Hope for Public Housingby Mo-Yain Tham
There are several different ways to get to Fort Greene’s Whitman/Ingersoll Housing Development. It can be approached through the Metroplex Center, taking one past Einstein Bagels, where office workers stand in the leafy courtyard area smoking; or through Fort Greene Park, a nicely hilled area with a large field and tennis courts. Such tranquility, however, is far from the norm inside the development.
Upon reaching Whitman/Ingersoll Houses, one finds six 11-to-13 floor buildings with a total of 3,501 apartments. Completed in 1944, they comprise the first public housing project built by the New York State government In the middle of the Whitman Complex, the Housing Authority nestled the Community Center and Daycare Center. To this day, the centers remain a core part of daily life in projects such as Whitman. Because such centers are mostly federally funded, they are not immediately affected by the city and state budget cuts, but with the economy in a recession, the services they provide are even more essential.
Housing projects, of course, remain dangerous places, especially for outsiders. During my second visit to the complex for interviews, four young boys were hanging out in front of the overpass connecting Ingersoll Housing with Whitman Housing. As I approached the overpass bridge, a backpack came flying at me. After the boys apologized, saying that "it was a mistake," I continued walking up the ramp. The bag flew towards me again, and soon it did for a third time, after which I threw it back to the boys down on the ground. One of the smaller boys, about ten or eleven, then became enraged and hit me in the face, enough to sting but not scar. Eventually I walked away, asking them, "Don’t you have anything better to do than this?"
On the whole, the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill area has actually seen overall crime rates decline. Comparing 2002 to 2001, only rape has gone up dramatically—by 46.6 percent—whereas burglary has risen by just 2 percent. When comparing 2002 with 1993, however, all of the crime rates are significantly lower. Theoretically, the streets are now safer in Fort Greene. So why do young children pass the time by committing random acts of violence?
With physical exercise all but eliminated from New York City public schools and only limited adult supervision in place after school, urban surroundings offer very few safe or healthy outlets for excess energy or anger. Children growing up in public housing, in particular, face a legacy of discrimination and hardship due to tenant selection, overcrowding, and the generally dangerous climate. Although some families achieve the "goal" of eventually moving into a single resident home, many stay longer than two years and some even have generations growing up in the same development.
The basic need to house the jostling population of cities has led to varied solutions. During the 1930s, the "towers in the park" concept caught on in New York City and throughout the nation. Overcoming initial resistance, progressive advocates successfully argued that low-income families would profit from the technological advancement of high-rise living. The savings resulting from low land usage as well as high-unit housing made this concept the preferred choice of federal, state and city governments. At the same time, it led to the acceptance of mediocre buildings and layout designs for public houses.
In a study conducted during the 1950s, Brooklyn’s Van Dyke Housing Developments, with its fourteen-story buildings, had 50 percent more crime than the nearby low-rise Brownsville Housing. The researchers concluded that the high-rises prevented families from practicing normal family territoriality and residents in general from being able to control the higher floors.
Despite the acknowledged problems, there still exist progressive, vaguely utopian examples of what good public housing can offer. For instance, most New York City Housing Authority complexes provide a daycare and a community center. This is especially important given that 425,000 of the city’s public housing tenants are under 21. The daycare centers allow parents who are working, in school or training programs, or who have been court-ordered to send their children there while they attend a drug program, or to drop off their pre-school age child (meaning 21 months to pre-kindergarten). Community centers provide similar supervision for school-age children after school lets out.
When asked how he felt about Lafayette Gardens, a housing development in Clinton Hill, one 14-year-old responded with a "so, so." When I inquired specifically about his participation at the Community Center, he stated, "Why no basketball gym? Maybe they would see more people come. Maybe I’d go to the Community Center if they had sports." Another long-time resident, Belinda McLeod, commented, "I’ve seen a lot of change over twenty-eight years and not all’s positive. Kids need more resources to network, more things for kids to do. In most of the homes, parents kick them out of the house during the weekend and the Community Center is closed then."
In general, Ms. McLeod stresses the need for more youth outreach, saying that even the area’s churches are not trying hard enough. Another resident, a seventeen-year-old girl, began attending the Community Center after her grandmother convinced her to participate. On the whole she finds the Community Center to be "o.k." She cites many of the positive aspects of the Community Center’s programs, like cops coming and discussing drug issues, and trips to Madison Square Garden to see a women’s basketball game. She wishes that there were more activities with other community centers.
Lafayette Garden’s Community Center operates from 3 to 10 p.m., common hours for most centers. The six-to-twelve-year-olds attend from 3 to 6 pm. About thirty kids participate in the snack time, homework time, activities (maybe art or dance) and then dinner before going home. During the summer, about forty kids attended field trips to Playland, as well as to a fishing contest and to Bear Mountain upstate. On such trips, the assistant director noted, "discipline’s not an issue, they’re good."
From 6 to 10 pm, the thirteen-to-nineteen-year-olds arrive to play pool, cards, read magazines, or listen to a presentation, such as one about abusive relationships. The Housing Authority recently renovated the center for the first time since its inception in the 1940s. Although kids are not allowed to mark the walls, the center has plenty of artwork and cheery decorations. According to its staff, Lafayette Garden’s only concern is competing for children with Jackie Robinson Public School’s after-school program.
The Whitman/Ingersoll Daycare Center, meanwhile, is run and partially funded by the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service, a non-profit agency with a mission to empower children and families to achieve greater self-sufficiency and fuller participation in the community. Many public housing daycare centers are run by similar non-profit agencies.
The one at Whitman/Ingersoll conducts an after-school program for grade school children, in addition to its pre-school age daycare center. Funded by grants from the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service, the after-school program runs a "Studio in the School" workshop for children and adults, music activities and a literacy program. Through the literacy program, the children conduct interviews at the local fire station and stores throughout the community, finding out about those professions. Before this, the center mainly ran a homework program, where the kids just ate and did homework. As Cecilia Solomon, the center’s Educational Director, states, "the kids didn’t take too well to that." Now, they participate in more active events.
When asked if the Daycare Center/After School program has a positive impact on the community, Solomon declares, "I have to believe it is helpful." With four teachers for forty children, the after-school program works at maximum capacity due to licensing restrictions. Since the two nearby public schools do not have similar offerings, the Whitman Daycare Center’s after-school program meets a great need in the community. Solomon also reports that the two nearby buildings’ residents look out for the center. The residents also helped with a mural on the Daycare Center and made sure it was not defaced. In many ways, it has literally inserted itself as the center of its little community.
Community centers also hire art, dance or music consultants for the activities section of their after-school programs. Sarah McGraff spent a month working with Albany Housing’s Community Center. She notes that, "I liked being there because the after-school kids are there to do art. You don’t have the discipline issues at school." Twice a week, McGraff spent two hours working on an introductory project based on what the kids thought of themselves. Before leaving, she began working on a play created and developed by the 5-10 children in her program. When asked if she would do it again, she states, "I’m not sure about doing this again." Her primary problem is the paperwork, or as she phrased it, "the bureaucratic nightmare" of just getting paid by the City.
Overall, the image of many projects is rapidly changing, as the New York City Housing Authority is reportedly spending $400,000 for renovations on older buildings, and $10 million for new buildings, most of this funding stemming from federal programs. On a visit to Van Dyke Housing’s new $2 million Community Center, one encounters a large gym, a darkroom and several activity rooms for art, music and general recreation. The modern facility appears to be much like any well-appointed recreation hall in an affluent suburb. The Housing Authority has also torn down the Community Center at Ingersoll Housing to make way for a new building. The fresh coats of paint and new buildings are indicative of the Housing Authority’s attempt to meet this large youth population’s needs.
Public housing projects have gained a certain, fearsome reputation through their presence in hip-hop songs, local newspapers and the nightly news. Ida Clarke has lived at Whitman/Ingersoll since 1952, with two generations of her family making use of the Community Center. She states, "I’d have to believe it’s good," in terms of the summer programs and community events held there. "In today’s society," Ms. Clarke also asked, "where do you find a good neighborhood? You just hear about here and nowhere else."
Clarke’s point is well taken. Recently, a local TV station immediately identified Stuyvesant Town as the "Stuyvesant Projects" when a shooting occurred there; this is despite the reality that Stuyvesant Town actually houses mostly middle to upper-income families. With sufficient money, attention, and community input, lower-income public housing projects may one day overcome their harsh reputation. In the meantime, efforts such as those at Lafayette Gardens and Whitman/Ingersoll Daycare and Community Centers will continue to provide alternatives to "having fun" by hitting strangers.
Mo-Yain Tham is a writer formerly based in Clinton Hill who now attends graduate school in D.C.