Growing Up in the Ghetto: From the Projects to Home Ownership
“When you are growing up in the ghetto, FI seems like a pipe dream. For most people living there, the primary goal is to escape this environment and never look back.”
-Peerless Money Mentor
The following article is based on a true story. Due to my lack of perfect memory, some important details may have been unintentionally omitted.*
For this post, we will be doing some time traveling. First, I will take you back to a time in my life where gas was $1.00/gallon at the corner store. Inside of this store, the same bag of Spicy Doritos sold at convenience stores today (with less contents) for a $1.00 cost $.25 back then.
During this time period, I was living in the projects (ghetto) in south Baton Rouge, La. I lived there from kindergarten to 5th grade with my mom, two sisters, and brother.
Although my parents had gotten a divorce when I was 5 in 1992, my father was around often. So often that an outsider looking in might have mistaken them for still being married.
Dirt Filled Pool
While I do not recall how we ended up living here, I remember that the apartment we lived in had two bedrooms. My mom slept in one room, while my three younger siblings and I shared a bunk bed.
Another thing I vividly remember is that the pool in the middle of our apartment courtyard was filled with dirt instead of water. Next to the pool, were some tables. It was at one of these tables where I was exposed to gambling.
One day I was playing around in the courtyard when an older kid approached me asking, “How much money do you have?” When I responded, “I have two quarters!” he suggested we play a game of street dice.
Not knowing the rules of the game (I still don’t know how to play), I agreed to play. My memory starts to fade at this point, but I remember him asking me to place a bet on a number.
After seeing him roll the dice a couple of times, he took my two quarters and placed them in his pocket. Feeling the pain of a permanent loss, I ran up stairs to tell my mother.
In South Baton Rouge, we call these frozen treats Dixie Cups. My mom sold each cup for $.25.
In addition to selling this frozen treat, she sold other items like:
- Candy (which some of her children stole)
- Disgusting pig feet
While my mom was able to make some additional money, this led to the unintended consequence of our apartment getting robbed multiple times.
Our apartment got robbed on several occasions. For me, the most memorable robbery happened a day after opening our presents for Christmas.
After opening my Christmas gift, I was excited because we had gotten a Sega Genesis gaming system. I probably played the Sonic Hedgehog game that came along with it all night long.
The day after we went out of town to visit some relatives, leaving the Sega Genesis behind. Whenever we returned, to my horror, the gaming system and television were gone.
To get us out of this location, she would enroll in a government program called Section 8 Housing.
Even through the robberies, I was always a happy child growing up in the projects. My mother and father would take my siblings and I to the park where we would have so much fun.
In addition to that, my father would take my friend Gerald and I to college basketball games.
Section 8 Housing
The summer before attending the magnet program at McKinley Middle, my family and I moved to a three bedroom home in the ghetto. Instead of having to share a room with the rest of my younger siblings, I now shared a room with my younger brother.
Although having more space was nice, I started becoming painfully aware of the fact we lived in a low income neighborhood. While before, I was just a happy kid, now I started to compare my surroundings with the neighborhood nearby.
The Grass is Greener
Whenever I wanted to escape from my inferior surroundings, I would hop on my bicycle and explore the neighborhood a few blocks away. I took mental note of the beautiful landscaping, abundance of oak trees, and pretty houses. In comparison, my neighborhood had dilapidated buildings, few oak trees, and substandard housing. After seeing this, I started plotting my escape.
My Escape Plan
To escape the ghetto, I devised a plan to become a basketball star. At the time, Kobe had just joined the Lakers and I wanted to be just like him. Instead of doing my homework, I would come home and play basketball at the neighborhood BREC park.
Challenge from Teachers
As a result of not doing my homework, my grades started to suffer. I remember my math teacher, Ms. Lang, saying to me, “Jerry, you would have a better grade in my class if you did the homework…” My foolish thinking at the time was I did not need to focus on homework if I was passing the exams.
In another one of my classes, I got a more direct challenge from my Biology teacher, Ms. J. She asked me in front of the entire class if I wanted to go to be sent to another school. The week before she had given the class an assignment, and I failed to do it. I was too busy chasing my hoop dreams!
Back on Track Sort of…
While my teachers challenged me, they did not give up on me. My parents had a conversation with me, and I started doing my homework. The frustrations I had with my surroundings, however, did not go away.
To make a long story short, I did not make the middle school basketball team. If I could not be a basketball star, I would become a gangster rapper instead.
One day I started writing rhymes in my composition notebook about bringing bodily harm to others. Although I was far from a gangster, I thought writing violent rhymes would be my ticket out of the ghetto.
The universe would have other plans for me. My rap aspirations were short-lived. Once my father got a hold of my notebook, he ripped the papers into millions of pieces.
Mom’s Escape Plan
With my dreams of becoming a gangster rapper or NBA star shattered, I thought I would never escape the ghetto. My thinking would be correct, except for my mom having other plans.
She would soon inform us that she was looking into purchasing a home for us in a better neighborhood! With my father’s help, she was able to accomplish this.
While growing up in the ghetto, FI (financial independence) was the last thing on my family’s mind. For most people living there, the primary goal is to escape this environment and never look back.
Although I fell victim to the limiting belief that there was only two ways out the hood (rapping or playing ball), my parents and teachers were able to show me a different path. One where education leads to freedom!
Our backyard was also good for outdoor Barbecueing. I remember us having a few family gatherings. My grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins would come over to eat good food and enjoy each other’s company.
Life was good! Everyone seemed happier for a while. Afterwards, we simply adapted to our new surroundings.
Some days I would sit and ponder whether our escape was worth it. Could we have stayed and changed the ghetto for the better? With everyone trying to escape, how will the community ever improve?
I could hear my mom’s voice telling me to stay away from the ghetto, but I have always been hardheaded. Sometimes I pay the ghetto a visit, like T’Challa.
Visiting the Ghetto
Driving Through the Ghetto
Every time I pass by the ghetto, it angers me to see so much dilapidated property and people struggling. On almost every other corner, there is a payday loan store.
I hate these stores. In my mind, these stores represent a soulless capitalism that exploits the poor and most vulnerable among us. How can the poor become richer when they have compound interest working against them?
If I ruled the world, I would replace these stores with micro lending institutions that offered business development courses.
My frustration usually gives way to cynicism, but recently I have found a reason to have an optimistic outlook! Let me tell you why…
Southern Grind Cofe
You have probably heard this phrase before: “Where one person sees a problem, another sees a great opportunity.” Mr. Horatio is such a person.
He decided to open up a coffee shop in a low income, Black neighborhood this summer. A place where, he is quoted in Business Report as saying, “People told me nothing works in this community and nothing like this has been done around here.”
When I first heard about it, I decided I would show my support the following day. So, the next day I hopped in my Peerless Mobile to check this place out.
I get to the street where it’s supposedly located, but I could not find it. There was no visible signage. After calling a friend, I was able to pinpoint the shop’s exact location.
Mr. Horatio and I exchanged pleasantries, and I ordered a smoothie (not a fan of coffee). As soon as my order was placed, I inquired about the lack of signage.
“Hold tight. We are working on signage my brother,” Horatio responded.
Two weeks later, with the help of the Baton Rouge Mayor, a large sign was created for the coffee shop!
In addition to selling coffee and smoothies, Horatio plans to offer vegan food, salad, and other healthy options.
Last time I checked, these options were not available yet. Hopefully, when they do arrive, the community will purchase them from him.
*Since opening his shop, Mr. Horatio has hosted several events including Coffee with Cops, poetry readings, and financial education workshops.*
My Most Recent Visit
In the picture above, I was taking a personal finance study break. I was reading about the negative impact inflation has on purchasing power when money is parked in a savings account.
Growing up in the ghetto, I assumed the stock market was like the street dice game I mentioned earlier. In a future blog post, I will explain why that’s not true!
At the table directly behind me, the guy at the table is explaining to the woman across from him how the S&P 500 works. Yes, I was definitely ear hustling!
While growing up in the ghetto, I learned many life lessons. With poverty all around me, I learned how to have financial empathy. I also learned how having an awesome support network can give you a competitive advantage in this world.
Although my parents divorced when I was five years old, they have both been tailwinds in my life. Their positive influence is undeniable. Without their unconditional love and guidance, I could have taken the wide path that leads toward self-destruction.
My main reason for pursuing FI is that I want to have a positive impact on impoverished communities. I am cognizant of the fact that not everyone is as fortunate as I am.
I really hope that supporting business owners like Mr. Horatio will go a long way towards doing that. His story is a poignant reminder that ordinary people can do extraordinary things once they have a vision and plan of action! Plus, the support of others!
“Just ’cause your in the ghetto doesn’t mean you can’t grow
But oh, that’s a thought, my own revelation
Do whatever it takes to resist the temptation”
- Can some of the principles of FI be used to improve the ghetto?
- Do you support businesses in your community?
- Have you ever lived in a low income neighborhood?
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Jerry is a Business Insider Contributing Writer who is obsessed with personal finance. He believes you can improve your financial situation by applying principles taught by the financial independence community to your financial life.
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