Samantha Juliano is used to the reaction that typically comes when she tells people she’s from Old Colony.
Oh, you live in the projects?
“No. I live in a town house,” the 23-year-old replies. Roughly half of Old Colony, one of the oldest public housing developments in Boston, has had its old brick housing units replaced with sleek town houses. Juliano, who has lived in Old Colony since she was 7, said the new buildings have changed the public’s perceptions.
“People view you not as a ‘project rat,’ ” she said. “You’re a member of the community.”
And being part of a community was the focus of Old Colony’s annual Unity Day Saturday afternoon, where about 250 housing development residents enjoyed free food, face painting, and the chance to meet their neighbors in the lot outside Perkins Elementary School in South Boston.
Juliano was the winner of the Unity Party Cook-Off. Her batch of barbecued chicken snagged first place and made Boston Housing Authority administrator Bill McGonagle let out an “Oh yeah!” when he took his first saucy bite.
McGonagle said Unity Day “is a celebration of diversity” in the Boston Housing Authority’s communities. “You see so many different races and ethnicities here today,” he said.
Residents such as Phyllis Corbit, president of the Old Colony Tenant Task Force, remembers when the community was not diverse. She has lived in Old Colony for more than 40 years. The complex was built in the early 1940s.
“It used to be all Irish,” Corbit said.
She struggled to recall a year when a Unity Day was not held and said they have been a staple in the community for decades.
“You get to meet your neighbors and learn about who’s in your community,” she said.
Residents chatted, had ice cream cones, and watched children kick and scream “kiai” during a martial arts demonstration.
The Perkins School lot sits in a central spot in the development and provides a good vantage point for viewing the change the community has undergone, McGonagle said.
“The thing about this development is that you can compare,” McGonagle said with the old brick buildings behind him and the crop of new homes facing him.
The housing authority is in the process of securing funding to replace the remainder of the old housing units, McGonagle said. By 2012, a slew of new homes and a 10,000-square-foot learning center were in place.
“It’s nice not to see so many brick walls,” said Jessica Harris, a six-year resident who brought her two sons to Unity Day; Jonathan, 8, was sporting blue panther face paint as he waited in line for ice cream.
Other housing authority developments, such as Franklin Field in Dorchester and Alice Taylor in Roxbury, have Unity Days during the summer, too, McGonagle said. Old Colony’s festivities were the first of this season.
The Old Colony area does have a troubled past. James “Whitey’’ Bulger grew up nearby in another public housing development, and for years he controlled operations at the former South Boston Liquor Mart across the street from the Old Colony development.
But many residents see the future as bright and say their community is safe.
Some residents “hear ‘projects’ and don't want to come out their doors,” said Debbie Martin, who has lived in Old Colony for more than 30 years. But she thinks events like Saturday’s help bring people together and build trust in the community.
“They should do it twice a year,” she said.Sara DiNatale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @sara_dinatale.