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A small, multinational crew that has been reading kites journal united with the call to do social investigation about how the last year of pandemic and protest affected the lives of people. This past summer we spent dozens of hours talking with residents of the Queensbridge housing projects in Queens, New York.
Made famous by a number of excellent rap songs, Queensbridge is the largest and most populous housing project left in New York City (NYC). After the destruction of Chicago’s Cabrini Green 20 years ago, Queensbridge became the most populous housing project in the entire US. Tucked away below the 59th Street/Queensboro Bridge between Queens and Manhattan, Queensbridge was once a place ignored by real estate capital in a neighborhood the petty-bourgeoisie avoided. Over the last decade, however, the neighborhood surrounding the projects has shown signs of gentrification, and Queensbridge’s location right across the river from Manhattan has put it in the sights of real estate capital. Given that Queensbridge is now in the crosshairs of NYC’s larger battle over displacement and gentrification, we thought this would be the perfect neighborhood to conduct social investigation. From talking to Queensbridge residents, we learned that many of their day-to-day problems got worse during the pandemic, they sense the looming threat of gentrification and feel trapped with nowhere to go, violence among the youth related to the drug trade is a concern of many, and the police do nothing to solve violence and only bring more of it to the projects.
People’s Problems Only Got Worse During the Pandemic
In the heat of the afternoon sun, we found many Queensbridge residents trying to catch what breeze they could drifting off the East River. Over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and in a city and borough hit hard early on, the pandemic wasn’t the main thing on people’s minds. Not because the pandemic had no effect, but because the bigger things people felt they were facing were the violence, particularly amongst the youth, and the overall intensification of all the problems that residents of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) have had to deal with.
NYC was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic early and quick in the spring of 2020. The death rate in NYCHA housing projects, including in Queensbridge, was higher then surrounding areas. According to one news report, “Although the infection rate at the Queensbridge Houses was only 1 percentage point more than the development’s ZIP code, 11106, the death rate at the houses was 51 percent higher than the overall area rate.”1
The pandemic served to mainly increase the existing problems that residents of public housing already felt. A group of mainly Spanish-speaking Dominican residents related how the buildings weren’t being cleaned, there was very little sanitation despite being in the midst of a pandemic, and repairs took even longer than they did before—a request for repairs may not get a response until a year later. Another woman confirmed the long waits for repairs, saying she had a court order from 2018 for repairs in her unit that still haven’t been done.
We talked to a near-lifelong resident of Queensbridge and current community activist, and he echoed how some of the typical problems for NYCHA residents have been heightened by the pandemic:
The lack of cleaning, the negligence of NYCHA has been exacerbated during the pandemic to see that they really don’t clean to their guidelines. Cleaning the buildings, making the surfaces, the common spaces as clean as possible—they’re not doing that. The fact that during the pandemic people are already stressed and worried. The fact that people still have mold. People still are going with no heat in their apartment, people are still going with no hot water in their crib so people can’t properly clean themselves, their dishes, their clothes.
In addition to conditions getting worse, access to officials with NYCHA was more difficult than ever. As the same community activist put it,
With all the issues people have in their apartments, the fact that work spaces [for NYCHA employees] have changed so that it’s harder to contact someone. It’s harder to reach someone at your housing office, because they’re leaving early or some days they not in because of whatever thing they are making up.
Elderly and other residents that were already isolated felt even more isolated, barely coming out of their apartments except when necessary. Single mothers and working parents who were already struggling now had to become teachers to their children attending school remotely; some parents had to leave their jobs in order to do so. Those that were able to be at home with their kids often became monitors for multiple children from extended family and friends. Cousins and nieces and nephews were trying to go to school online with few computer resources.
Buildings that were already dirty and deteriorating were left with even less cleaning and upkeep. Repairs that already took forever were taking even longer. Residents were forced to wait longer stretches of time without heat or water before repairs were made. Mold, insect, and rodent infestations were not taken care of. One resident talked about getting a cat, even though she hates them, to deal with the mice in her apartment.
Newly built hotels that used to house an influx of tourists were converted during the pandemic into housing for the homeless. While homeless people now outfitted with their own rooms with TVs and showers felt they were in a better position and didn’t want to leave the situation, it had caused conflict with local residents that felt it was dumping more people in a neighborhood already dealing with the problems caused by poverty. While the people we talked to who were staying in the hotels felt that some of the services, including vaccinations and personal protective equipment availability, were adequate, they felt that services for homeless people with mental health and/or drug addiction issues were lacking. This lack of crucial services led to an increase in men hanging out on the streets, nodding off on corners from drug use, and harassing women and children, adding more stress to Queensbridge residents’ lives and conflict between different sections of people.
All the hallmarks and difficulties of living in public housing were compounded by the pandemic, adding even more stress to an already unprecedented and stressful situation. The previously quoted community activist emphasized that “Everything that you can do, when someone is already under stress to heighten stress levels, NYCHA did. If it wasn’t NYCHA, it was the city.”
In the Crosshairs of Gentrification
Many residents feel the push of gentrification alongside the systemic lack of repairs and housing deterioration and have a sense that the powers that be are doing a whole lot trying to push people out of the area. Queensbridge residents are being forced to live in deplorable conditions. NYCHA’s message is clear: If you don’t like it, find somewhere else to live, because we’re not going to fix it.
This section of Queens was historically an industrial sector that once had factories and warehouses. Public housing was originally built using land that was cheap, because the industrial setting made it an undesirable neighborhood for the petty-bourgeoisie to live in. Over the last decade or so there has been a tremendous amount of build-up around Queensbridge, with high-rise office buildings and condos in a business development area within a mile and fancy hotels within blocks. The area also attracts tourists with its close proximity to parks on the waterfront and easy transportation into Manhattan.
In one conversation, several women residents related how, before COVID, there was a situation of white tourists from Europe or other places in the US staying in the surrounding hotels taking over the area. They talked about how tourists came through the neighborhood “looking at us like we came from the Planet of the Apes,” looking at residents “like they’re on a tour or something,” watching seniors doing art or exercise at the community center. They began to wonder, “Is this neighborhood ours anymore?”
Between the lack of repairs and rumors and news stories about raising rents and privatization, many residents fear that the city government wants to push people out of the projects. Seeing the general gentrification of many poor NYC neighborhoods and the build-up of condos and hotels in the area around Queensbridge makes this fear an entirely rational reaction.
The amount of rent that NYCHA residents have to pay is determined by their income, so there isn’t a situation of evictions or threatened evictions due to COVID-caused unemployment, even for residents who have lost jobs. There is, however, a double-edged sword of, on the one hand, the ties that bind you here because of that cheap rent, and, on the other, a vague notion of the system wanting to move you out.
A Black woman in her 60s who is a longtime Queensbridge resident said, “A lot of people want to move, but they can’t move. Because…anytime you get a little raise, they raise the rent. You can’t get ahead.” Some “people pay a lot of money in these places…, 2 or 3 thousand dollars or whatever situation for these places,” because it’s based on how much money you make. She continued, saying that “as you make more money…, they increase that rent. And that’s not fair. Because one person can never make it out of here. If you lose your job like me, I went back to nothing. But the principle is you can’t make it out of here. There is no way you gonna make it out of here [when] other [rent] prices all around you is sky high. So it’s not fair.”
Violence…Among the People and By the Police
While we did hear stories about harassment by the police, many Queensbridge residents we talked to felt that violence amongst the people, and in particular amongst youth, as well as drug-dealing were big problems, if not the principal problems, facing people in the neighborhood. The first day we started our social investigation, we ran across an expansive memorial of candles and booze bottles for a teenage resident who was caught up in the middle of the violence and killed. A Dominican woman, who holds court regularly on benches overlooking where the memorial was, talked about knowing the young man who was killed. She said he was a good kid that would help her out by running to the store for her since she uses a cane. He would help her carry stuff to her apartment and let her know when the situation outside was getting intense due to gang rivalries so that she could go inside to stay safe. She lamented his passing but didn’t know details about what had happened. Many residents did have stories of police harassment and brutality. One woman, who was chilling on the benches by one of the courtyard basketball courts fenced off for repairs, opened up with a story about how they would often be harassed by the police before smoking weed was legalized. She talked about hanging out with her cousin, minding their own business, and smoking when the cops came by and harassed them. She showed them her city work ID, and they just threw it down; they didn’t care and just arrested them. Even though she thought they harassed people less nowadays, she didn’t think the cops were ever going to change. The community activist we talked to felt that, since COVID, there were “more police—definitely more police, which is an issue in and of itself. Even if you are pro-police, the fact that they’re sitting there with their lights flashing, even if there’s nothing happening, that is psychological terrorism. We have to call it what it is. So that is happening more in the pandemic.”
Many people noted that the police don’t really get out of their cars though, and “since ending the stop-and-frisk/broken windows policies,” they have been even more hands-off, according to a Black woman that sometimes participates in charity giveaway events for the local community. Nowadays, they will just sit there and watch “all kinds of crazy going on” in terms of drug dealing and other activities, which was related to us by a lifelong Latino resident. They stay in their cars and just watch it go on.
Some identified a lack of programs and opportunities for young people as contributing to the problem of violence. One nearly lifelong resident reflected on how the community center, Jacob A. Riis Settlement, used to be much more of a center of activity for young people in the neighborhood. He talked about how, when he grew up, “the moms all knew where to find their kids; they were there at the center. They had dance parties on the weekends, art classes, music classes, therapy sessions—everyone went to it,” and the moms would come by and round up the kids for dinner.
Others echoed the same sentiment of the community activist we talked to that
[the cops] never cared. They never really cared about whenever we kill each other in the hood. We have to understand that [the] system of policing in America comes from slave catchers. Black people are still considered property of this American government. Slavery didn’t end, it just changed. They never respond to beef that is happening [amongst the people]. They just respond to lock you up.
So while violence among the people is a real problem, the police would let that go on but harass anything positive that happened that tried to counter it. For example, a recent poetry event in one of the courtyards, designed to be a positive alternative for the youth, wound up being harassed by the police
Over the course of the summer we gained a deepened sense of the daily indignities and struggles of people living in public housing as national programs of gentrification and privatization take hold, leading, by design or by default, to increased deterioration of a most basic need: a place to call home for yourself and your family. We actually expected the question of police harassment and brutality to be a more acute question on people’s minds, especially after the 2020 summer of rebellion against the police murder of George Floyd and what it represented about the continued treatment of Black people by police in this country. But while police brutality remains a concern among the people, the violence amongst the people is a real problem and a real concern for people that live in its midst. Many Queensbridge residents pointed out that the police just sit back and allow violence among the people to happen, with some wanting more action from the police and others recognizing that the police are not a solution to stop violence amongst the people and, in fact, perpetuate it.
We found that there is a real basis to mobilize people in struggle. They are in the crosshairs of several contradictions that the system of capitalism-imperialism can’t resolve. It is clear to many Queensbridge residents in a very immediate way that this system puts “the economy” and profits before the interests and lives of the people. But there are lots of contradictions amongst the people to work through. Several acute ones include the division between Spanish-speaking Dominican and Puerto Rican residents, on the one hand, and English-speaking Black residents, on the other. It’s not an antagonistic division, but there is a separation based on life experience and language, which manifests in where people hang out outside. Another contradiction holding people back is their lack of envisioning how people can actually come together and fight the system and the great potential strength they have if they do. Moving through these contradictions will take the persistent work of dedicated revolutionaries committed to integrating with the masses and organizing them in struggle.
- Kayla Levy, “Astoria, LIC NYCHA Tenants Died From COVID At Higher Rates: Data,” Patch, September 16, 2021, patch.com/new-york/astoria-long-island-city/astoria-lic-nycha-tenants-died-covid-higher-rates-data.
From editors at kites:
The Coming Battle of Real Estate Capital vs. NYC Housing Project Residents
As is well known, New York City has been radically transformed by the forces of real estate capital and gentrification over the last three decades. The valiant but ultimately lost battles over the Lower East Side squats of the late 1980s and early 1990s proved a prophetic microcosm of the coming onslaught by the local ruling class, in which art galleries were the seemingly innocent beachheads of something much more sinister. Apartment buildings were left in disrepair, and residents were run out so that real estate capital could renovate or demolish to pave the way for glass-wall condominiums and turn a ghetto into a site of rising rents attractive to the new petty- bourgeoisie. Public spaces were cleared of the homeless and other “undesirables” by ever-eager police. The mayoral administration of Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s, then-celebrated by virtually the entire US bourgeoisie as a grand success, codified this practice and unleashed draconian police criminalizing the homeless, proletarian youth, and Black people and other oppressed nationalities. “Giuliani time” was the era of unrepentant aggressive police brutality and harassment with a clear message: make way, you discarded trash, for real estate capital’s radical transformation of NYC and the new classes of renters crucial to the functioning of imperialism’s number one center of finance capital, Manhattan.
Finance capital attracts, requires, and fosters numerous fellow travelers, from yoga instructors to artists to designers to tech workers to fashionistas to, yes, Leftist activists. And with the influx of these fellow travelers came the wider gentrification of NYC, especially Brooklyn. What began with the plethora of shitty indie rock bands that permeated the Williamsburg neighborhood soon spread to encompass the hipsterfication of much of Brooklyn and parts of other boroughs. Make no mistake about it: while new Brooklynites voted for the progressive candidate, Maya Wiley, in the recent mayoral primary and attended or sympathized with protests against police brutality in the summer of 2020, their unacknowledged allegiance is to Giuliani, for most of them would never have set foot in their current neighborhoods had the police not sent out a clear message that they were welcome there, while longtime residents would face police harassment and brutality and displacement.
The gentrification of Brooklyn is mostly complete and quickly spreading to other boroughs, but several obstacles remain in real estate capital’s way. Practically, imperialism’s capital of finance still requires proletarians to make the city run from day to day, those proletarians have to live somewhere, and thus NYC proletarian culture lives on with them, including the influx of new immigrants among them. Geographically, real estate capital faces two main barriers to its continued expansion: individual home ownership and the massive buildings and over 400,000 residents of NYCHA housing projects. The former are either left alone, in neighborhoods that have not yet been featured on the cover of Time Out magazine as “up and coming,” or, if they have been so featured, forced to sell amid rising taxes or incorporated into the gentrification process.
The housing projects of NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority), however, cannot be dispatched so easily. They are publicly owned, making them more difficult to take over. Many NYCHA residents have lived in their apartments for decades or generations. NYCHA residents are an important constituency for NYC politicians, whose electoral campaigns benefit from being able to “get out the vote” in large numbers from housing project populations. And overall, NYCHA housing projects are longstanding fixtures of life in NYC, geographically spread throughout the five boroughs.
Nevertheless, while the NYC bourgeoisie cannot move quickly to empty NYCHA buildings, demolish housing projects, and open the empty lots to developers, they have been working slowly and methodically towards those ends. NYCHA has taken up the slumlord’s playbook, refusing to make basic repairs even when residents have holes in their ceilings and burst pipes, leaving residents without heat in the middle of winter, and allowing rats, roaches, and mold to multiply. When residents move out of a NYCHA apartment, the apartment is often left vacant despite the city’s crisis of affordable housing. The police have conducted a number of “gang raids” targeting youth in the housing projects, who are criminalized as “guilty by association.” The NYC bourgeoisie clearly want to gradually diminish the number of housing project residents and make it ever more difficult to live in the projects, ultimately paving the way for privatization, evictions, demolition, and gentrification. The city government has even come up with a “Blueprint” to partner with private developers and make them the landlords of public housing, with project apartments turned into Section 8 rentals. This “Blueprint” for privatization has already been implemented in some housing projects, with a few improvements in the buildings touted as a great success and proof that privatization works in order to fool the masses to go along with it.
As the forces of real estate capital, privatization, gentrification, the criminalization of proletarian youth, and city government conspire to end public housing, the question over the next decade is: Will NYC’s housing project residents be organized to stop this?