Real estate


Public housing was the best place imaginable for me

Ross MacDonald for The Boston Globe

I lived in the best place imaginable for a young child: teeming with kids, a swing set, and endless potential for play. In the post-World War II era, between 1954 and 1958, we lived in a veterans project in Chelsea.

There was no stigma to residing in the projects. Our four-room apartment was across the hall from one just like it. The mom across the hall had six kids. There was probably a dad, too, but most of us never saw the dads back then. They went to work and often came home after our bedtimes.

My parents hated the projects with the congestion and the lack of privacy, but they were affordable for a former teacher (she had to quit teaching as soon as she became pregnant with me because that’s how it was in the early 1950s) and a daytime Checker cabdriver/nighttime law student.


There was a trash chute in the hallway, and it was so much fun to pull the handle and dispose of unwanted items. I imagined my former belongings traveling to China (that’s where my father always said I was digging to when we went to the beach, so I figured that’s where stuff sent down cavernous holes ended up).

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We had a concrete yard where great puddles formed after the rain. Sometimes, tadpoles inhabited those puddles. The older kids told us we would get warts if we tried to pick them up. Also in that concrete space was a swing set where I screamed to be pushed “Higher, higher!” as I wanted to reach the top of that huge apartment complex where we lived.

I could walk to Grandma and Grandpa’s house: My mother would look out the kitchen window high above the ground and nod when it was OK for her 5-year-old daughter to cross the street; Grandma would wait on the back piazza of her two-family house around the corner and watch me walk over. No one worried in those days about little girls walking alone while Mom watched from one end and Grandma received on the other.

The women lugged their laundry baskets from the basement to the roof of that tall building where the clotheslines were, and we kids played tag among the flapping sheets.

During the polio epidemic of 1955, I was confined indoors. My parents were terrified of contagion, so I was reduced to watching Miss Jean’s “Romper Room” or peering out the window and looking at other kids playing on that swing set and in those puddles. If your mom sent in a Prince spaghetti box top, Miss Jean would look in her magic mirror and say your name through that TV with the rabbit ears.


My parents fulfilled their American dream of owning a home: In 1958, we moved to Malden. By then, I was sharing my bedroom with a baby brother, although I didn’t realize that we were “cramped.” I was disappointed by how few kids lived on my new street.

Recently, I took a ride to Chelsea to look at my first home. I was shocked when I saw that that huge apartment complex was only two stories high and the “street” I used to cross to walk to my grandparents was merely a driveway. The memories, however, remain undiminished.

Deena Mesnick Siegel is a writer who lives in Needham, where she is pretty sure that no home sports a clothesline on its roof. Send comments to and a 550-word essay on your first home to Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.