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Portraits of Rembrandt

Hours before dawn, Rembrandt stirs.

Window-unit air conditioners drone next to smudged walls. Crickets chorus under scraggly palms.

In the parking lot, a car door slams; an engine gurgles.

The sounds repeat at ragged intervals, becoming more frequent as the sky brightens. From open windows, alarm clocks wail, as voices and laughter escape in three languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese.

The people of Rembrandt are going to work.

On this day, like many, they will pick up garbage and serve Egg McMuffins. They will repair appliances, trim hedges, fluff pillows, clean teeth and cut hair. They will build houses for people with mortgages, then return home to these city-owned quarters.

There are 156 apartments housing 443 residents.

You may think you know something about them.

Public housing, after all, is full of drug dealers and welfare mothers, flea-bitten babies and roach-ridden kitchens _ right? Guns are plentiful; crime, rampant; hope, gone.

Reality is more complicated.

If some residents use Rembrandt as a crutch, others use it as a stepladder.

If criminals are born here, so are star athletes and scholars. Last year, a Rembrandt family produced Robinson High School's salutatorian, Thy Minh Do.

Some nights there are bullets, and people cower inside, dressers pushed against windows for protection.

More often, they sit out in the open on stoops. They coddle each other's children and laugh with neighbors until late in the evening.

And then, as on this day, morning arrives.