“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.