Rollerskating on the sidewalk. Playing basketball with a future professional ball player. Sledding on baking pans down a big, icy hill. Knocking pecans out of a tree to sell to grownups.
Those are memories that tell the stories of decades of life at Gonzales Gardens.
More than a public housing complex, more than the crime-ridden reputation it gained in recent years, Gonzales Gardens was home.
“Even though we grew up in Gonzales Gardens, we became something. We didn’t become a product of that environment,” said Lisa Ramos, who lived there from 1968, when she was 3, until she got married in 1986.
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As demolition began last week on the 77-year-old complex – Columbia’s oldest public housing community and one of the oldest in the country – people like Ramos remembered their formative years there.
“We didn’t even know we were poor,” Ramos, now 52, said. “Everybody was a family back then.”
She and her best friend, who remain best friends to this day, would win each summer the playing cards competition for a game called “spades.”
Ramos and her siblings spent most of their time at the community game room or playing outside – because once they came in, there were nine of them and their mother in a small apartment.
“As we were walking through our old apartment (last weekend), it seemed so small,” Ramos said. “But back then, it was like a mansion to us.”
Back then, it was like a mansion to us.
‘It was a happy place’
Rosa “Bunny” McKelvey was one of more than 1,000 people who visited the Gardens recently to walk through their old apartments before they are reduced to rubble and rebuilt as a mixed-income community with apartments, townhomes and senior housing.
“In my mind’s eye, I could see where everything was, and it was exactly as I remembered it,” said McKelvey, 73, who lived with her father and little brother in apartment K-4 from 1949 to 1953.
“I almost felt like I was a tiny girl again,” she said. “The games we played. I remember exactly where the furniture was placed in the apartment. I can almost see my dad still standing at the mirror in the bathroom shaving.”
She could see another scene, too: An afternoon in March 1953, when she was 8 years old, standing just inside the door with her brother and a woman who took care of them. Their dad, a cab and Coca-Cola truck driver, had gone fishing that morning and never came back.
“I could just recall so vividly the sheriff and maybe the coroner coming to the front door,” said McKelvey, whose father had drowned. “It was like I was almost back there in time hearing that, but this time I understood.”
She remembered happier, carefree and safe times, too.
She would walk the 2 or so miles from their apartment to her grandmother’s house on Marion Street downtown. She would tie a single roller skate to the bottom of her shoe and glide along the sidewalk. Or she and the other kids from the complex would wrap cardboard tubing – the kind that was rolled up around rugs – around their legs and walk around outside for fun.
“It was a happy place,” McKelvey said. “We felt safe. We felt secure. We felt blessed, really.”
Hope in the projects
In recent years, Gonzales Gardens gained a reputation for crime and violence.
Columbia police reported more than 100 aggravated assaults, burglaries and robberies in the five years between 2011 and 2015. Sometimes, parents and grandparents wouldn’t let their young ones play outside.
But when Ericka Brown lived there with her mom and two brothers from 1978 to 1991, life at Gonzales Gardens was a different story.
“During that time, we had our fair share of issues. There was some drug dealing going on, but nothing like it is now,” said the 43-year-old, who owns a clothing company and runs a nonprofit that feeds the homeless. “Now, the perception is bad because it’s only known for murders and gangs and drug dealers.”
Brown remembers a community where everybody’s mother knew everyone else’s mother; where they’d run down to Charles Grocery to buy candy or a famous $25 “meat box,” she said.
She and other children in the Gardens looked up to people like Tyrone Corbin, a former resident who went on to play and coach basketball in the National Basketball Association.
You can be something coming from the projects. It’s not where you come from; it’s what you’re made of.
“When you have people like that that set the pace and set the example, that was hope for us,” Brown said. “You can be something coming from the projects. It’s not where you come from; it’s what you’re made of.”
‘A home, not a project’
Queen Elizabeth Thomas Bryant remembers more kinds of games than basketball. There was ping-pong and chess. Her mother learned sewing and canning.
Gonzales Gardens had a lot to offer her family, said Bryant, who lived there from 1968 to 1982.
“Everybody was just trying to go to school and get an education at that time,” she said. “You didn’t know you were poor. You always had food in the pantry – and when you didn’t, people would share it. It was just a community, a family.”
Last week, she sat thoughtfully on a brick wall outside her old apartment, AB-6. Bryant watched a backhoe crash through the roof and walls as her one-time home turned into debris.
Gonzales Gardens had become a place she didn’t recognize, Bryant said, but, “The memories here were so valuable that you just can’t put a price on them.
“This was a home, not a project,” she said.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.