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New York Times: Allen Jones Returns to Bronx Housing Projects

10th October 2009

An article about Allen Jones, author of The Rat That Got Away: A Bronx Memoir, appeared in the Metro Section of The New York Times on 10/9/09.

‘If I’d stayed doing what I was doing, I’d have ended up dead,’ Allen Jones says.

Allen Jones, 58, now a resident of Luxembourg, visited the Patterson Houses on Wednesday.

Allen Jones, 58, now a resident of Luxembourg, visited the Patterson Houses on Wednesday.

Mott Haven Journal
Revisiting the Neighborhood He Escaped From

It had been more than 30 years since Allen Jones had returned to the Bronx housing projects where he grew up, and if the neighborhood had changed dramatically, so had he.

The last time Mr. Jones had walked through the Patterson Houses in Mott Haven, heroin addicts nodded out on park benches and drug dealers held court on crowded blocks. It was a world he was comfortable in: a drug dealer himself, Mr. Jones had an ever-growing pool of customers.

While the South Bronx infamously spiraled downward into a symbol of urban decay, Mr. Jones found an unlikely escape route. It wound through Rikers Island, a New England prep school, a religious junior college in North Carolina and Europe’s professional basketball leagues, ending with a position at an internationally respected bank in Luxembourg.

“If I’d stayed doing what I was doing, I’d have ended up dead,” said Mr. Jones, now 58, wearing a sport coat and sunglasses in front of the Morris Avenue building of his childhood.

He was back in the Bronx to promote his new book on his circuitous life, “The Rat That Got Away: A Bronx Memoir”, published by Fordham University Press. The memoir paints an earthy picture of the neighborhood in the 1950s, when the projects were home to working-class black and Latino families who pushed their children to excel, through the 1970s.

Standing 6 feet 6 inches tall, Mr. Jones strolled down the Mott Haven sidewalk this week, never mind the cane and the back, stiff from a recent surgery. He pointed out the window he nearly fell from as a toddler, and the corner “where we talked about each others’ mothers.”

He said he was taken aback at how much things had changed. The “hustler” basketball court where he learned to play — a hard foul meant a punch in the face — had been replaced with a shiny new jungle gym. Grass had regrown in the lawns he remembered as patches of dirt and trash. His parents and his younger brother had died, and his two sisters, whom he rarely spoke to, had moved away.

But Mr. Jones was also surprised, and dismayed, at all that had not changed.

“You’re not the Allen Jones from 281?” asked a weathered man in his 40s who recognized the well-dressed visitor. The men hugged and caught up on old acquaintances, most of whom Mr. Jones hadn’t heard from in decades. “We need people like you in the neighborhood!” the man shouted as he walked away.

Mr. Jones shook his head, rattled. “He had no teeth!” he said. “That kid had so much promise, and look what happened to him.” If not for his lucky breaks, Mr. Jones said, “that could be me.”

When Mr. Jones’s parents moved from Harlem to the Patterson Houses in the early 1950s, it was a step toward middle-class stability. Patterson, one of the first public housing projects in the Bronx, offered working families a refuge from the dangers of street life, said Professor Mark D. Naison, a professor of African and African-American studies and history at Fordham University and co-writer of Mr. Jones’s memoir.

The Patterson Houses, and the rest of the South Bronx, began to change in the 1960s when drugs and crime flooded the streets and middle-class families fled. Mr. Jones’s father, a taxi driver, could not afford to leave, but with a reputation for being the toughest man in the Patterson Houses, he was rarely given a hard time.

Gar Paige, a longtime family friend who recently turned 98, said the elder Mr. Jones was so strong, “I’d rather he shoot me than hit me.”

Despite his strict father, Mr. Jones gravitated toward the streets, enticed by the money, the drugs, the girls, the parties. “I was selling death to anybody who wanted to die, and people were buying,” he writes in his book.

He also made a habit of robbing people, and when he was finally arrested in 1969 at age 18, he said, he was charged with five armed robberies and possession of a deadly weapon. He faced 10 to 25 years in prison, but because of a merciful judge, he writes in the book, he was released from Rikers Island on probation after just three months.

From there, Mr. Jones began treating basketball as his escape. He trained with local legends like Nathaniel Archibold, better known as Tiny, and earned a basketball scholarship at a Massachusetts prep school — which, to his Bronx eyes, looked like “a summer camp for rich kids.”

He did well there, then later bounced from a junior college in North Carolina to Roanoke College in Virginia, and then to Europe, where he played for professional basketball teams in France and Luxembourg. He did not trust himself to return to the Bronx. “Europe was not only my opportunity,” he writes. “It was my salvation.”

He went on to have a successful career with the Amicale Steinsel team in Luxembourg, where he was a player and a coach. Using the name Daddy Cool, he was also a radio D.J. for an English-language station in Luxembourg.

After a chance meeting at a nightclub in the 1980s, Mr. Jones landed a job as a driver for a French bank in Luxembourg. He was quickly promoted into the banking department, where he learned the business and forged a career, he writes. While he was studying exchange rates, a crack epidemic swept through Mott Haven, taking many of Mr. Jones’s former friends with it.

He worked in banking for 27 years, the last 17 at the Luxembourg subsidiary of Dexia, a bank that operates principally in France, Belgium, Italy and the Iberian Peninsula. He retired in 2006 and still lives in Luxembourg, where he has an apartment with a terrace overlooking the village he has made his home.

Along the way, he married and had two children. What would they make of the Patterson Houses?

Mr. Jones shook his head. “They would be culture shocked,” he said. “It would be hard for them here. They’re not used to drama.”