on the 50th anniversary of clason point gardens

CLASON POINT GARDENS JOURNAL; For 50 Years a Home, a Real Home
Published: August 6, 1992

A SWAMPLAND that separated the Clason Point Gardens housing development from the Bronx River 50 years ago has long been drained, and the nearby mom-and-pop stores are also long gone -- replaced by the sort of high-rises that have given public housing a bad name.

But Clason Point Gardens, the first public housing project built in the Bronx, remains to this day, remarkably, what it was meant to be a half-century ago: a good place to raise a family, and something of an oasis from the hubbub that surrounds it. With its low-slung structures that provided every family with a tiny plot of land, Clason Point Gardens was a piece of the suburbs in the city.

As they marked the golden anniversary of their community a few days ago, some residents of Clason Point Gardens said they can't imagine living anywhere else.

"I always loved it because it was like having your own little house," said Sophie Schottler, who moved into the development in the southeast Bronx in 1942 with her husband and two children, one of them an infant. Mrs. Schottler had an afternoon's worth of memories about her children -- there were four of them eventually -- playing in the courtyards with other children, and the mothers who all knew one another didn't worry about them as they went about their housework.

Mrs. Schottler's children are grown and moved away now, and much else has changed about Clason Point.

The 43 whitewashed cinderblock buildings were built to house the families of servicemen coming back from or going off to World War II. In a brown-toned photograph of the dedication of the community in 1942, the ladies gathered around a stage of speechmakers are wearing suits with stiff shoulder pads and hats on their upswept hair. The men are dressed in coat and tie. Everyone is white.

On Saturday afternoon, at a gathering to celebrate Clason Point's 50th anniversary, the sounds of a salsa band on a mobile stage poured out into the summer air. Later, a group of teen-agers wearing matching T-shirts that said "The Power of Love" crooned gospel songs.

Today, about 40 percent of the 1,020 residents of Clason Point Gardens are black, and another 40 percent are of Puerto Rican descent, according to the New York City Housing Authority, which operates the development.

"Everybody else moved out, but I was happy here," Mrs. Schottler said of her neighbors from the early days. As the population of the Bronx and the rest of the city was changing in the 50's and 60's, a generation of Clason Point families moved away, to the suburbs, to Co-op City or out of state. In some families, while the children grew up and moved out, the parents remained. Mrs. Schottler, who recalled paying $2.80 a week in rent at first, has never thought of leaving a place that to her seems almost pastoral, and removed from some of the rougher elements of the area.

"I say if you want to move, move -- I'll stay," said Mrs. Schottler, who will be 75 in December.

In 1970, Mrs. Schottler held a wedding reception for her daughter in the family's backyard. Gathered here 22 years later, the family members still laugh over what happened to the wedding cake. "One of my friends went to catch the bouquet, and my mother was walking by with the cake," said the daughter, Mary Lou Gaglio. The two ran into each other, and the cake landed in a guitar case.

"So we served it right there from the guitar case, upside down," said Oscar Nordstrom, who is married to another of Mrs. Schottler's daughters. "It tasted the same."

In the years after the dedication of Clason Point Gardens, the Housing Authority went on to build dozens of huge high-rise buildings. Now, 50 years after it was first built, common wisdom among housing advocates and developers is that the ideal way to build public housing is in the style of Clason Point Gardens -- smaller, closer to the ground, more manageable and ultimately more livable for working families.

While there have been a myriad of changes at Clason Point, one thing hasn't changed, residents said: the thread of family life continues to run through the community.

On Saturday afternoon, a family decorated the shady courtyard behind their apartment with white crepe-paper bells. They pinned white carnations to the shrubbery, and coiled white Christmas lights around the trees.

Mary Johnson, who has lived at Clason Point Gardens for 21 years, was preparing for her daughter's wedding reception. For three days, Mrs. Johnson had been baking turkeys and hams. "Today the day is shining and the stars are going to be bright," said Mrs. Johnson, dressed in a flowing turquoise dress and matching headpiece.

"It's a community thing," she said. "My daughter was raised here. Everyone has their weddings and all back here. Everybody gets along."

Map of the Bronx showing location of Clason Point Gardens.

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