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.