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A trove of 1980s snapshots from the Cambridge housing projects

The photos that teens took of one another tell a story of happy times together.

Tzigane West in the 1980s in Cambridge.
Tzigane West in the 1980s in Cambridge.The Community Art Center

The photos in this essay, mostly taken during the 1980s, are stored among hundreds, possibly thousands, of photos and negatives at the Community Art Center in Cambridge, near Kendall Square. A few were gifts from former Art Center students.

Children living in and around Cambridge's Newtowne Court and Washington Elms public housing projects have been photographing their lives and neighborhood since 1966. The Art Center provided cameras and photography classes.

The Art Center's old photos are almost all undated. Some decades are far better documented than others. Few photos include a photographer's name, and the only way to identify the people in them is to show them to those who grew up in the neighborhood. The Art Center and its former students are taking up this work now. They are eager to reconnect with other alums and turn up more photos.

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The Community Art Center

This is Richard Harding in 1986 or '87, when he was in the eighth or ninth grade. Printed photos of neighborhood kids, like this one, were hot items. "You had to spend real time," Harding said. "If you wanted to see your photos, you had to develop them – transfer the negatives. You had to put it through the little pans. You had to pick it up. You had to dry it. Wait for your turn in the darkroom.

"In our day, it was a big deal," he said. "Believe it."

Today Harding is a member of the Cambridge School Committee.

The Community Art Center

One of the Gardinier twins — either Colin or Dana — has an unidentified boy in a headlock. Colin says it's Dana. Val Postell, who's almost certain he took this picture, believes it's Colin, and others agree. But it was always hard to tell the twins apart: They were identical, and they were always together.

Dana died in July 2005, at the age of 33. "Dana had a heart murmur from birth," said friend Tyrone Bellitti, who also grew up in the projects, "but he loved life, and he loved to live it."

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The Community Art Center

Tico Garcia (left) plays basketball with his twin, Daco Garcia, while Rainier Rosado looks on. More often than not, Daco was called "Taco."

"Tico Taco. They called them Tico Taco," said Rosado. "It was like yelling, Tico Taco!"

Sabrina Postell

April Postell with her first boyfriend, Brian Gomes. Their eighth-grade romance didn't last, but they remained friends. Postell became a preschool teacher as an adult. Her own four sons have heard her many stories about Newtowne Court. "If I'd had the chance to raise my children there," Postell said, "I would have."

Her sister, Sabrina Postell, took this photo.

The Community Art Center

Three families are represented in this photo, taken in the yard at Newtowne Court. Karen Kilburn has her hand on Echa Mojica-Lullanda's shoulder. Echa's little sister, Jessica, is standing on the right. Val Postell is holding Karen's daughter, Lisa.

"We all helped each other grow up," Postell said. "I loved them all, and they loved me."

Susan Richards

"I had a child, so I had to drop out of school," said Karen Kilburn. "I was 15." Her Art Center photography teacher, Susan Richards, started a special class for moms, but Kilburn was the only student. Richards took this photo of her.

"I don't think people know how much [the Art Center] meant to us young kids growing up in the projects," Kilburn said. "It was the one place that we could go and feel that someone cared."

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The Community Art Center

Tzigane West didn't have to see this portrait of himself as a teen to remember everything about it. He grew up in the projects in the 1980s. After the police caught him painting one of his graffiti designs on a public wall, Art Center teacher Susan Richards asked him to come paint a wall in the basement of the projects.

"Once I figured out what was really going on, I was down there every day," West said. "You didn't have to worry about the world taking a snap at you in the Art Center."

The Community Art Center/The Community Art Center Inc. vi

Eddie Cruz, hand forward, is shown DJing his first-ever paid gig in the summer of 1985 at Newtowne Court. Ricky Phillips is on the right. Cruz positioned his table so that Ranelle Garro would see him from her apartment window. They loved each other that day, but it took them nearly a decade to come together, and later marry.

"My kids have heard me tell the story so many times," said Cruz. "They're like, 'Yeah Dad. You set up your turntables so Mom could see you.' " Thirty years later, Cruz continues to DJ events for his neighborhood friends.

The Community Art Center/The Community Art Center Inc. vi

Ranelle Cruz, nee Garro, with a heart sticker on her forehead, at about the time future husband Eddie Cruz fell in love with her.

The Community Art Center

Robert Vass (center) is up at bat in a game of stickball. On the wall behind him is a hand-painted X. "We had that everywhere, all over the buildings," Tico Garcia said. "It was called a 'Box X.' " Since most kids couldn't afford baseballs and bats, they used tennis balls and broomsticks.

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"It was good to play with a tennis ball that was a little wet. That's how you would know if it hit the wall," said Rainier Rosado. "If you hit it over the laundry area," added Garcia, "it was a home run."

The Community Art Center/The Community Art Center Inc. vi

Kids watch as two boys play a game of four square. Other pastimes in the yard at Newtowne Court included double Dutch, basketball, stickball, baseball, roller skating, break dancing, and wheelie-popping competitions on bikes.

Tyrone Bellitti

Tyrone Bellitti took this photo of Arnaldo "Nando" Burgos and Tico Garcia. "Tico . . . he loved basketball, and we would rig basketball nets all over the projects," Bellitti said. "This was made of PVC, and we stuck a hoop on the top of it and then strapped it to the fence."

Bellitti pointed to the boy on the left. "And this is Nando," he said. "Rest in peace, Nando."

Ariel Colon has had trouble sleeping since Nando, his brother, died in April 2014. They grew up in Newtowne Court. "I was just telling my mom," said Colon, remembering the old photo, "I wish I could turn back time and live it all over again."

Rainier Rosado

David (left) and Roberto Ortiz are shown on the steps leading down to the Art Center — a maze of rooms in the basement of their housing project — in a photo taken by Rainier Rosado around 1979. One room had a pottery kick wheel. In another, kids stored industrial scraps they'd collected from local factories. There was a theater room, a kitchen, and a cook. In a room called "The Hugger," kids played on a giant sculpture of a human hand that was made out of tires. "When you were having a bad day, you could go in there," David Ortiz said.

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The Ortiz brothers and their friends painted a mural on this stairwell wall when they were kids, some 30 years ago. The Art Center has since moved across the street, and the wall has been painted over in white. Roberto Ortiz has passed away. But when the sun is shining, the outlines of their old mural still show through.

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For decades, teens from Cambridge public housing documented the neighborhood


Alexa Mills is a Boston-area writer. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.