About Emotional Mastery

5 lessons from growing up in the projects

Growing up in the ghetto is rough. I managed to get out and I’m never going back, but the lessons I learned about human nature will stay with me forever.

Ed Latimore, author, blogger, and retired pro boxer
Ed Latimore Author, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

I was born in a housing project called Terrace Village in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That’s where I lived with my family until I was 9.

Life didn’t get better when we moved.

[Wanna watch the video summary of this? Jump to the bottom and watch]

In fact, we moved to a worse public housing project called Northview Heights. I stayed there until I was 18, which is when I left for college. Since then, I’ve only been back three times, none of which have been in the last decade.

Northview Heights

This image is from a recent news story about a kid who got shot in Northview Heights. I grew up a few blocks from that building.

What exactly are housing projects?

Some terminology for the uninformed masses. The official term for where I grew up is “public housing project”. “Subsidized housing” is another official term for the place. The idea is the rent is based on your income.

This creates affordable housing for people who would otherwise be homeless. For the sake of cost and efficiency, the housing developments there are rows and high-rises of identical homes and buildings.

Along with low cost public housing comes an increased crime rate.

Most public-housing residents aren’t bad people, but there are enough bad apples to ruin the whole basket. Drug trade fueled gang violence and poverty motivated petty theft make most public housing projects a seriously rough place to live in.

You always know the projects as “the hood” or “the ghetto”.

Most people use these terms interchangeably with “the ghetto” or “the hood”. But not all hoods and ghettos are public housing projects. There are shitty neighborhoods all over the country. Housing projects tend to be the worst kind of ghetto — you gotta be a special kind of broke to live where the government subsidizes your rent and utilities.

To me, they all mean the same thing: a fucked up place that I would never want to live in again. The projects destroy the future of most people. The following is an effective but gross oversimplification:

People promote ignorant ass values, have kids early, those kids get indoctrinated with the same ignorant values, and the cycle repeats itself for generations. Books have been written on this subject for decades.

But I made it out. Actually, “survived” is more accurate because there are many things that can imprison you in the hood forever. I could have gotten a girl pregnant as a teen, been arrested, or killed. It wasn’t easy, but I avoided all these things.

I learned things from that environment which gave me a significant advantage in civilized society. And the things I learned are very different from book learning. This is the type of education you can only experience, survive, and then say to yourself, “never again.”

I present to you: the five lessons I learned from growing up in the projects

1. Good manners go a long way in the hood

I fought a lot as a kid growing up in the ghetto.

That’s just par for the course when you grow up in the hood. I would have fought a lot more if it wasn’t for one simple phrase: “My bad”. For those of you that don’t speak hood, “My bad” is the equivalent of saying “I’m sorry.”

You bump somebody in a crowd? ‘My bad’ goes a long way. Step on someone’s foot on a crowded bus? He might get mad, but you can often defuse the situation by just saying “My bad”.

Say something a little too offensive that gets guys in the mood to fight? Just say “My bad” and dial it down. It’s amazing what an apology can do to cool tempers in the hood.

In the hood, you never know who gives a fuck and who doesn’t. People don’t have a lot to lose.

While a guy might not have a gun, he might not care about catching an aggravated assault charge to defend his honor. (This is assuming you call the cops, which everyone in the ghetto avoids: it just increases the likelihood of retaliation.)

Since I didn’t know who cared about staying out of jail, I addressed everyone with basic respect.

Even if they didn’t return the favor, it taught me to keep a cool head to avoid unnecessary fights. I learned, via a powerful negative feedback loop, that it’s better to treat people with respect.

Fighting because someone feels disrespected makes you less likely to be disrespectful in the future.

2. In the ghetto, safety and security is an illusion

My house had doors and locks.

That didn’t keep people from breaking in and stealing shit, though.

You’d expect people to sit down and mind their business on the school bus, but that’s where I had some of my worst fights.

When you grow up in the ghetto, you never feel safe.

My mother kept food on the table, but her temper and physical abuse left me hurt as much as some street fights. I never got comfortable thinking there was such a thing as safety.

Crackhead getting high in the ghetto

The guy who robbed me looked a little like this

I remember some kids broke into my locker one day in the dead of winter and put my coat in the toilet.

When I was 11, I got robbed by a crackhead at knifepoint for a calzone.

There were many other incidents like these.

Point is, I internalized something at a very young age: nothing is ever safe. People will take stuff or try to hurt you, even if you didn’t think they ever would.

Most people have trouble accepting the following: nothing in this world is safely and securely yours. You can be robbed, neglected or betrayed.

Once you internalize this, you learn to value everything that you have.

3. What the hood taught me about money

Money is not the root of all evil. Not having money is. Especially when you’re in close proximity to people who have more money than you.

FBI data on violent crime over several years confirms that most robberies, kidnappings, and murders occur in communities poor communities that are tucked into an urban environment where not many miles away, there are people who make in a month what the perpetrators make in a year. Officially, the statements made are that income inequality drives crime, but the people who are on the rich end of unequal aren’t committing the violent crimes.

I’m not saying that people with money don’t cause harm. But I am absolutely saying that they cause less of it. While there are purely evil people in the world, most crime — especially violent crime — is committed for financial reasons.

That drive-by that claimed an innocent person’s life? A drug-dealing dispute probably started it. That armed robbery at the convenience store for 400 bucks that cost some dude his life? 400 bucks ain’t shit — unless you’re super broke.

I once watched thugs beat and rob a pizza delivery boy on Christmas Eve! They couldn’t have gotten more than 100 bucks out of him, tops.

Mugging delivery drivers was so common that most places didn’t deliver to the projects. The few that did, sent two people: one to carry the pizza, and the other to carry the gun.

There probably is some middle-class kid in a low crime neighborhood that does the same shit, but he’s just crazy and likely not trying to survive.

In the ghetto, everyone’s gotta make their own way. Desperation leads some people to do far more harm when they’re broke than when they’re not.

Bottom line is: crime does pay. That’s probably why the threat of prison rape doesn’t stop it.

4. Things could always be worse

My home situation was slightly better than average when compared to the typical ghetto home life.

My mom didn’t always work, but she took temp work when she could and I never went hungry.

I didn’t live with my dad but he was in the picture. My mom didn’t bring any men around after this asshole hurt me and my sister badly.

Life wasn’t good, but I only had to look at some of my classmates to see that it could be a lot worse.

The thing about living in the projects is that everyone knows a lot about everyone. You know whose mom is a crackhead, prostitute or drug dealer. While everyone around you obviously has a fucked-up life, some people are way worse off.

If you don’t live in the projects, it’s easy to believe that everyone around you has a better life. But you know who’s fucked up if you live in the hood. This knowledge makes you appreciate whatever little good shit that you do have.

Sonic the Hedgehog 3

I have many fond memories of playing Sonic 3 on the Sega Genesis with my friends.

For example, I used to have a friend that had all the newest video games. That type of thing can make a kid jealous, but we also had to eat at my house. My mom decided to spend money on food rather than games — a wise decision.

Living in close proximity to other people with problems can drag you down. It can also foster tremendous gratitude and show you that your situation isn’t that bad.

5. Life is like poker: it’s about how you play the hand you’re dealt

Good starting cards help, but they don’t determine if you’ll win. They don’t even determine if you’ll survive the game.

Poker players

This guy had a good hand, but got distracted by women. Now look at his stack!

There are lots of people born in the ghetto every year. Most continue the cycle and don’t make it out. A few do a little better but only barely and still have their ties to the ghetto.

Then there are those who make the ghetto a distant memory. I can proudly say that I am part of this last group.

But that shit ain’t easy. On top of the physical dangers you have to navigate, you also have to undo lots of damaging programming. Like attitudes about money.

Side note: even if you didn’t grow up in the ghetto, you likely have lots of self-destructive thought patterns. Mike Cernovich’s book “Gorilla Mindset” helped me undo a lot of the bad programming from my childhood. Here’s my review of the book.

I got $55,000 in insurance money when my father died. No one ever taught a broke project kid how to handle money. In 18 months I was broke as hell and overdrawing my bank account.

Overcoming these challenges takes time but once you beat them, you are invincible.

It’s not easy, but anyone can change their life. I’m proof of that.

Ed Latimore, author, blogger, and retired pro boxer
Ed Latimore Author, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

Further Reading

6 harsh truths your parents never told you
How to overcome fear: 7 lessons from boxing
How to make friends as an adult in 7 steps
How to stop complaining & take action instead