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African American Heritage, Construction and Development, Featured Article, Hispanic Populations and Culture, Housing, Neighborhood: East End, Neighborhood: East Side, Social Justice

Father Panik Village: the Place Where Dreams Refused to Die

By Britney Murphy

On December 22, 1939, Father Stephen J. Panik, proudly addressed the audience attending the groundbreaking ceremony for Bridgeport’s first public housing project. The erection of what would become Yellow Mill Village was the culmination of years of hard work on the part of Father Panik, city and state officials, and Bridgeport residents.[1] Father Panik considered the Village to be, “perhaps the greatest Christmas gift that ever was given to the people of Bridgeport, –not a promise, but the beginning of a reality, fine, decent homes for about 5,000 people.”[2] Considering the overwhelming optimism for the project, few could have predicted its future. Approximately fifty years later, Denis Hogan, staff writer for the Hartford Courant, captured the dominant attitude towards the renamed Father Panik Village (FPV) when he described it as “a miserable, wretched, broken down pit of anger, pain and random violence.”[3] The devolution of FPV from a symbol of hope to one of despair, danger, and disrepair is illustrative of the ongoing and highly controversial struggle to provide adequate housing to the country’s most vulnerable populations.

The federal government first assumed responsibility for facilitating public access to affordable housing during the Great Depression. The housing legislation passed as a part of the New Deal, and its subsequent execution, significantly influenced the living conditions, homeownership rates, socio-economic advancement, and racial and class composition of many American communities. The Wagner-Steagall Act of 1937, in particular, established the apparatus for the creation of federally subsidized public housing.[4] Many contemporaries hailed public housing as the best solution for homelessness and the nation’s overcrowded, blighted, and unsanitary urban slums. Yet, beginning in the post-war period, the quality of public housing progressively declined as crime, drugs, pests, and decaying infrastructure came to characterize life for the low-income dwellers. The creation of public housing complexes is widely considered by modern commentators to be a well-meaning, but undeniable failure. The history of Bridgeport’s FPV seems to epitomize the rise and fall narrative of public housing complexes. Once a front runner in resolving housing shortages and slum conditions, by mid-1980s, FPV was considered one of the worst housing projects in the nation.[5] Nevertheless, focusing on the negative overlooks the program’s initial accomplishments and the agency of the poverty-stricken residents.[6] When it was initially built, FPV addressed the need for adequate and affordable housing for the city’s low-income population. Even as conditions began to deteriorate, its inhabitants refused to become passive victims of circumstance. They worked diligently to promote community unity and well-being, and it is the memory of the community that they created that is still celebrated today.

Father Stephen Panik spearheaded the campaign to construct good quality and affordable public housing in Bridgeport shortly after the passage of the Wagner-Steagall Act. As pastor of St. Cyril & Methodius Roman Catholic Church (located in the city’s East Side neighborhood), he was disheartened by the living conditions of many of his poor parishioners, often immigrants of European descent. Newspapers derided the slum conditions as breeding disease, crime, and promoting moral decay.[7] Father Panik lamented that slum dwellers had “faces marked by misery, faces delineated by despair, and indeed, faces in which the crushing malevolence of the slums already had made their mark.”[8] In his position as chairman of the Bridgeport Housing Authority (BHA), Father Panik amassed enough public support for slum clearance to compel Mayor Jasper McLevy to reverse his previous opposition to the plan.[9] When finally constructed, the Village’s modern amenities far surpassed the quality of the dwellings it replaced. Commentators hailed Yellow Mill as the solution to a number of poverty-related issues including public health and juvenile delinquency. More importantly, the stability and economic assistance that public housing provided encouraged upward financial mobility. The Village, more or less, did not disappoint expectations; it provided secure, sanitary, and well-maintained transient shelter in which the underprivileged could uplift themselves.[10]

The origins of the problems associated with the Village, and other public housing projects around the country, can be attributed to what historian Thomas Sugrue calls the urban crisis. The urban crisis refers to the precipitous decline in manufacturing jobs, infrastructure quality, and tax revenue in industrial cities following the conclusion of World War II. This industrial decline corresponded with the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest. In addition to moving into northern cities at the onset of the urban crisis, the persistence of job discrimination and racially discriminatory housing practices barred African Americans and Latinos from accessing the wealth and resources within the rapidly developing suburbs.[11] Consequently, as whites capitalized on suburban housing incentives, and sought to avoid increasingly integrated public housing, the racial-ethnic composition of public housing changed. Municipal economic struggles and the predominance of people of color among its tenants contributed to public and official disinvestment in the maintenance of public housing. In the post-postwar period, crime and drugs, more specifically the crack epidemic of the 1980s, added to the deteriorating conditions.[12] This was the context in which the once regionally renowned Village became the place “where dreams turn to dust.”[13]

As negative conceptions of public housing complexes flourished in the latter half of the twentieth century, so too did offensive stereotypes of its occupants as criminal and welfare dependent or the perpetual victims of circumstance.[14] Many people who relied on public housing, however, did not passively accept their predicament nor stigmatization, especially not FPV residents. While in the Village, the tenants agitated for respect, better conditions, and involvement in the decisions that impacted them. They did this, most notably, by creating the FPV tenants association. The tenants association formed in 1963 as a vehicle by which villagers could communicate with BHA representatives. Its organizers hoped to inspire community unity and boost morale by way of educational and recreational activities and social events. They also voiced their concerns about vandalism, police apathy, blight, rodent infestations, drugs, and violent crime.[15] Above all else, they worked to challenge the disinvestment of public officials in FPV and assert their voices into the decision-making process.

Despite expectations that the tenants association would facilitate interaction between the people and the BHA, tenants often expressed their frustration about being ignored by officials. Reactively, they turned to the media, direct non-violent means of protest, and litigation to resist marginalization. In December of 1978, for example, a group of tenants protested electricity rates outside the home of then BHA chairman Mark F. Gross. They serenaded Gross and his family with improvised Christmas carols that reflected their grievances.[16] Residents also hosted rallies and marches, picketed, and used other means to display their dissatisfaction with their living conditions.[17] The tenants association also supported the national Black Panther Party when its Bridgeport chapter organizers sponsored a free breakfast program for school children in the FPV gym.[18]

Ironically, the clearest evidence of FPV activism and its impact was in reaction to the decision to demolish FPV. In 1986, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) declared FPV beyond repair and recommended its destruction as the best solution for the inhumane conditions. Mixed reactions followed the news of FPV’s planned demolition. Whereas some residents expressed sadness and anger about losing their homes, others were glad to leave. Despite the division, many people feared displacement and the inability to find affordable housing elsewhere.[19] In 1987, FPV tenants filed a class action suit against HUD and the BHA. The plaintiffs accused the defendants of failing to provide adequate upkeep and maintenance of the facility, or safety for its residents, prompting the demolition decision.[20] The lawsuit was settled in 1993 when the BHA and HUD agreed to a one-for-one replacement of all 1,063 units at FPV.[21] Peter Hance, former executive director of the BHA, stated that because the tenants sued HUD, “over a hundred million dollars was brought into this state” for the replacement program and forty years worth of “operating subsidy from the federal government for these units.”[22] The Father Panik Replacement Housing Program, despite many delays, was completed in August of 2012.

The history of FPV suggests the need to reassess the common evaluation of public housing as a failure. FPV, like other housing complexes, met its original goal of encouraging the economic development of those in need by providing safe, affordable, and well-maintain housing. When public housing no longer met these goals, residents worked, by way of community organizing, to make it as it was once. Although often unsuccessful in reversing the general downward trend, important lessons were learned about the need for respect, dignity, and inclusion when it comes to finding housing solutions. It is because of the experiences of people like those who lived in FPV that public housing policy has moved into its next, promising, stage focused on mixed-income housing (rather than the concentration of poverty in distressed areas). If one needs any more evidence that public housing was not wholly a failure, one only needs to attend the annual FPV reunions hosted by former tenants. Amongst all of the stories of anguish and struggles, there was family, friendship, and community.[23]

[1] “’Yellow Mill Village’ Chosen As Name of Rehousing Project,” Time-Star, 16 Nov 1939. A life long East Side resident, Daniel Lynch, submitted Yellow Mill Village in a naming contest for the project and won.

[2] “Father Panik Tells of Work To Make Rehousing Reality,” Bridgeport Star, 23 Dec 1939.

[3] Denis Horgan, “A piece of wretchedness meets its end in Bridgeport,” The Hartford Courant, 2 June 1989; Yellow Mill Village was renamed Father Panik Village in 1954 after the passing of its namesake and in honor of all of the work that he did for its residents.

[4] “FDR and Housing Legislation: 75th Anniversary of the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act of 1937,” FDR Presidential Library and Museum, last modified 2012, https://www.fdrlibrary.org/housing.

[5] William McGuire, “HUD: raze Panik,” Bridgeport Telegram, 19 Feb 1986.

[6] Lisa Levenstein, A Movement without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

[7] “Winslow Urges Program for Slum Clearance Here,” Bridgeport Post, 28 Feb 1939; “Getting Housing Project Completed Proves One Problem After Another,” Time-Star, 12 AUG 1939; “House Shortage Here Reported,” Time-Star, 3 April 1939.

[8] “Father Panik Tells of Work To Make Rehousing Reality,” Bridgeport Star, 23 Dec 1939.

[9] Lennie Grimaldi, Only in Bridgeport: An Illustrated History of the Park City (Northridge, CA: Windsor Publications, 1986), 28-29, 159-160.

[10] “House Shortage Here Reported,” Time-Star, 3 April 1939; “City Offers Itself as New Mecca for Housing Problem Students,” Bridgeport Post, 19 Nov 1940; “Local Housing to Help 2,000 Children Here,” Time-Star, 18 Jan 1940; John G. Carlton, “50 years of Father Panik Village: A ‘gorgeous past, but a bleak future,” Bridgeport Telegram, 28 January 1990.

[11] Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in postwar Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

[12] Levenstein, A Movement without Marches.

[13] “Father Panik fights rodents,” Bridgeport Telegram, 28 Nov 1979; Lynne Tuohy, “Father Panik Village, Where Dreams Turn to Dust,” The Hartford Courant, 7 Aug 1994; Ronelle Williams, “Panik Village tenants complains of flea infestation,” Bridgeport Post, 11 Aug 1990; Linda Pinto and Mike Patrick, “Every time I come out of my doorway I’m scared,” Bridgeport Telegram, 19 May 1989; Anna Maria Virzi, “Conditions at Panik, apartheid compared, Bridgeport Telegram, 19 Jan 1988.

[14] Levenstein, A Movement without Marches.

[15] “Panik Village Action Group Being Formed,”  Sunday Herald, 12 May 1963; “Panik Village Unit Formed: Tenants Association to Work for Project Improvements,” Bridgeport Telegram, 14 May 1963; “Police Chief Pledges Help to Curb Crime in FPV Area,” Bridgeport Post, 11 Nov 1969; FPV Tenants Lash Policies of the BHA,” Bridgeport Telegram, 28 Jan 1969

[16] “FPV tenants protest at home of BHA head,” 12 Dec 1978; Reg Johnson, “Irate tenants picket BHA head’s home,” Bridgeport Telegram, 12 Dec 1978.

[17] “Rally Sunday on Crime in FPV,” Bridgeport Post, 18 July 1969; “700 at FPV Ask Drive on Crime,” Bridgeport Post, 1 June 1969; “Tenants Demonstration Seeks to Make Projects ‘Livable,’” Bridgeport Post, 30 July 1969; “Picketing Comes to End at FPV; Accord Reached,” Bridgeport Post, 5 Nov 1972.

[18] “Black Panthers Sponsor Meals, Bridgeport Post, 17 Nov 1969; “Tenants ‘Back’ Black Panthers’ FPV Breakfasts,” Bridgeport Telegram, 20 Nov 1969.

[19] John G. Carlton, “Panik demolition plan ignites debate,” Bridgeport Telegram, 21 Nov 1989.

[20]Concerned Tenants Association of Father Panik v. Pierce, 685 F. Supp. 316 (D. Conn. 1988); Connecticut General Assembly, Testimony before the Government Administration & Elections Committee of the Connecticut Legislature on HB 6375, 16 March 2009, https://www.cga.ct.gov/2009/GAEdata/Tmy/2009HB-06375-R000316-Andrew%20Daniels,%20Housing%20Consultant-TMY.PDF. The plaintiffs asserted that public officials pursued a policy of de facto or constructive demolition. In the words of housing consultant Andrew Daniels, constructive demolition is a systematic practice of allowing government housing units “to fall into such a level of disrepair as to mean that the renovation is no longer economically viable when compared to new construction. There is no choice but for the units to be demolished even though a timely intervention of funds would have prevented the loss of economic viability.”

[21] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Audit Memorandum, Settlement Agreement with Creative Choice Homes, Inc. Housing Authority of the City of Bridgeport, CT, 3 February 2000.

[22] Connecticut General Assembly, JUD Committee Hearing Transcript for 03/09/2012, https://www.cga.ct.gov/ 2012/ juddata /chr/2012JUD00309-R001100-CHR.htm.

[23] Housing Authority of the City of Bridgeport, The Village: Father Panik Village, A Commemorative Book (Bridgeport: American View Productions, 2013).

Britney Murphy
Britney Murphy is currently a PhD student at the University of Connecticut. Her area of interest is 20th Century Urban American History. In May 2017, Britney received the Connecticut Celebration 350th Scholarship from UCONN, for her research on the Mount Trashmore removal campaign.