A Personal Reflection on Violence and Community in a New York City Housing Project
In early 1992, my father moved into the projects with a mattress and his 1972-issued U.S. Air Force duffel bag filled with clothes. Living with only these items for a few months, he made his weekly commute to the night shift at the U.S. Post Office branch across the street from the World Trade Center with few hassles.
When my mother, 15-year old sister, and I joined him in the summer of ‘92 things weren’t so easy.
The violence we faced seemed mostly to be intended towards my sister. According to my mother, the cliques already established in the South Brooklyn neighborhood we moved to were unwelcoming of my sister, distrustful of her, and openly violent. The proud and protective mother that she is, one day she directly confronted the people she believed were part of the harassment.
“I’ll be right back,” my mother said to my sister.
“Maa! Where are you going?!”
My mother replied in a calm, yet assertive tone. “Don’t worry about it. I’m going to pick up a prescription.”
Just as soon as she left our building, she approached the next, walking purposefully to a group of people gathered on the stoop. After she let out a few strong, inquisitive words, a woman from a nearby window began yelling my mother’s way.
“Excuse me, was I talking to you?!” my mother asked.
Without going any further into this event, it should be clear that part of the reason we earned our place in the projects, where my mother and I still reside 20+ years later, is the fearlessness, courage, and sacrifice my parents displayed in their family’s defense.
My father also had to get into full warrior mode as well. Earlier that day, while my mother was at work and after my father had returned home from his night shift, a small group of people armed with baseball bats aggressively knocked on our door. Of course my father could have had no other reaction than the one he provided: opening the door in confident confrontation with a bat of his own. Fearlessly facing down his attackers, he stood his ground and eventually watched them walk down the hall towards the staircase. Shortly after this, my mother remembers, in another episode almost exclusive to the socially packed environment of housing projects, someone took a key, inserted it into our apartment door, and intentionally broke it off.
Such was the violence my family faced when moving to the projects. We confronted the situations with determination, eventually earning our place in the community. Probably due to my young age at the time, these are stories I am only recently learning and asking about. A proud product of these housing projects, I am truly indebted to my family for fighting tooth and nail so that I could have the wonderful and unique childhood experiences that I hold dear today.
Without a doubt, we still face the threat and reality of senseless violence on a daily basis in the projects. On the morning of January 23, 2011 a childhood friend of mine, Eric ‘Hoody’ Ramírez, was shot and killed at the age of twenty-three in the lobby of his building. On the morning of August 16, 2013 another childhood friend, Perice ‘Po’ Brown, was shot and killed at the age of twenty-seven just outside the front of his building. While some residents momentarily entertained the thought of retaliation, the majority voiced their concern over the lack of commitment to changing the relationships that we as young people have with each other.
There is also the systemic violence that places poor people of color in these communities in the first place, then subjects them to disproportionate surveillance and harassment by a police force that often looks more like an occupying army. Furthermore, while we are here, especially in recent years, we suffer from the double-edged sword of poor or non-existing maintenance, combined with rising rent costs. All the while continuing to ask us for more and more information during the annual reviews determining whether we still qualify to live here or not. Lastly, there is the systemic violence faced when residents are finally pushed out and forced to start all over again. This violence should be our focus.
But why? Why focus on this violence, and not the violence we dish out amongst ourselves? My reason is simple. At the end of the day, nobody is perfect—we are all works in progress, susceptible to mistakes and error. Nevertheless, I, like many of my fellow residents, are proud of everything we have overcome while living here, and of everything we have become in spite. Overlooking the rude welcoming my family received, I can attest to the unique sense of community existing in the projects, due to people living so close to each other, that I have not experienced elsewhere. There is no reason this cannot be used to our advantage in the interest of building social relationships based on promoting the common good. Of course, if we continue to face such stressful living conditions, that are often the cause of our inwardly directed violence and resulting desire to “get the fuck out of Dodge”, we will never be able to accomplish such. By coming together against the systemic violence we face, and fighting for our place in the projects, we can construct spaces that support the development of the relationships we feel ourselves so in need of.