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.