The Canyon

Scenes from the Scott Homes -- the mamas, the kids, the babies, the fight for dignity, the pall of despair

There were times in Jacqui's tidy living room when it seemed the shared indignity of all their lives might be shouldered together, that the Christian rhetoric drilled at them during long-ago sermons might actually stick. Jacqui Colyer was that juiced. She was a tall woman, even taller than Ruby, and she held a powerful position: chief of Resident Services for all of Dade County HUD.

As a child Jacqui had lived in Scott Homes for three years, until her family saved enough money to move out. Her father had known James E. Scott himself, the army captain for whom Dade's second-largest project, constructed astride NW 22nd Avenue between 67th and 74th streets, was named. Scott was a stern man who ruled Dade's first project, Liberty Square, with an iron fist. His response to residents who refused to respect the rules was simple: He removed the front door from their unit.

Jacqui knew the purpose of public housing was to help the poor hoist themselves into the middle class. But when she visited Scott's jumble of 750 one- and two-story units, she saw a vast colony of dependence, drug boys marching off to prison, teenage girls raising children on government handouts, the older mamas tracing the indolent circles of kept lives. Of Scott's 3000 inhabitants, half were children. Most residents referred to the project by name. But some had a nickname for their Liberty City home. They called it The Canyon.

In April 1994, Jacqui moved with her husband and child from a lakefront home to Scott because she wanted to understand what had gone wrong, and how it might be made right.

Here is what she noticed: Most of the social programs in Scott were aimed at kids. Former football star Charles Jackson, for instance, ran a program limited to those ten and younger, his belief being that anyone older was pretty much a lost cause. To Jacqui it was obvious the mamas were the key. In a community of transience, they were the constant, the only possible source of authority.

So she began inviting them over to talk. Doris was a regular, and Tammy. And Sue, always threatening to brain her daughter, Bettina, a twenty-year-old who still sucked her thumb and was so pregnant she looked as if she had swallowed a beach ball. For a few hours each Thursday, the women vented the resentments that crowded their lives, and Jacqui would urge them, over and over, to treat one another with dignity, hoping dignity might trickle down.

The women admired Jacqui, respected her guts, praised her advice, and brought her plates of pigeon peas and rice. After each meeting, they returned home to their penny-ante feuds and dirty floors and for a few minutes rose above them, while Jacqui entertained the notion that her program made a difference and might be carried on after she left. She had dreamed of staying a year in Scott, but was gone by early June.

Tammy sucked at a chicken wing and wiped her hands on a napkin and announced she was going to Georgia. "They got some green hills up there, some country roads," she said, smacking her lips.

From inside her unit came a series of crashes and the sound of a child crying.

"Mikey!" she bellowed. "What you doin' in there?" There was an abrupt silence. Doris, who was over for the afternoon, started laughing.

Tammy had six children, all boys, aged four to twenty. All were thickly built like her and had perfectly round faces. The two eldest, Sherman and Sherwood, had just gotten up, and every few minutes they padded out to the porch to make their presence known and to watch the young girls pass by. "I'm glad my lady up in Lauderdale," observed Sherman, whose lady was pregnant. "'Cause I can get me some here."

Both he and Sherwood had lengthy records. Their most recent arrests, for armed robbery, had spurred HUD officials to seek Tammy's eviction. So Georgia it is, she said, and her gold teeth glinted in the sun.

The first gold tooth had been given to Tammy by her mama, and it was carved with the initials of the man who gave her six boys and her second gold tooth. He had been 35 when he became intimate with Tammy, who was 14 at the time. Tammy knew he had other children because they came around her place, but she didn't know for sure he was married until he died three years ago and she saw his death certificate.

"He spent time with all them," Tammy said. "I feel sorry for the ones round here that don't know they daddy. But all my boys know they daddy. Little Chedrick may have a little doubt, but the others know. He took care of his children. All them get Social Security."

Indeed, compared to her neighbors, Tammy was a wealthy lady. She received nearly $1200 per month from various programs. Her rent was the public-housing standard: 30 percent of her adjusted income. But because she had so many dependents, none of whom worked (officially anyway), the bill for her four-bedroom unit came to about $200 per month.

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