartments that the Bridgeport Housing Authority kept vacant, allowing them to deteriorate to such deplorable levels that they would have to be demolished.
"These were people who suffered the social ills of an overpopulated environment," Sloane says. "There was no social service. If a family was burned out of their home, there was no one to help. Hall Neighborhood House really gave them a place to learn, to become upwardly mobile."
At Hall House, where Dowell-Young witnessed the deterioration of the housing project firsthand, she, too, points to a lack of social services and maintenance of the property as fundamental problems. "This area mirrored the rest of America," she says. "There was blight, it wasn't safe, and they lacked the access to services that others had. The dwellings deteriorated and there were basic concerns about human needs and quality of life."
While the increasingly miserable conditions fit the mold of public housing problems nationwide in cities like Chicago and Atlanta, what struck Sloane throughout her research-gathering was the resilience of the residents who called Father Panik home, their ability to survive and hang onto hope.
"It was one of the most violent high-rises on the East Coast," Sloane said. "But I discovered that they were very spiritual people. There were drug addicts who refused to let kids going to college participate [in drug activities]. I ran into a genius population--math teachers, science teachers--who were poor. These stories are not told, the quiet people there the girls who went to college and became social workers."
Oftentimes, the residents' stories intersected, and from these Sloane wrote characters for her play that represented composites of various individuals. Using 11 principal characters and many secondary ones, she wrote the play as a series of moments, with dance and music fusing those moments together. Father Panik Village: The Untold Story opens in 1933, following the collapse of the banking system. As Yellow Mill Village becomes Father Panik Village, the audience will hear B.B. King's "The Thrill is Gone," as actors stroll the stage, talking about how alive and vibrant their community was. A renowned Colorado-based choreographer, Cleo Parker Robinson, has crafted the dance portions of the play, allowing for fluidity and natural movement.
"Music and dance are part of the life of a plot," says Sloane. "They are a well-integrated part of the whole."
The dance will help to tell of the cultural experience of the project residents, as in the African dance piece "Harambee Fiesta," which suggests working together in a celebratory moment, and one about healing that Sloane says is a tribute to those children who drowned in the Yellow Mill River in their attempts to run across the ice, or build a boat out of a box.
The play, she says, "will move into a darker reality, but even in that reality, people had faith and succeeded over and above the odds."
Every year, former residents of Father Panik Village meet for reunions near the Yellow Mill River or at Seaside Park or the Holiday Inn, flying in from California, Georgia and Puerto Rico, connected via the Web and the East Enders Alumni Association in Bridgeport. The sense of family and friendship they found among those 46 brick buildings has been a constant sense of comfort throughout their lives.
"It was a camaraderie there, that has lasted through today," says Barnett. "How many times do you hear about a place that got torn down having reunions every year?"
Where Father Panik Village once rose in high-rises across 40 acres of Bridgeport's East End, there now stand contemporary capes and colonials with brightly colored vinyl siding. Each fits on an orderly, treeless plot of land. A nearby forlorn-looking playground is vacant on a winter day. The modern, suburban-looking stretch overlooking the icy gray river seems to hold no memory of the vibrant community of people that once gathered outside playing games and listening to doo-wop, hanging their laundry and sleeping outside on humid summer nights.
By 1993, the last of Father Panik's residents--some 300 families, down from the 5,000 who once lived in the complex--faced relocation. An expensive demolition followed, and then a federal investigation that netted not only the city's Mayor Joe Ganim but also the developers Alfred Lenoci Sr. and Jr., who were to be awarded the contract for rebuilding the site. What began as an urban initiative to counteract slums ended with a city becoming one of the nation's worst slumlords, and the perception of housing projects as a place of fear, neglect and mismanagement. Perhaps, onstage, Sloane will help reshape the themes of that story, reflecting not only the hard struggles experienced by former residents of Father Panik Village, but also, more importantly, their enduring pride.
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