Asked if he’d heard of Lloyd Blankfein, the man in the Yankees cap standing by 295 Cozine Avenue in East New York muttered, “What he do?”
In the projects, when someone who looks like me comes up to you, it almost has to be bad news: a cop, a process server, a guy from the Housing Authority. But no, I explained. Blankfein was the head of Goldman Sachs. They ruled Wall Street, the Trilateral Commission too, sat at the table with the Illuminati.
“He used to live in this building,” I said.
It was so. Son of a postal clerk and a receptionist at a burglar-alarm factory, Blankfein had grown up right there, at 295 Cozine Avenue, a redbrick building more or less exactly like the other eighteen redbrick buildings at the Linden Houses. That was in the fifties and sixties, before the white people moved out of the projects and East New York became one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Still, the Goldman CEO apparently retained affection for his childhood home, once sending a post to the East New York Project, a website for people nostalgic for the days of egg creams and spaldeens. It said: “Graduate of Jefferson (’71), Gershwin (’68), P.S. 306 (’65) and the Linden Projects. Currently reside in Manhattan with wife Laura and three kids. Lloyd Blankfein email@example.com.”
“King of the world, right here?” the man declared. “No shit.”
My visit to the Linden Houses was part of a self-guided tour of what I’d come to call “Nychaland.” As in NYCHA, the New York City Housing Authority, a.k.a. the projects.
New York might be a city of neighborhoods, but Nychaland is a zone of its own. It is almost unthinkably huge: 334 “developments” spread from Staten Island’s Berry Houses to Throgs Neck in the Bronx—178,895 apartments in 2,602 buildings situated on an aggregate 2,486 acres, an area three times the size of Central Park. The population of Nychaland is usually cited at 400,000, but this number is universally regarded as too low, since most everyone knows someone living “off lease.” One NYCHA employee says that “600,000 is more like it.” That’s about 8 percent of New York—with 160,000 families on the waiting list. If Nychaland was a city unto itself, it would be the 21st most populous in the U.S., bigger than Boston or Seattle, twice the size of Cincinnati.
Despite these prodigious stats, the projects remain a mystery to most New Yorkers, a shadow city within the city, out of sight and mind, except when someone gets shot or falls down an elevator shaft—just these bad-news redbrick piles to whiz by on the BQE.
Indeed, perhaps Nychaland’s most compelling attribute is the fact that it exists at all. Across the U.S., public housing, condemned as a tax-draining vector of institutionalized mayhem and poverty, whipping-boy symbol of supposedly foolhardy urban policy, has largely disappeared. Chicago knocked down Cabrini-Green, St. Louis imploded Pruitt-Igoe, New Orleans flattened Lafitte after Katrina. Only in New York does public housing remain on a large scale, remnants of the days when the developments were considered a bulwark of social liberalism, a way to move up.
Not that the passage has been smooth. The eighties and early nineties were the crack era. In the South Bronx, whole families at the Mott Haven houses were addicted, parents copping behind the developments, kids in front, hiding their stash so mom and dad wouldn’t steal it. Then came the gangs, bands of territorial youths calling themselves the 40 Wolves, Gun Clapping Goonies, Broad Day Shooters, and Fuck Shit Up (FSU). Over at the Polo Grounds Towers on Coogan’s Bluff, where the Say Hey Kid once ran free, Bloods and Crips marched by windows in full colors. This was followed by the crash, a greater economic disaster at the Edenwald Houses in the Bronx than on Wall Street. Currently, 26 percent of working-age project residents are unemployed, a nearly threefold rise since 2008.
Earlier this year, after a decade of chronic underfunding from the Feds, John Rhea, NYCHA chairman, told the City Council what it already knew: Public housing was in dire straits. For years, NYCHA was considered the most successful public-housing organization in the country, a vast, unwieldy, often-complained-about bureaucracy that somehow managed to maintain at least the illusion of acceptable marginality. But now, the daily operating budget was millions in the red. With older developments like the Red Hook Houses, built in 1939 and sinking into the loam like a Mayan ruin, the capital budget shortfall—the money needed to repair the aging housing stock—exceeded $6 billion and was likely to balloon to a mind-boggling $14 billion by 2016. In the current climate, the prospect of more money from the Feds seemed remote.
Then, last month, with a muscle-memory spasm of old-school kick-ass reporting by the Daily News, the other shoe dropped, hard. According to the News, NYCHA wasn’t quite as broke as it let on. As John Rhea was pleading poverty, NYCHA was reportedly sitting on nearly a billion dollars of unspent federal funds. The question was why the city’s biggest landlord was hoarding that kind of money with more than 300,000 unmet repair requests. Amid accusations of cosmic incompetency, a reformed NYCHA will shed half its board members, along with their $187,000 salaries.
Still, the projects persist. People get up and go to work. Some run gray-market “plate lunch” and beauty parlors out of their apartments. Disability and public-assistance checks keep coming. Why that is—why the projects were built here in such numbers and continue to house as many people as they do, how the developments moved from a source of municipal pride to an invisible society people would rather forget exists, is a key story of the city, as unique to New York as the Statue of Liberty and why people cross against traffic.
When touring the Brooklyn pj’s, as they’re called, you might as well start at 534 Flushing Avenue, on the edge of Bed-Stuy, in the Marcy Houses. There, on the fifth floor, is the childhood home of Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z.* Of all the great Nychaland griots, few have been more identified with his home turf than the “B.K. brawler, Marcy Projects hallway loiterer.” No monument marks the former residence of the Atlantic Yard Nets shareholder, but the elevator still smells like piss just to keep it real. Near the doorway of the rapper’s old crib stood a woman in her early twenties wearing a purple T-shirt and holding a crying baby as she yelled into a cell phone. “More Pampers! Don’t fucking forget,” she screamed. At Marcy, the hard-knock life presses on.
Unlike the dense pj fortresses of Harlem and the Lower East Side, the Central Brooklyn developments sprawl in a southeasterly line through the traditional “bad neighborhoods” of Bed-Stuy and Bushwick, on to Brownsville, home to the Howard, Glenmore, Seth Low, Van Dykes, Tilden, Brownsville, and Garvey Houses—79 buildings with some 15,000 residents. Beyond that is East New York, where, after a long, bumpy ride on Linden Boulevard, one arrives at the Louis H. Pink Houses.
In 2009, an Internet poster named “bklocksmith” posted the thread “Pink Houses. Worst Housing Project in Brooklyn? In the US?” Several posters answered in the affirmative. “The Pinks”—built on 31 acres that according to local legend once served as a Mafia hit-man dump—stink. In 2005, Pink Houses Crew made news for knocking over jewelry stores and leaving battered bodies on the shoulder of the Van Wyck Expressway. Late-night gunfire remains a staple. Said one former tenant, “It’s like Saturday night and blam—a shell crashes the window and gets stuck in the ceiling. My sister called NYCHA ten times to get it out.” Even the development’s signature rapper, the ribald Uncle Murda, known for titles like “Bullet, Bullet” and “Stick Up Muzik,” as well as for once claiming on the Wendy Williams show to have self-medicated a gunshot wound with a regimen of “Hennessy and Newports,” left the Pinks for the nearby Cypress Hills Houses. “I had a lot of shootouts in Pink. They don’t like me too much over there,” Murda reported.
That said, I was in the Pinks because of its namesake, Louis H. Pink. Born in Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1882, a former resident of a Lower East Side tenement, Pink was a leader in the fight to rid New York of its slums, which in 1920 reputedly covered seventeen square miles of the city. Three decades after Jacob Riis depicted the horrors of slum life in How the Other Half Lives, city children were “still being brought up in dark, ill-ventilated, overcrowded, unsafe tenement houses,” Pink wrote in his 1928 book, The New Day in Housing. Taking his lead from the Gemeindebau, or “community construction,” built in “Red Vienna” following World War I, Pink felt New York would benefit from “modern, sanitary housing for the great mass of our less well off citizens.”
Pink was joined by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who blamed the TB death of his first wife on the evils of slum living. “Down with rotten, antiquated ratholes! Down with hovels! Down with disease! Down with crime!” the Little Flower proclaimed, saying every New Yorker deserved “a bit of sunshine in every window.” On December 3, 1935, Louis Pink joined La Guardia, Governor Herbert Lehman, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to dedicate First Houses on Avenue A and 3rd Street. It was the beginning of public housing in the United States.
* An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Shawn Carter as Sean Carter.
In 1959, when the Louis H. Pink Houses opened, no First Lady appeared. Public housing was in its stolid middle age, the era of idealism long gone, and NYCHA’s enterprise had morphed into a full-scale building boom pursued with typical assembly-line zeal by the city’s chairman of slum clearance, Robert Moses. Filed under the rubric of “urban renewal” (James Baldwin called it “Negro removal”), slum-clearing was done for private development as well as great municipal feats like the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The displaced, especially white lower-middle-class workers who otherwise would have moved to places like bucolic (and racially segregated) Levittown, were encouraged to move to public high-rises full of Mayor La Guardia’s sunlight.
This was useful history to keep in mind while walking around the Louis H. Pink Houses. There, I ran into Caroline Thunder. A petite African-American senior citizen, Thunder has lived in Louis Pink for 40 years, all of which makes her a fairly typical citizen of Nychaland, where 90.3 percent of current residents are black or Latino, 62.1 percent of residents are women, and 35.7 percent of households are headed by individuals over 62 years of age. Attired in a blue-and-yellow NYCHA windbreaker, Thunder was sitting “resident watch,” something she does most every afternoon between 4 and 8 p.m.
Thunder showed me her gardens, which were marked by hand-painted signs identifying them as “PINK’S GARDEN OF EDEN” and “PINK’S PARADISE.” It didn’t matter that Louis H. Pink was built on a dump; the soil still worked, said Thunder, rightly proud of her first-place finish in a recent NYCHA-wide gardening contest.
Thunder didn’t know much about Louis H. Pink the man. “It’s just a sign to me,” she said, adding that, whatever people said about the place, “Louis H. Pink has been good to me. It is home. You always have a feeling for your home.” Still, Thunder worried, because she’d heard about the problems at NYCHA, the talk about how the projects might go under. “I’m a old lady, I’m retired, so who cares about me?” Thunder said. “But what about these babies? Where they going to go?”
Before the Daily News stories broke, I talked to John Rhea at NYCHA’s downtown office. A Harvard M.B.A. and former Lehman Brothers managing director, Rhea was met with deep skepticism on his 2009 selection by Mayor Bloomberg to head NYCHA. This mostly owed to his Wall Street background and his complete lack of experience in public-housing management. Still, Rhea assured me he was no Cathie Black. He was getting things done. His recently unveiled five-year plan would not only keep NYCHA afloat but also wipe out the authority’s deficit by 2016.
The centerpiece of Rhea’s “public-private solution” for NYCHA has been the city’s 2010 funding deal with Citigroup. In exchange for fifteen years’ worth of guaranteed federal low-income-housing tax credits, the bank helped secure $230 million for 21 troubled developments that were built but no longer funded by the city and/or the state. The arrangement triggered NYCHA’s eligibility for the onetime infusion of $75 million of federal stimulus funds.
“If you want to save the proud tradition of public housing in this city, you’ve got to think differently,” Rhea declared, adding that while heading NYCHA was “by far the biggest challenge” of his career, he had come to love his job and the projects themselves. “NYCHA is supposed to be this great problem,” the chairman said. “But if your rich uncle left you NYCHA in his will, that would be the luckiest day of your life. NYCHA, with its vast holdings, is a tremendous asset for the City of New York.
“We can’t rely on the same old remedies. Too many lives are at stake,” Rhea said with a momentary crack in his voice. “To do nothing is the road to decay, displacement, and demolition.”
A couple of days later, up in Harlem at the Drew-Hamilton Houses, Barbara G. Barber leaned back in her chair and offered a derisive cackle. “The chairman is losing sleep worrying about us? Ha!”
Throughout Nychaland, one encounters many outsize personalities, a high percentage of them older black and Latino women active in resident affairs, but no one has a reputation for being as resolute, loud, or flat-out irascible as Barbara G. Barber. As many tenants, NYCHA workers, and NYPD officers will tell you, often with a pained look: “Barbara G. Barber, she’s a legend.”
Call her on the phone, ask her how she’s doing, and she might yell (as she did when I called), “Doing? I’m trying to save my development from falling into the jaws of hell. What do you think I’m doing?”
Around Drew-Hamilton, some people say that Barbara G. Barber acts like she owns the place, is a petty autocrat and a bit cracked to boot. The day I was there, she went into the NYCHA management office, barked a number of commands, and left muttering about the idiots she was forced to deal with. “Looks like you got them terrorized,” I said. “Why not? They terrorize us,” she replied. It wasn’t easy riding herd on 3,000 people right smack in the middle of Central Harlem. Between NYCHA, the punk 2MafiaFamily dope dealers, and the cops hassling law-abiding citizens with their yahoo stop-and-frisk, Drew-Hamilton was under siege every single day. That wasn’t even counting the crazy stuff, like Antoine Yates’s tiger, Ming.
This dated back to 2003, when it came to light that Yates was keeping a 350-pound Bengal tiger (and a three-foot-long alligator) in his apartment. According to witnesses, Yates and the tiger liked to lie on the bed together watching reruns of The Godfather movies. The animal would occasionally relieve himself on the floor, resulting in a cascade of tiger piss in the apartment below. Barbara G. Barber said she had known Antoine Yates “since he was a little boy,” adding that the former Drew-Hamilton tiger keeper was now living in Las Vegas, which was where he should stay if he knew “what was good for his zoo behind.”
As it turned out, Drew-Hamilton was one of the 21 developments involved in the NYCHA-Citigroup deal John Rhea was touting as a template in the fight to save public housing. How did Barbara G. Barber feel about that? With withering pity, she said, “Are you asking me how I feel about John Rhea selling Drew-Hamilton to Citibank without asking a single individual who lives here about it?” A rejoinder pertaining to how the 21 developments were supposed to be returned to full NYCHA control once the fifteen-year, low-income-tax-credit period ran out elicited only mocking disbelief. What dreamland was I living in?
Paranoia runs deep in Nychaland, but nothing stirs fear like the idea that the projects are being sold to private developers who will throw everyone out to put up luxury apartments. At Wagner Houses in East Harlem, many residents insist Donald Trump already owns the place. A NYCHA official said, “That started after one of our guys was looking around the development. He’s got funny hair. From the twelfth floor, he might have looked like Trump.”
Most assume the fix is in. After all, New York is big, but not that big. The pressure increases each time a fresh-faced college grad steps off a plane to drink in the cool new bar on the (formerly) sketchy side of town. Ten years ago, the sight of the Bushwick projects was a signal to lock the car doors and drive faster. Now they are the backdrop for the romance of the struggling artist con condo. Robert Moses might have done his best to place the developments as far from the main stem as possible, but now the city is coming to the projects.
“We are living in the last days of public housing in New York City,” said Barbara G. Barber, who has never seen so many white people on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. John Rhea was Bloomberg’s “well-dressed executioner”—no more, no less.
Still, Barbara G. Barber did not think to call him the worst NYCHA chairman ever. That title went to Simeon Golar. “Simeon Golar did more damage to us than anyone.”
It was an obscure, unexpected reference requiring a jog of memory. Simeon Golar was Mayor John Lindsay’s NYCHA chairman during what will always be known in housing circles as “Forest Hills,” the 1971–72 dispute that stomped out the do-gooder ideal of public housing for all time. As the projects filled with minorities, Lindsay, anxious to break what he called “this vicious cycle of racial inequality,” backed a program to decentralize the projects by locating them throughout the city. After fierce resistance in the then mostly Italian-American Corona, it was supposed that the reliably liberal Jewish population of Forest Hills would open its arms to the construction of three 24-story project buildings at the corner of 108th Street and 62nd Road. This spectacular miscalculation was met with weeks of demonstrations featuring picket signs saying NO WELFARE TOWERS IN FOREST HILLS and IMPEACH ADOLF LINDSAY.
Simeon Golar, an African-American and the first NYCHA chairman to have actually lived in the projects, became a flash point. Confronting the highly vocal opposition, Golar said that Forest Hills was “populated by people with short memories who still do not know how the other half lives and do not care to.” Words like anti-Semite and racist were tossed around. Eventually, Mario Cuomo was called in to mediate the dispute. A few months later, President Richard Nixon, who called the projects “monstrous, depressing places—run-down, overcrowded, and crime-ridden,” cited the Forest Hills uproar in declaring a moratorium on the building of new public housing.
“Simeon Golar. That’s when we started to have all these problems,” Barbara G. Barber said. “Welfare tenants, lack of funding, crime. Everything we got today.”
Barbara G. Barber did not expand on these comments, but she’d made her point, at least as it pertained to Barbara G. Barber. You couldn’t pigeonhole her, think she was nothing but a crank, because she knew her stuff. John Rhea might imagine himself the emperor of Nychaland, but Barbara G. Barber saw through that Ermenegildo Zegna suit. She was a keeper of the flame; if those Citibank boys planned on taking a bulldozer to Drew-Hamilton, it would be over her dead body.
A noted New York housing expert described the relationship between NYCHA and its residents as “borderline pathological … like an abusive parent-child syndrome.” You could see what he meant this past June, as NYCHA ran a series of citywide roundtables to inform residents on the current state of the system. After two hours of brain-numbing speeches and many pie charts, the residents were afforded a twenty-minute period to offer feedback, i.e., vent their often-heard complaints about leaks, rats, lost paperwork, etc. The NYCHA officials scribbled on pads, said nothing. It was all pretty routine until the subject of the cops came up.
The consensus is project policing started going seriously wrong in 1995, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani merged the previously distinct NYCHA housing cops with the NYPD. During “the old days,” projects were assigned specific officers. Now each of the nine Police Service Areas (PSAs) cover a number of developments. “You used to know them, now you don’t,” said one resident at the Bronx roundtable. Stop-and-frisk was bad, but people also complained of the indignity of being charged with trespassing in the lobby or hallways of their own building. Cops assigned to the pj’s were often rookies, the residents charged—young, jumpy Caucasians from Massapequa Park freaked to find themselves in close quarters with so many blacks and Latinos.
“They don’t do verticals,” people said, meaning the police rarely go beyond a building’s lobby. “The stairwells, man, you could meet the Alien in there,” said one roundtable attendee. “I get home from work, dead on my feet, and the damn elevator’s broken. Again. I could walk up the ten floors, but I don’t need that kind of exercise. If the cops are afraid to go in there with guns, how am I supposed to feel?”
Many cops agreed. As one ranking officer with long experience in the projects said, “Go into St. Nick’s Houses, or Grant, they hate you on sight. You can feel the waves of it hitting you in the face. It’s just fucking dangerous. There’s a million places to hide. Shit comes at you all angles. Once these guys were on a call at the Polo Grounds Towers. They’re there like five minutes and someone screams, ‘Incoming.’ This massive, Costco-size jar of mayonnaise comes flying out of the 27th-story window and goes through the windshield of a cruiser. Guys were licking their fingers, going, ‘It’s fucking mayonnaise’ … Sometimes you have to ask yourself, What’s the point?”
The kicker to this is, as part of the 1995 deal, NYCHA pays the NYPD an extra fee (currently in excess of $70 million a year) for “above baseline” police services. This is exactly the sort of stuff that drives people like John Johnson crazy. Now 48 and often nattily attired in faux designer sunglasses and Mets cap, Johnson, who has been living in the South Bronx’s Mott Haven Houses since the “Fort Apache” days, is the chair of the Bronx South District Council of Presidents (BSDCOP), the most powerful of NYCHA tenant groups. I first called him after seeing a video on the BSDCOP website. Accompanied by Ray Charles’s version of “America the Beautiful,” the tape shows a man with a bicycle coming out of the project elevator, where he’s stopped by a couple of cops who take away the bike, get into a fight with him, and eventually arrest him.
“Oh, yeah, that’s ours,” Johnson said. “The tenant watch. We watch them watch us.”
Delayed installment of security cameras has been a continuing issue, and after a series of robberies in the neighborhood, Johnson tried to get the Authority to put in the devices at Mott Haven. “NYCHA said I’d have to wait, that it was too expensive, blah, blah, blah. So I found these genius local guys, the Digital Divide Partnership. They set up the cameras so you could see the feed on smartphones and computers. They also put Wi-Fi in the building running off a solar panel for free. It was fantastic.
“But NYCHA blew a gasket. They were mad I didn’t ask permission. People are getting mugged, and they want me to ask permission! They said they’d rip out the cameras. I told them, ‘You’ll have to be taking me to jail before you do that’ … Well, there was a NYCHA party at Gracie Mansion. I see Bloomberg, ten feet away from me. I go up to him with my cell phone, show him the feed. ‘That’s the lobby of my building, right now, in real time,’ I tell him. He said, ‘Wow, that’s terrific. All the developments should have that.’ After that, I got a lot more cooperation on the camera issue.”
Living in public housing would drive you nuts if you let it, Johnson said.
Of all the housing experts I spoke to, Howard Husock, vice-president of policy research at the rightist Manhattan Institute, was the only one to offer a comprehensive plan about what to do about the projects.
“Public housing might have seemed like a good idea in the thirties, but it wasn’t then “and it certainly isn’t now,” Husock said when I visited his office on Vanderbilt Avenue, next door to the Yale Club. John Rhea was doing his best, but he’d been dealt an “impossible hand,” Husock said. As long as NYCHA depended on federal funds, it was doomed to failure. Continued subsidies compounded the faulty logic built into the system by the 1969 passage of the Brooke Amendment, which fixed public-housing residents’ rent at 25 percent (now 30 percent) of their income, thereby assuring that the projects would never pay for themselves. Since then, Husock said, the projects had created a huge “frozen zone” that impeded the “normal turnover of properties,” choking off the construction of other housing, both market rate and affordable.
“People weren’t supposed to live in public housing for 40 years. Where did La Guardia say that? Public housing was supposed to give you a leg up, a way to move on. Not stay forever,” Husock maintained.
Delighting in an opportunity to skewer moldy liberal wrongheadedness, Husock scoffed at the notion that the presence of the Fulton Houses in the middle of million-dollar Chelsea provided welcome diversity to an increasingly monolithic neighborhood. On the contrary, Husock said, the projects were actually a cruel thing, a modern-day gulag, with hundreds of thousands of people mired in an obsolete, thoroughly discredited, ego-debilitating residential system that happened to be taking up some very valuable room. Luckily, the remedy was quite straightforward. First of all, the sheer volume of the projects would have to be significantly reined in. Cutting back to around 60 percent of the current stock would be a good first-phase goal, Husock said. The rest could be repurposed for mixed use or simply sold off. The sale of the more lucrative properties would pay for the upgrade of the remaining developments. To ensure reasonable resident turnover, restrictions on the length of tenancy would be established. Husock thought “five years” would be a reasonable time limit.
“Footprint reduction, sale of attractive properties, time limit on residence, that’s about it,” Husock said.
As I traveled through Nychaland, it was difficult to totally ignore Husock’s modest proposal. Certainly he had a point when it came to long-term tenancy. As the city continues to grow, the difficult housing market has caused people to make use of a crazy patchwork of available domiciles. In Sunset Park, Mexican day workers crammed into basements. In Queens, unrelated working families shared kitchens. Weren’t these the very people public housing was designed to serve? Yet, with little turnover in the system, many immigrants found themselves at the end of four- and five-year-long waiting lists. When Asians, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the city, manage to get an apartment, they are often harassed by residents. Recently, a Chinese family that had been placed at Marcy came home to find the door of their apartment smeared with feces.
The topic came up often during discussions with current residents, eliciting surprisingly little sympathy for newcomers. “I get why people might be upset, but when I got in here in 1977, I knew I wasn’t moving. Where was I supposed to go, a single mother with a disabled child? Great Neck? Hello? Besides, this is a good deal,” said a friend of mine as we checked the river view from the sixteenth-story window of her Harlem project. She currently pays just over $500 for her three-bedroom apartment, slightly more than the NYCHA average of $434. NYCHA has been attempting to “right-size” her down to a one-bedroom, but she’s been resisting. She needs the space. Other relatives lived in the apartment on and off, none of whom were on the lease. Then again, everyone she knew flouted NYCHA rules in one way or another.
Funny how things work out, my friend said, as she changed the channel on her flat-screen TV. “The other day at the bodega I ran into these four white girls. I started talking to them. They said they were living right across the street in this dumpy building paying $800. I thought, Well, that’s all right. Then they say they’re paying $800 apiece! One of them is sleeping on the couch. Sleeping on the couch in their own house! I went back to my apartment, looked at my view, and thought, Maybe my elevator is pissy, but if that’s gentrification, who’s the joke on now?”
“I’ll know the projects are changing when the first hipster applies for admission,” said April Simpson-Taylor, as we sat together on a bench at the Queensbridge projects, where she has lived most of her life. April, whose heritage includes African-American, Native American, Mexican, and “other stuff,” remembered when “a lot” of white people lived in the QB. “When I was a little girl, we had Irish, Italians, Jewish people. All those different cooking smells in the hallways. They were just some other people in the building. I never noticed them until they were gone,” said Simpson-Taylor, who takes pride in being “a Simpson, one of the Queensbridge old-timers. The Simpsons, the Walkers, the Altons, the Hollies, we’re the Mayflower families of the QB.” She laughed.
This made Simpson-Taylor “project royalty,” because, as everyone knows, Queensbridge isn’t just another pj. Located on the East River in Long Island City, the QB, home to 7,000 or more people on 50 acres, is the largest public-housing project in the country. Built in 1939, the QB was considered a quantum leap for subsidized housing. Recommending the project as “a credit to the city,” Louis H. Pink, then head of the New York State Housing Department, wrote that the development’s proximity to the elevated subway line, “where it will be seen by a great many visitors to the World’s Fair,” was “excellent.”
It was a beautiful day, and I was happy to hear Simpson-Taylor tell me her life story, how she’d had her troubles, but now she’d found God and gotten a degree in social work at York College. In a half-hour, at least a dozen people stopped to say hello. Many hugs were exchanged. That was the “blessing” about living in Queensbridge, Simpson-Taylor said, to be surrounded by so many good people. It was sweet right then, to be seen in the company of April Simpson-Taylor. Because, for this moment, you seemed good here, in the flow.
This reverie was snapped, however, when Simpson-Taylor told me not to get too comfortable, because after the sun went down, walking in these parts was to risk meeting “Freddy Krueger and the ice-pick fingers.” Project royalty or not, night and day were, as they say, like night and day. It was enough to summon up the single greatest project rap ever, “Shook Ones, Pt. 2,” by Queensbridge’s own Mobb Deep, with its famous refrain, “Son, they shook … ’cause there ain’t no such thing as halfway crooks, scared to death, scared to look, they shook.”*
We got to talking about the future of the projects. I mentioned Howard Husock’s plan. Simpson-Taylor frowned. “They’re always talking about selling the projects. I don’t listen to it,” she said.
“But, if they did, how much do you think you could get for this place?”
“Yeah. How much do you think it’s worth?”
The idea had been roiling around for a couple of weeks. Husock mentioned selling the Ingersoll Houses, a twenty-building development tucked under the BQE in Fort Greene. But Queensbridge, 50 acres with all that river frontage, had to be way more valuable. Queensbridge Park, right by the water, was a beauty. The renovated F-train station right on the corner was a mere two stops from Manhattan.
A couple of phone calls to property assessors returned the following information: Despite the image of the teeming projects, the leafy QB is severely underbuilt. The buildings themselves take in 1.6 million square feet, but the area was zoned for a “buildable” total of 3.6 million square feet. With that 3.6 million feet currently going for $80 per, the site could be worth close to $300 million. “Selling Queensbridge,” Simpson-Taylor said mournfully. “You know how many times I’ve thought about moving away from here? Who wants to live their whole life in a project? But I keep coming back. You don’t always get to choose your home, but it is still home, and not just because I grew up here. It’s home because everybody’s here. What happens to everyone then?”
That was the question, the one Howard Husock’s modest proposals didn’t quite cover. He said the best way to pry the people out of the projects was “with carrots, not sticks.” The residents could be “bought out,” in the way landlords in the private sector give tenants money to empty a building. That way, the former residents would be free to move anywhere, Husock said.
Somehow I didn’t think it was going to work that way.
There were reasons why American public housing thrived for a moment in New York, reasons why the projects had become “a problem,” reasons why the poor rarely moved out once they moved in, reasons why so few New Yorkers knew much of anything about the developments. It had to do with visions of social uplift, shifting ideas of how the middle class would live, the exercise of power, and the soul-deadening crush of poverty and race.
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Mobb Deep as Mobb Depp.
But in the end, much of it came back to the city itself, the peculiar case of New York. That much was clear a few weeks ago, when I attended a demonstration in front of the NYCHA office at 250 Broadway. A number of unions were upset about the way things were being done, the layoffs, the involvement of outside consultants, the alleged arrogance of the upper-level managers. Robert J. Croghan, head of the Organization of Staff Analysts, spoke to the faithful.
“I remember when the Bronx was on fire,” began Croghan, a tall, thin reed of a man who looks more like a windswept Irish poet than a union leader. “Everything was in flames. I thought the world was coming to an end. Then I saw this building. A project—not a private building. New York City public housing. And in this building, the lights were on! Life continued. I’ll never forget how proud it made me feel of my city. New York City! Proud of how we have always extended a hand to those in need. To me that’s what this city has always been about.”
The projects were a cautionary tale, Easter Island–like relics left from another New York and a different social contract, I thought, as I made my way to the furtherest reach of Nychaland. Twenty-one miles by A train from midtown, they don’t call it Far Rockaway for nothing. Out here, the projects are hard-core. For years, gangs like the G.O.A. (Gang of Apes) and the G.I.B. (Get It in Bricks) have blown each other away on Beach Channel Drive. “We’re off the map here,” said my man in the Redfern Houses, Celeb Prez, a.k.a. FarRock Obama, who released a mixtape called N.Y.C.H.A., or Not Your Common Hip-hop Artist. “Can’t even go swimming,” Prez said. Living six blocks from the ocean all his nineteen years, Prez has only been to the water “like twice … The current sweeps you away; it happened to a kid in my building.” There were plenty of ways to die in Far Rock, Prez said.
I was on my way to see Connie Taylor. Of all the Nychaland matriarchs, Connie Taylor is the oldest and the wisest. Now 91, she was born on West 47th Street, moved up to Sugar Hill in Harlem, where she was a wonderful dancer and didn’t mind a nip of Johnnie Walker Black. After getting married, she came to Far Rock, living the last 38 years in the Ocean Bay Apartments. That is where I found her, in a wool beret and wrapped in a couple of blankets despite the 95-degree heat, sitting resident watch.
“You got to keep an eye out,” Taylor said, squinting across the street at a grocery where some guys were hanging out. “Black people eat a lot of pork,” she said. “But that store don’t sell no pork. It sells drugs.” With that, Taylor revved her motorized chair, shot out the door, bumped across the potholed street, and pulled up in front of the crowd. She just sat there staring. The men wilted under the glare. One pleaded, “Oh, Ms. Taylor, come on.” But they soon dispersed.
“They can’t face me. I shame them,” Taylor said, returning to her spot.
I asked Taylor what she thought about Arverne by the Sea, the large, expensive condo development going up a few blocks away. Some project people were worried about the place, fearful that politicians were in league with the builders and would soon move to take over the developments.
Taylor said she didn’t care about Arverne by the Sea. “They have a sign over there, starts at $559,000! If that where it start, where do it go?” Taylor wanted to know. “We got people in here paying $125 a month. They happy enough.”
Then Taylor started talking about the storm that hit Far Rockaway back in 1970 or ’71. “The water from the bay met the water from the ocean. People were paddling boats to the subway.” As a Bible reader, Taylor knew a giant wave could emerge from the ocean at any time. “What those people with their ‘STARTS AT $559,000’ going to do then?”
No, Taylor said. “I’d rather just stay right here. In my little development. My building is solid. Solid as a rock.”