What Howard Schultz Means When He Says He Grew Up In The Projects

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz likes to frame his story as one of rags to riches, a classic tale.

“I’m self-made,” said Schultz on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last month. “I grew up in the projects in Brooklyn, New York. I thought that was the American Dream.”

But when Sheryl Boyce, 64, hears him tell it, she cringes. Boyce and Schultz both grew up in the Bay View Houses of Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood in the 1950s and ’60s. At that time, the housing development was considered the “country club” of projects, Boyce told HuffPost.

“To say he came from nothing,” said Boyce, now president of the Bay View Houses Community Association, “it is very disingenuous.”

Schultz has been publicly weighing a 2020 bid for president, releasing an autobiographical book and launching a media blitz. His Horatio Alger story has been a central part of his publicity tour, using his childhood in the projects as proof of his humble originsand exposure to diversity.

But academics, and residents like Boyce, take issue with Schultz using Bay View to describe his youth as coming from “nothing.”

A 1958 article in Progressive Architecture, as reviewed by HuffPost, called the housing development “middle-income,” saying it was designed to “alleviate the shortage” of housing for people in this wage class. The project was over 90-percent white, New York City Housing Authority documents from this time show, although Schultz has said he grew up in “in a very diverse background as a young boy in the projects” where he “didn’t see color.” 

And while Schultz’s family may have struggled financially during his childhood ― he says in his memoir that his father hopped from job to job, at one point relying on a charitable organization for food ― families living in the Bay View Houses at the time were far from destitute.

In 1970, when Schultz lived there, the average family income in the area was nearly $ 12,000, or $ 70,000 in today’s dollars. Today, the median household income for this area is only $ 23,000, according to the census.

It was “definitely a more working, middle-class housing program,” said Nicholas Bloom, a professor of social science at the New York Institute of Technology, who has written extensively about housing in New York City. “He moved into a new, really nicely built” development.

During Schultz’s childhood, the Bay View Houses were “kind of a stepping stone to suburbs and higher-quality housing,” Bloom said.

In his book, From the Ground Up, Schultz echoes this view, providing a more nuanced version than he has in interviews, saying the housing project was “not designed to be dead ends but to jumpstart lives.”

Howard Schultz strolls through the Bay View Houses during a recent episode of "60 Minutes."

Howard Schultz strolls through the Bay View Houses during a recent episode of “60 Minutes.”

But Boyce sees Schultz as paying only lip-service to his childhood community while also mischaracterizing his childhood there, noting that, although Schultz has given substantial donations to a local public school, the housing development has not seen the fruits of his philanthropy.

“The worst playground in Bay View is the playground in front of the building where Howard Schultz grew up,” Boyce said.

She has tried twice to get support from the billionaire, Boyce told HuffPost, writing to the Starbucks customer relations department for help with Bay View Community Association projects in 2012 and 2014.  

In a letter dated Jan. 31, 2012, reviewed by HuffPost, she asked for several hundred dollars worth of Starbucks gift cards for the local Mother’s and Father’s Day celebration. The customer relations department wrote back in 2013 with a generic response and declined, suggesting she try a local Starbucks. Boyce noted to HuffPost there isn’t a Starbucks in walking distance of the housing development.  

Two years later in 2014, Boyce’s organization wrote to ask permission to include Schultz’s name on a fact sheet for kids about successful leaders who grew up in the Bay View Houses. They had also reached out to athletes like former NFL player John Brockington.

The reply from Starbucks came with a rote response about how the company was not seeking opportunities for national or local partnerships.

But a spokesperson for Schultz noted that the businessman has given substantial donations to the community. Indeed, through the Schultz Family Foundation, a local elementary school has undergone nearly a million dollars worth of renovations, and local football and basketball teams have also received tens of thousands of dollars. All proceeds from his latest book will also be going to the Brooklyn Public Library, a library representative confirmed.

The Bay View Houses have become so central to Schultz’s narrative that he visited them during a January “60 Minutes” episode, in which he announced he was considering running for president.

“This place has never left me. It has defined my character, my vulnerability,” Schultz said as he strolled through the development with CBS anchor Scott Pelley.

A spokesperson for Schultz maintains that within the Bay View community, Schultz and his family were at the bottom of the totem pole.

“Other families at Bayview may have had more money than his family or better jobs, but the Schultz family was poor, period,” the spokesperson, Tucker Warren, told HuffPost in an email.

An aerial photo of the Bay View Houses.

An aerial photo of the Bay View Houses.

Boyce has seen the housing development transform over the years, in the decades after Schultz left for college and later became a household name.

When Schultz and Boyce were children, developments like Bay View were socially engineered. There were specific admission standards ― often based on social factors, like family stability and apartment cleanliness. New York City Housing Association documents from 1965 reviewed by HuffPost show that only 4 out of 1,608 families living in Bay View at the time were considered “problem families,” meaning they could have, for example, had contact with social service agencies, according to Bloom, the professor of social science.

“They were very selective in who got into these places,” Bloom said. “To call it the projects and have people in their mind think of Queensbridge and Nas, it’s not equivalent in that way.”

In his memoir, Schultz provides more detail than the television sound bites that describe him as living in destitution. He describes an environment that was tough but safe and community-oriented.

The projects I grew up in may have been safe from crime, but there were no soft landings,” wrote Schultz.

That’s the type of environment Boyce remembers when she thinks back on her adolescence ― a community where doors were left unlocked and children would flock to the development’s playgrounds.

Now, Boyce says, families in the area can’t enjoy the fruits of Schultz’s labor. The closest Starbucks is several bus rides away.

“We all flock across the street to Dunkin’ Donuts,” Boyce said.

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