Asked if he’d heard of Lloyd Blankfein, the man in the Yankees cap standing by 295 Cozine Avenue in East New York muttered, “What he do?”
In the projects, when someone who looks like me comes up to you, it almost has to be bad news: a cop, a process server, a guy from the Housing Authority. But no, I explained. Blankfein was the head of Goldman Sachs. They ruled Wall Street, the Trilateral Commission too, sat at the table with the Illuminati.
“He used to live in this building,” I said.
It was so. Son of a postal clerk and a receptionist at a burglar-alarm factory, Blankfein had grown up right there, at 295 Cozine Avenue, a redbrick building more or less exactly like the other eighteen redbrick buildings at the Linden Houses. That was in the fifties and sixties, before the white people moved out of the projects and East New York became one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Still, the Goldman CEO apparently retained affection for his childhood home, once sending a post to the East New York Project, a website for people nostalgic for the days of egg creams and spaldeens. It said: “Graduate of Jefferson (’71), Gershwin (’68), P.S. 306 (’65) and the Linden Projects. Currently reside in Manhattan with wife Laura and three kids. Lloyd Blankfein email@example.com.”
“King of the world, right here?” the man declared. “No shit.”
My visit to the Linden Houses was part of a self-guided tour of what I’d come to call “Nychaland.” As in NYCHA, the New York City Housing Authority, a.k.a. the projects.
New York might be a city of neighborhoods, but Nychaland is a zone of its own. It is almost unthinkably huge: 334 “developments” spread from Staten Island’s Berry Houses to Throgs Neck in the Bronx—178,895 apartments in 2,602 buildings situated on an aggregate 2,486 acres, an area three times the size of Central Park. The population of Nychaland is usually cited at 400,000, but this number is universally regarded as too low, since most everyone knows someone living “off lease.” One NYCHA employee says that “600,000 is more like it.” That’s about 8 percent of New York—with 160,000 families on the waiting list. If Nychaland was a city unto itself, it would be the 21st most populous in the U.S., bigger than Boston or Seattle, twice the size of Cincinnati.
Despite these prodigious stats, the projects remain a mystery to most New Yorkers, a shadow city within the city, out of sight and mind, except when someone gets shot or falls down an elevator shaft—just these bad-news redbrick piles to whiz by on the BQE.
Indeed, perhaps Nychaland’s most compelling attribute is the fact that it exists at all. Across the U.S., public housing, condemned as a tax-draining vector of institutionalized mayhem and poverty, whipping-boy symbol of supposedly foolhardy urban policy, has largely disappeared. Chicago knocked down Cabrini-Green, St. Louis imploded Pruitt-Igoe, New Orleans flattened Lafitte after Katrina. Only in New York does public housing remain on a large scale, remnants of the days when the developments were considered a bulwark of social liberalism, a way to move up.
Not that the passage has been smooth. The eighties and early nineties were the crack era. In the South Bronx, whole families at the Mott Haven houses were addicted, parents copping behind the developments, kids in front, hiding their stash so mom and dad wouldn’t steal it. Then came the gangs, bands of territorial youths calling themselves the 40 Wolves, Gun Clapping Goonies, Broad Day Shooters, and Fuck Shit Up (FSU). Over at the Polo Grounds Towers on Coogan’s Bluff, where the Say Hey Kid once ran free, Bloods and Crips marched by windows in full colors. This was followed by the crash, a greater economic disaster at the Edenwald Houses in the Bronx than on Wall Street. Currently, 26 percent of working-age project residents are unemployed, a nearly threefold rise since 2008.
Earlier this year, after a decade of chronic underfunding from the Feds, John Rhea, NYCHA chairman, told the City Council what it already knew: Public housing was in dire straits. For years, NYCHA was considered the most successful public-housing organization in the country, a vast, unwieldy, often-complained-about bureaucracy that somehow managed to maintain at least the illusion of acceptable marginality. But now, the daily operating budget was millions in the red. With older developments like the Red Hook Houses, built in 1939 and sinking into the loam like a Mayan ruin, the capital budget shortfall—the money needed to repair the aging housing stock—exceeded $6 billion and was likely to balloon to a mind-boggling $14 billion by 2016. In the current climate, the prospect of more money from the Feds seemed remote.