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.