State of the Projects

Written by Alissa Fleck on . Posted in Breaking News, News Our Town Downtown, Our Town Downtown.


After a series of shootings in NYC’s projects, ‘Our Town Downtown’ uncovers life in NYC’s housing complexes

In early July, NYPD Officer Brian Groves was performing a routine vertical patrol in the Lower East Side’s Seward Park complex when he was shot by a man who subsequently fled the scene. A few days later, a 19-year-old was fatally shot in the Chelsea Houses. The remainder of July saw multiple infants, including a 3-year-old Brooklyn boy, caught in the crossfire of project violence.

There were 35 shootings in 28 days in public housing complexes as of early July, according to the NYPD, and reported by the New  York Post. Violent crimes are on the rise in the city this year. According to the NYPD, citywide crime is up 4.2 percent over 2011.

In light of this increase in crime and the number of shootings in complexes this summer, Our Town Downtown examined safety and life in the Seward Park complex and a number of other housing complexes across New York City. Not all housing projects are equivalent, and a significant number of variables influence the culture and safety level of any given project, including location, policing, allocated funding and general conditions. Each also faces its unique pressures and interactions within the surrounding community.

Politicians and community members alike struggle for solutions to what they see as the projects’ central issues, which has led to recent debates over security, including surveillance cameras and controversial stop-and-frisk practices.

Despite the recent shooting of Officer Groves, residents of Seward Park describe the complex as relatively safe. However, in a recent survey of 10,000 homes in 12 housing complexes by NYCHA, the organization reported nearly 60 percent of the respondents said there had been serious crime in their development in the past year, and many reported rarely leaving their apartments out of fear.

This is especially true of the Pelham Parkway complex in the Bronx, where violence is a prevalent factor. City Councilman James Vacca, whose district includes the Pelham Parkway projects, discussed the June murder of an 88-year-old grandmother, Evelyn Shapiro, who was slain in a push-in robbery (where an intruder pushes in the door, usually after it’s been cracked open) in the Pelham complex.

“We’ve seen an increase in crime in Pelham with gangs and drugs,” Vacca said in an interview. “There was another shooting there last week. It’s becoming increasingly unsafe. The Housing Authority says it has no money to make it safer for those in the neighborhoods.”

According to Vacca, locals even refer to a section of the Pelham complex as “Siberia,” citing its apparent lawlessness.

The fact that it’s known by this name, Vacca said, “speaks mountains … that it’s the most crime-vulnerable location” in the complex. He said a bodega directly across the street has witnessed multiple shootings and knifings over the years, indicating how project violence spills over and affects the larger community. “It’s turf disputes,” said Vacca, “it’s about drugs.”

Vacca may point to drug and turf wars in his district, but James Brodick, project director of Brownsville Community Justice Center, spoke to the danger in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn operating on a cycle of fear: “I think there’s two things you can look at … the crime stats and the fear factor, and they go hand in hand,” he said. “People feel unsafe [in Brownsville] even when crime is down.”

Brodick also blames significant overcrowding in the high-crime area: “[Brownsville] is a mile and a half with 100,000 people living on top of each other,” he said. “There are generations of poverty issues among housing developments. Young people are taking out their frustrations, and unfortunately that involves guns and violence.”

In Brownsville, the highly contentious stop-and-frisk practice might be a deterrent for people who would otherwise carry guns, Brodick explains, but ultimately it serves to also raise tensions. Brodick said people living in the projects do not trust authority figures, and would not even step forward as witnesses in many cases. “One of the challenges is a lack of trust with anything government,” he said. “With victims of violence … the instinct in Brownsville is you don’t go to police. People have had a negative experience or response or they’re worried about retaliation.”

Overcrowding also seems an insurmountable problem in the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, Queens. Raymond Normandeau, press secretary of the Queensbridge Tenants Council and Queensbridge project resident since 1973, says his complex has 96 buildings, for which the census reports approximately 10,000 tenants. Normandeau said the complex is actually intended to accommodate 8,000 or 9,000, but probably houses closer to 15,000 tenants, many illegally. “The [New York City] Housing Authority (NYCHA) has no idea who’s living in many of the apartments,” he said. “That’s absurd. They should go once a year and make sure it matches with names on the lease.”

Queensbridge, made legendary by rappers like Jay-Z who grew up there, is by many accounts, a notoriously violent project, and is located in a precinct which saw 348 felony assaults (crimes involving infliction of serious bodily injury) in 2011. Normandeau, however, places it “midway” on the danger spectrum, saying it’s not as severe as some in the Rockaways.

Does he feel unsafe? “No, I don’t feel unsafe,” said Normandeau. “I grew accustomed. Even people in Afghanistan grow accustomed.”

While there have been at least two murders in his complex this year, Normandeau and residents in other complexes seem more concerned with living conditions and how they affect safety, which can be attributed to tenants’ carelessness as well as NYCHA’s apathy and a general lack of accountability. Poor conditions seem to simply generate further disregard.

He explained: “We had an unlocked lobby door for several days, Housing Authority will not tell me the reason for the delay. They will not respond … because they don’t have to or they don’t care. If there’s a shortage of manpower, they should concentrate on safety issues.”

“I don’t know if Housing Authority has no money or doesn’t care,” he said. “You think safety issues would be corrected quickly but they are not.”

Normandeau added tenants are equally to blame, pointing to “carelessness and bad manners,” such as leaving trash lying around or allowing dogs to defecate in halls and elevators. Other issues include water leaks and mold running down the walls.

Despite these concerns, Normandeau said safety has actually been better recently, which he attributes largely to hotels cropping up in the area, including one “just a gunshot away” from the complex. These have led to increased police patrols in the area surrounding the projects. “I used to hear three gunshots a week, now I only hear one every two weeks,” he said.

Life, as a whole, seems better in the Seward Park complex, according to accounts by its residents. After the July shooting, police officers were a regular presence around the LES project which, residents report, was never a dangerous spot in the past. Officers are often posted on the corner of Essex and Broome streets, in a van which displays a couple of “wanted” posters on its window, but tenants in the area describe them as more or less fading into the background.

Vertical patrols, like the one performed by Groves at the time of the shooting, have been a routine way of life. According to the NYPD’s description, a vertical patrol is “a process by which [an officer] systematically and methodically checks each building one at a time, covering roof landings, stairwells and lobbies.” During these sweeps of public housing, police are required to stop, question and potentially frisk anyone they encounter, in the manner known as “stop-and-frisk.”

Residents of Seward do not point to vertical patrols and stop-and-frisk as the basis for the project’s safety though. Forty-one-year-old Jessica Baez, who has lived in Seward Park her whole life, since 1972, said: “What makes this building different is the community. There are different races, but we always stick together. If something is happening in the hallway, a neighbor will step outside and ask what’s going on.”

Ronald Anderson, who lived in the complex for 16 years before moving, still spends time there. He said he loves the building and has always felt safe around Seward. “It’s the first time I’ve heard of anything like this,” said Anderson, of Groves’ shooting. “It’s nothing compared to other projects, it’s a calm neighborhood.” Anderson specifically contrasted Seward with certain projects in Brooklyn, and pointed out the complex’s amenities—co-ops and balconies.

With regard to the project’s security, Anderson said: “There’s no cameras but there should be. We see cops every day now, they shoulda always been here.”

Sisters 18-year-old Elissa Febo and 19-year-old Janeece Febo’s grandmother has lived in Seward for 40 years. They said they’ve always felt safe and the shooting was the “one big” criminal incident in their memory. Now officers linger primarily outside complex grounds, but the women see detectives come and go occasionally.

“The building itself is calmer because of the cops,” said Janeece. The locks and intercoms are all functional, according to the sisters, but there are a few unsafe places such as the staircases or elevators, in which people frequently urinate.

Baez and her daughter, 14-year-old Alexandria Ali, call Seward one of the best housing complexes in the city. They say it’s primarily home to seniors, who have been there a long time, though students from the high school next door hang out in the courtyard and leave garbage around. Baez and Ali said the man who shot Groves was most likely “from the outside.” The perpetrator—described as a man in his twenties who stands 5 foot 9, with his hair braided in cornrows—is still on the loose, and the reward for information leading to his arrest has been raised to $32,000.

The two say there is overcrowding, though, and NYCHA only fixes things when the Department of Housing (HUD) is coming around. They added there is a mold problem at Seward, which “makes the walls bubble up and chip away.”
The sense of safety and calm described by residents, the accepting attitude toward police presence and the sense of community described by Baez and her daughter, is far from true of all housing projects in the city.

Authorities struggle with how to move forward security-wise. Since a 1995 merger of specialized housing police under the NYPD, regular NYPD officers patrol the majority of projects (with some exceptions—Vacca points out another project in his district, Throggs Neck, still has a housing police force). Because of high levels of crime and lower access to police personnel, many community members and government officials call for additional surveillance cameras to be installed in projects citywide. Brodick and Vacca insist cameras are a strong, blanket deterrent to crime.

“I’m not saying we should have a police state, but maybe cameras will help by being an eye in the sky and getting some witnesses,” said Brodick. “People say stop-and-frisk makes them not carry guns, cameras are not a deterrent per se, but if you’re filmed and prosecuted, you’re going to think twice. People aren’t thinking about the criminal justice system now when they commit a crime, the camera is one more resource. I hope these types of things prevent crime.”

NYCHA has already earmarked $42 million for surveillance measures, according to Sen. Daniel Squadron’s office, and now projects citywide are just waiting on their implementation, while NYCHA continues to delay the process, citing the need for additional “study.”

One commenter on Sheepshead Bites, an independent weblog that covers news in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead-Nostrand projects, pointed out that installing cameras in only some projects would merely cause offenders to move elsewhere. “Catch-22,” the commenter wrote, “projects that don’t have [cameras] are going to be 10 times worse.” Vacca said residents he’s spoken actually to want to see more police, more stop-and-frisk even.

Brodick disagrees cameras will merely shift crime: “People have always been talking about displacing crime … now it’s territorial, we’re not going to take it to a different development, it’s not drug-trade driven, it’s about respect and that will never change. The root of the violence is generational issues in housing developments, it’s not drugs.”

Politicians and community advocates alike seem to recognize NYCHA’s shortcomings in handling project security and maintenance.

In fact, Borough President Scott M. Stringer recently unveiled a plan to overhaul NYCHA, calling its board “an archaic and confusing relic” in a report.

Stringer’s recommendations have already gone into action, as a few days ago he succeeded in ousting two NYCHA board members. “The mayor’s adoption of many of my proposals for the reform of NYCHA is a significant step toward improving the lives of the over 650,000 New Yorkers who they serve,” Stringer said in a statement. “But more must be done.”

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