Good Times and Real Life In The Housing Projects


Every time I see the opening credits of the classic TV sitcom, “Good Times”, I’m always reminded that the housing projects shown are no longer there. The notorious Cabrini Green projects were torn down in 2011. The Evans family lived in one of those buildings but the housing project they lived in was never called by name. But those of us who grew up in Chicago knew exactly where they were.

When I was a little girl, my family lived in the projects, too. Cabrini Green was on the near north side. We lived on the west side in Rockwell Gardens. Those buildings were demolished earlier this century. Our apartment was similar to the one the Evans family lived in, although our front room was not as spacious as theirs was. There were two bedrooms, a small kitchen, a tiny bathroom, and a great lack of closet space. Not quite enough room for a single, divorced mom with three children, but we made it work jade scape.

My family had moved out of the projects long before “Good Times” premiered on CBS in 1974. But we still had memories of day-to-day life there. The issues about vandalized washers and dryers in the laundry room, broken elevators, gang wars that caused people to hide in their apartments, etc., were true. But other things that happened on that series did not always reflect reality.

One of the curious aspects of the show was how everyone, from family members, to next-door neighbor Wilona Woods, could just walk into the Evans’ household without knocking. I know that’s a common television trope. It’s done because it’s usually too time-consuming and/or boring to show characters opening doors for visitors, especially if it is an individual whom they know well. But most everyone who has lived in the projects would agree with me that front doors in those apartments were usually locked at all times. Just leaving the door open all the time would have been like hanging signs that said, “Please come in and take whatever you want.” It just wasn’t done.

Bookman was the obnoxious custodian whose character was added to the show during the second season. Bookman seemed to have a lot of power, including being able to evict families. Of course, custodians are obligated to report unusual conditions they find to management. But I never knew the custodian in our old building having authority other than to clean. In fact, I remember tenants always giving the custodian a hard way to go and complaining about cleaning issues.

Recently, I saw a rerun of an episode where Thelma had won a scholarship to a prestigious, predominately white, all girls’ high school located in Michigan. A member of one of the school’s sororities showed up at the apartment to convince Thelma to pledge with them. The Evans quickly figured out that the sorority only wanted Thelma as a token member because she was African-American. There were so many things wrong with that scenario outside of the racism. The sorority member, a blond teenage girl, who was obviously from an upper middle class or wealthy background, would not have been caught dead in the projects back in the day. Not everyone who lived in the projects were criminals or dirt poor, for that matter. But the only white people I saw who dared venture into the projects were social workers, insurance agents, and the cops. Stories about the housing projects being dangerous, violent places kept everyone else away.

After Thelma turned down the invitation to join the sorority, the sorority girl decided to leave the family with one last parting shot. She told them they were lucky that they didn’t send another sorority girl to see Thelma because that particular girl hated African-Americans. JJ slammed the door closed behind the sorority girl. In reality, that girl would have been cussed out or worse for being asinine enough to express racial discrimination in an area where she was the minority at the moment.

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