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.”