Johnson Houses Residents Association
Ethel Battle Velez
This case study is based on an interview with Ethel Battle Velez, President of James Weldon Johnson Houses Resident Association, and Chairperson of the Executive Board of Manhattan North Citywide Council of Presidents on July 24, 2020, and a review of the documents she has suggested.
James Weldon Johnson Houses is located in East Harlem, Manhattan’s Community District 11 that sits in the northeastern corner of Manhattan and is bounded by the Harlem River to the north and east. Initially home to a diverse population of working class immigrants, the neighborhood later earned the nickname El Barrio, as a center of New York’s Puerto Rican community. The neighborhood still maintains it strong cultural legacy while receiving new immigrants from Latin America and Asia. East Harlem also boasts a large concentration of the city’s public housing stock: there are over 20 NYCHA developments within CD3, including the James Weldon Johnson Houses. Public housing developments, despite the problems with NYC’s Housing Authority, are critical for preserving low-income housing in a neighborhood faced with creeping gentrification pressures and increasing impacts of climate change.
JOHNSON HOUSES RESIDENTS ASSOCIATION
Johnson Houses Residents Association is a nonprofit organization that represents the tenants of James Weldon Johnson Houses of New York City public Housing Authority in East Harlem. Like most residents’ associations, it is an organization that has its own office. Its board consists of two vice presidents, a secretary, a treasurer, and two Sergeant of arms. Committees are formed under that board whenever necessary. There is a community center on the development that Ms. Velez described as, “We have a community center that is not ours,” as discussed below.
Mission is to improve housing conditions for public housing residents, and to ensure that the residents board are involved in all the decisions about their homes and community. This requires that NYCHA respect and work with resident leadership, as required by the HUD 964 rule .
Johnson Houses Residents Association is a membership organization. Membership is to support the organization, to have a body that is involved in management of the development. Members, People feel like they don't have the time or say, “We know you're going to take care of it”. Getting them to come, be involved, and do some volunteering is often a one-time kind of thing. Membership benefit might mean that if something comes – Thanksgiving turkeys, children’s books, etc. -- members are the first ones to get them because they are participating.
Coalitions and Partnerships
The Johnson Houses Residents Association (JHRA) partnered with the National Congress of Neighborhood Women when the network was active. Currently, it is part of the Manhattan North Citywide Council of Presidents. The 302 public housing developments in the city are divided into nine different districts. Manhattan North and Manhattan South are the two largest. Manhattan North has 40 housing developments with about 53,000 apartments. It goes from 102nd Street and First Avenue to 210th Dyckman Street from river to river. All of the NYC counties, except for Staten Island and Queens, have at least two districts -- Brooklyn has three, and Manhattan and the Bronx have two. Manhattan South also has about 40 developments. Far Rockaway is trying to have its own district because they are far away from other developments in Queens.
ETHEL BATTLE VELEZ
When and how did you join the organization?
I have been the T.A. president of James Weldon Johnson Houses for almost 40 years, trying to make life better for folks who live in public housing. I've lived in public housing since I was six months old and am now 73. So that's a long time but I made a decision early in my life that I was going to stay in the community and work in the community. I think I realized that when I was in junior high school. My teacher had told us how poor we were, and that the goal was to become educated and to leave the community to make a better life for yourselves. My thought was, wow, I didn't even know we were poor. That was kind of a shock to me. And then we talked a little bit more, and I thought, why would we leave? Why wouldn't we get educated and stay, and try to help? So that's what I did. I really like public housing. I like the challenges that the bureaucracy throws our way constantly. I don't know how to play chess, but they told me it's like a chess game. What I did realize early being involved in public housing was that it was big business. I also found out from the very beginning that folks were not being treated fairly at all.
I got the opportunity to start working at Johnson Houses from Dorothy Stoneman . She and I worked on Youth Build for a long time and helped pull together youth action. She said there's an opportunity to work in public housing that just happens to be the one you live in. And I was like, sure, I want to do that, and that's what I did. I worked at the stock exchange for about seven years then. Back in the 60s, all businesses had to hire minorities. So I got the opportunity to work in the stock exchange. I was one of the two blacks that was hired at that office, which was great, I learned a lot. Unbelievable but still I wanted to work in my community.
Dorothy Stoneman gave me this opportunity. But once I got there, I needed more help. We had 17 buildings and 1355 apartments between 112 Street and 115 Street. So this actually was a little town. The help that I received was from the National Congress of Neighborhood Women (NCNW), because I was doing daycare work with them at the time. That's where Lisel (Burns) and I hooked up a movement, making sure that parents had the opportunities and could be involved in their kids’ school, given parents rights. And then I met Jan (Peterson) and we started doing stuff within public housing. I know that all the accomplishments that happened within this particular development wouldn't have happened without them (NCNW).
If I had to apply it to the resident association, I would define a grassroots organization as one that is a bottom up, not top down. I think that's the simplest definition -- people at the bottom making decisions and not people from the top.
Evolution of the Residents Association over time
I came into an existing tenant association, but where we took the tenant associations was different. We included people in decisions. One of the things that we did at first was to develop surveys. We wanted to be able to communicate with people about what they thought their needs were and what they wanted. For instance, when we were going to renovate our bathrooms and our kitchens, we asked them what colors or kind of kitchen or toilets they wanted. People started seeing the things that they were asking for were coming to fruition. That was a big deal. Our first success was getting seventy-six new lights on the ground because the ground was so dark. We did petitions. I had everybody in the buildings and all over the streets doing petitions, and we would just fax them off to the elected officials, saying, you know, we need this. And by the time they came in, one of their machines was jammed and kept getting jammed again because we've been sending so many petitions. So we started becoming that kind of a force. When we called for a meeting, then they knew we really needed a meeting.
We organized small group meetings. Two to three people out of every building met every Thursday. It was a great opportunity for people to become more familiar with one another, to work on projects. So I was and they were feeling more confident and more empowered about what they can do in their community with the support of other people. We developed a very strong resident tenant patrol. We took over a community center, developed community center programs.
Another thing that we got involved with was taking our kids away for weekends up at the Fresh Air Fund. We were one of the first programs that they let utilize their facilities in the wintertime. We would take kids out of their element into the woods, which was another experience unto itself, because a lot of young people, young children, had never been to the woods. They had never seen stars. The whole thing was really empowering. Parents just wanted their kids to go because they had the weekend [to themselves]. But the kids wanted to go because there was so much stuff that they were doing that they would not normally do within the public housing. They did ice fishing and they did skiing. They worked with the animals on the farm every weekend. Mind you, we had to sleep on the floor. and everybody had to take a minute shower because the water would cut off so you couldn’t even think about long showers. They had to go chop trees down because we didn't have stoves. You had to build your little fire to do a little cooking. So the kids at first did all of that kind of stuff. We would let them take no radios so they couldn't have any of the electronics. We were just communicating among ourselves.
We developed support groups for the kids. That's one of the things I learned with the National Congress of Neighborhood Women. For young people to have the opportunity to talk among themselves and respect each other and to not talk about each other's business unless they asked permission. All of this kind of stuff was new for them. So our resident association membership started to build very quickly because not only were we dealing with the parents, we were also dealing with the children as well… We did a lot of trips. I took a bunch of kids down to Ronnie Feit's house in DC. She was one of the members of the National Congress. And they were ecstatic to go down to Washington. We slept all over the floor, all in the hallways. I took about 14 kids down to her house. But that was a very nurturing thing for young people. To this day, they still talk about it. We were also doing that as a way to train young people to have respect for their community and learn what it means to be involved in the community. That was a whole lot of education. We were working with the young children while we were working with their parents.
We got a lot of things done. The housing authority had a lot of rules, but they would not let the residents associations apply for the things they needed. For instance, they said we could apply for purchasing equipment -- all of it was in writing. We fought to get some money so that we could redesign our grounds. (I'm still taking it to the National Congress of Neighborhood Women.) We had a lot of robberies. So we decided to have this circular area with seating right in front of the building. We had people sitting around who came in and out the building, and since everybody was congregating in one area and sitting in a circle, it forced them to talk to one another.
We did a lot of things through design to build more community life. We laid out a walkway and a driveway to protect people from police cars that came on the grounds. They would not come out of their cars and scare people while speeding all over the grounds if they were chasing somebody. People could be protected in an area that cars couldn't come into. Another thing that we did was to put up spike fencing. There were a lot of gangs, drug wars. So we figured we should have limited entrance ways. If you were running from somebody, then you’d have to jump the six-foot fence. People said that we had built a prison with that fence around the development. We said, “Well, no, we designed a security system for us”. People were very happy about that. We got the doors locked because the doors weren't locked. They were wide open. All kinds of crime were going on, especially when I started out. It was the drug, the crack era, and really rough for the people, the parents. The killing and the devastation were unbelievable. So this whole design that we did was really for our own protection.
There used to be a time when we had little police stations in each development. They took that away and developed the PSAs, Police Service Areas, to deal with public housing. On paper, there’s supposed to be one police force. But that's not what goes on. We deal now with PSAs, not the precincts.
One of the things that we did was to talk about everything the residents wanted to do. We absolutely completed everything that the residents said they wanted to do in the surveys. We had worked with the CUNY to get the surveys done. The question was, if you had a million dollars, which, you know, sounds like a lot, but it wasn't a lot. What would you want to see happen in your community? And, folks were really excited to just dream about what they would want. I can say we actually accomplished all of it, including the new community center.
It was very challenging to make the community center happen. It took 20 years to build it, not because they didn't have the money; they just didn't do it. We had to keep pushing and pushing and getting political to make them move forward to build this community center.
In 1989 as resident leader at Johnson, together with the Jefferson, King Towers, Clinton and Lehman Village leaders, we advocated for offices for ourselves as well as the other associations. When I became Manhattan North Citywide Council of Presidents (CCOP) I found out that most resident leaders had equipment at all. You were supposed to be a leader, but with no space, no computer, no tables, nothing. So, when my Board became the district representatives, we fought to make sure that not only did everybody have space, but also computers, tables, chairs and equipment -- everything that you would need to operate. A person was available to help the resident’s computer because everybody didn't know or weren't familiar or comfortable with how to run a computer. We did some training to help people learn how to do long and short term planning, how to communicate with their resident leaders, and how to organize.
What is happening in the area right now is that this heroin thing is coming back. Homeless people have started to congregate over Park Avenue, and a lot of folks who were heavy on heroin. We had to call the police because they were starting to take over the area. We had to stop them from moving into the buildings. They were shooting up, you know, doing whatever they did and it became very scary with so many of them. We had three buildings that nobody wanted to go in to distribute food because of what was going on. So, we called the Muslims when they offered to come in to give out the food in these buildings nobody wanted to go into. They would go to everybody’s apartment on 14 floors of the whole building, give out food, sanitizers and masks.
About fifteen years ago the development became very integrated. Before, it was just Blacks and Hispanics. Now we have Russians, a lot of Chinese, Indians and Africans. Because they are so new and can’t speak the language well, they don’t like to talk. It's hard to communicate with them. The children get involved more than the adults. All of those nationalities are involved in gardening. But that was it. We also offer them things. One family has about seven or eight kids, so we always make sure that we send them food. One of the challenges right now in doing our new survey is how many new residents we can get to participate to find out what kind of concerns they have or what they want to know.
The Role of Women in the Organization
Our organization is women; women are the organization. I hate to say it that way, but it's primarily women. Our JWJ [James Weldon Johnson] Board Vice President is a male and we keep him very busy. If we get one good man, that's great. At my district board we have 3 very committed men, and another 7 male resident president leaders when I came in. There were only two men; right now, we have almost 10. More men are taking an active row in their communities and they are being very active. It's been really good having more men in the district But it has basically been women.
The only thing that troubles me about women is that sometimes they take stuff too personally, become competitive in the wrong areas and that prevents moving forward. Little girl competition kind of stuff sometimes gets in the way and it stops people from working well together. People judge each other on their looks, on their clothes, personal stuff in some groups. One of the things I always really hate to hear is what does she think she is? It's just something that's simple, that small but real. If you have a goal, then everybody with that goal should be working together. It requires some training to learn how to respect one another and know the difference between work and persona. We have to get through that.
Also, we have so many older women in the organization. So now I'm trying to reach out to the younger women and let them know that they have a place [in the organization]. They feel they don’t have a place because they're young. When I started, I was young, too. I came here to be a community organizer and to work with the kids because children were my passion. But the seniors tricked me into becoming the president when I went to a meeting. In the meeting, there was some kind of election, and the next thing I know, I was bamboozled for real. They said, don't worry, we'll help you; we'll help you… It was scary. When I lived here as a teenager, I knew what we did in the community center, but I didn't know what the tenant association did. So they kind of educated me, and helped me along. That is what we need to do with young people, and we do need a special meeting place for that.
During this COVID-19 epidemic, we had a lot of volunteers that delivered meals. We gave out about 580 meals some days, and on some days, more meals than that... Some days we also had first aid boxes that we were getting from our borough president. The building reps would take the food into the buildings to distribute so the people wouldn't have to come out and wait in lines. It was important for social distancing as well. We had lines only on Wednesdays when the City would come to give out water and maybe tissue or something like fruits.
We have a community center, but it is not ours [to manage]. How can some agency or nonprofit come to a community and decide everything that's going to happen in the center without thinking that they are obligated to talk to the community? They don't live here; they don't know what's going on in the community. They just go by what they want to happen. And that's why a lot of it fails.
Residents association has more programs than they do, and the kids participate in our programs. There has to be basketball because we got the state of the art basketball gym. It is just something everybody plays. We got about 60 some men, some seniors, who come in and play basketball. But there's so many other things that kids are involved in, like one of our young girls who went off to college this year, and she came back and is working with the younger kids on programming for what young people want to talk about, what little kids want to have. Give us the eight, nine, ten-year olds; their minds are unbelievable. We ask the kids, and that's how we know what they're going to participate in. They don't. You can't just come in here and give them things thinking that’s what they want. That is one of the things I'm trying to get the city to change; that is, putting agencies into the community and not letting the agency speak to the community. This is a serious dictatorship. The people in the community should in no way be left out. We have fought to even be in the center; they don’t even want us in the building. I told them, “This is designed for us. You can’t stop us from coming in. If we want, we can stop you from coming into the block, lock you off. “They have to understand they are coming into a community. They think just because you live in public housing, you don't think. We have a lot of folks who have degrees, who are very accomplished and want to work in and for the community. So that's still a fight that we are having.
I am trying to get the Department of Youth Services to put it in the agreements. We are writing up agreements for what we need to have because it's just really sickening. I say we've been ripped off so bad. If residents would do half of the stuff that these agencies have done, we'd be in jail. There's still a lot of work to be done around the community but we’ve done a lot of stuff in the development, like getting the renovations done -- the pointing, the washing of the buildings, the heating systems, the elevators… But the community center has to provide programs and jobs for the residents.
My biggest challenge is lack of transparency in [Housing Authority’s] bureaucracy. It is very misleading. A lot of dishonesty goes on. As we talk about public housing and its infrastructure, nobody is really talking about what happened. How did they decide to take $125,000,000 out of the infrastructure budget every year to pay the police department? We've had great police here but that money was then budgeted for the police department. Now, they take the residents’ money and give it to the police department while the infrastructure falls apart every year…
To give an example, every year you sat down with your manager and superintendent and talked about the needs of the development. You did a ‘needs assessment’. That's how systematically we knew what we wanted to get fixed in the development, and they would tell us what was going to be fixed. They stopped doing that because they started shuffling money around. To maintain public housing, they get federal money, and they get people's rent, so they shouldn’t act like they don't have enough money. People pay rent and a lot of money to live in public housing; you can’t live here free for even twenty-four hours. Some residents are just stuck and trapped, and can't go anywhere else, but still pay eight hundred seventy dollars, a lot of money for them. So it's not like the Housing Authority is not getting the money. They're getting the money. But who's following the dollar? When the money was cut to 80 percent, they were still getting the 80 percent.
Coalitions and partner organizations
I go back to the National Congress of Neighborhood Women because so many things happened during that time and had an impact on New York City and the country. Bertha Gilkey  was one of my heroes. I did not believe anything she said about public housing and the things that she was able to do. I said this woman is crazy. It's just impossible. You just can't do that in the bureaucracy. So I got on a plane (despite fear of flying) to go to St. Louis, and I was impressed. I came back feeling so empowered that I was like, OK, we got to do this. Nothing is going to stop us.
Not only was national Congress was the support system along with Bertha, but Jack Kemp  made so many improvements for residents when he was the Secretary of HUD. He was a remarkable man, really. We met a lot of different secretaries, but he really wanted to help public housing, and Bertha was just a whirlwind around him. Whatever we said, he wanted to figure out a way to make it happen. Which was great. There's a list of programs that every housing authority had wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for him. So, some of the things we were able to keep, some of the things we weren't able to keep because my true feeling is success is not what they want. They might talk about it, but that's not what they really want. At some point, I just need to think about all of those in chronological order and how it made an impact on New York City, including the $125 million that Jack Kemp was giving to residents. Later, they started taking it from the residents to give to the police department. Things like the Ross Grant were there because we said that residents want opportunities; they want businesses; they want to learn different things. So he gave money for economic development training. We got a lot of people in good training, and they now have good jobs and businesses. But what I realize with the Housing Authority is that once something becomes successful, they stop it. Success is not something they really want to have in their portfolio.
The National Congress empowered women from all over the country because they had the infrastructure, and we used to meet every four months with people from all over the country. We had meetings with Kemp in Washington and in Newark, New Jersey. He just was really interested in hearing what the needs were and how he could help, and always figured out how he could make it happen. His legacy for me was that he was really sincere in what he said. A lot of folks talk about stuff and it never happens. When he talked about it, it happened, which made it easier for a lot of women in the group to accomplish a lot of things. We had started a smaller coalition, separate from the citywide group, and we were able to get separate training monies. But after it was successful for a time, the housing authority made sure we didn't get it any more. They would say, we didn't know how to use the money. And it's not that we did not know how to use it, they wouldn't let the money be released.
It was back in 1998 to 2000 that the citywide resident leaders organizing grew. There was a tenants organization group controlled by the Authority but it was not a functioning group; they were being controlled; no information was given out to residents. So Victor Bach from the Community Service Society (CSS) approached several of us to come down to a meeting and talk about what we wanted as residents and what was going on at that particular time. CSS was wonderful, supportive. They had a lot of information. Victor Bach’s support for the group was great. I ran the citywide group. Part of my mission was to go round to everybody's district to let them know what was going on, to let them know what was available to them, to give them the information that nobody was getting. It was disseminating information throughout the whole New York City to pull people to these meetings and to start talking. It was a group that the NYCHA citywide group disliked. And the crazy part about that is that the housing authority would meet with our citywide group, not their citywide group. So that really put them against us when it really shouldn't have been.
What we really tried to do was to unite all of the advocacy groups because having our own separate fight was crazy. If we're all fighting for the same thing, if we're fighting for public housing, then our agenda should be the same. Let us do it together. So, we worked with GOLES and PHROLES from the Lower East Side. We worked with Bertha … from ACORN. We worked with a lot of the groups. We tried to pull everybody in to come up with one agenda together. It worked for the topic that we were on at that particular time. For example, stop and frisk came to a stop because of these citywide groups. The strength of those women in that room, the power was like, woo! You could just feel it when you walked in the room. People had mutual respect for everyone, too. That group was really a good group.
But I left the group to get on the NYCHA‘s citywide tenants board because I thought I could make more impact from the inside. I just didn't know the inside stuff was so crazy. Just trying to get them to sign off on a letter and come to an agreement on something is difficult. We say we want to help public housing, but it doesn't mean the same thing for everybody. A lot of times people take it more personally and say I want to do this in my house, instead of saying this is what the need is for all of us because those are similar needs. Yes, so can you say what that lead to? Hopefully we are at a point of unifying these groups now.
Vision for the future:
For at least the past six months, I have been working on developing a position paper about all of the issues and concerns about the housing authority, where we have the stumbling blocks, and where we bump our heads. We have 9 districts, and each has its own board, so that is nine times five. I wanted all of us to put our heads together, just like at the meeting we had at the CSS, to get everything down on one piece of paper that everybody would sign on to. So, I would have a position paper to show everybody, especially those who are running for office. Everybody is fighting all these individual crazy battles; it makes no sense. We all have the same issues right now. People come in and act like they don't know what's going on and what we want. So, we now have one paper that we all can look at and give out to all of our resident leaders so that we all speak with one voice. That is important for getting treated equally. This is starting to unite the residents and I'm getting phone calls. People are agreeing...
We have the Part 964 rule on Tenant Participation and Tenant Opportunities in Public Housing, which talks about a lot of things that the Housing Authority just doesn't do. They change or manipulate a lot of the rules. That cannot continue. For instance, people about how the housing authority gets the cheapest items when they order stuff, like light bulbs, that do not last long. How they did the sanitizing in the development was the craziest thing, expecting one person to do all 17 buildings. They bring in vendors that charge a lot of money. And when the residents see the people sitting down or not doing the job properly, they see that the money is not being used properly. We're not going to let that keep going on. We are also hoping to have many more training workshops, and as we are in Covid-19, new jobs have to be developed. They're going to hear us collectively, and hopefully, we will give each other strength because you do get repercussions when you go up against them as an individual. I should know. Things can get rough. And is NYCHA ready for these? No. But I think they have the opportunity to start getting ready now if they want to. I don't think they would even know what such planning looks like.
The fight we are having is not about housing. It's about money, big money. Down on 92nd Street, they are still fighting over infill development taking away playgrounds. A lot of the conversation is that there is too much green space in public housing. I don't get that. The most I can say is that we have a lot of types of trees in our development. Bloomberg was supporting it. About three years ago, we planted about 40 trees, all kinds of trees, blueberry trees, pear trees. It looked like a fruit garden. But we wanted to plant as many trees as possible because we knew we needed more green space. But the problem with the green spaces in public housing is that nobody will take care of it. There are a lot of large trees, but they don't maintain them. A tree fell on one of our seniors and she was in the hospital. They should look after the trees, maybe twice a year.
We've been fighting this whole thing about the infill development on public housing developments. When the mayor first came in, I was invited to be on the housing committee. I had just got out of the hospital, but I was happy and really wanted to be on the mayor's housing committee to be talking about housing. But I was the only housing authority person there that lived in public housing. They had developers and construction people, the union bosses, and I was like, OK, well well… Judith Goldiner from Legal Aid was there. I think Vic Bach from CSS and somebody from the 5th Avenue Committee were there. They were talking about how much more housing they're going to build and how and for whom. So I asked questions about the infill plans. Well, lo and behold, I wasn't on the committee anymore. I wasn’t informed about the second meeting. Judy said what happened, and then they invited me to one more meeting. And I still asked the dumb infill questions, so I wasn't invited back to no more housing meetings. The goal from the beginning was just to build as much high rise and as much housing as possible.
They call public housing affordable housing, but it is not affordable housing; it is low-income housing. And there's a very big difference in the language. You know, I love Barack Obama but I was in Chicago and I know what he did when he was the senator there. They ran him out of a couple meetings because people in public housing were very upset. They would do mixed income housing, but they would do it in a very segregated way. That was one of the things we fought for here, too, not to have a separate door for the poor. Come on…
Public housing would be much better than what it is if they wanted to. Stuyvesant Town is built just like public housing. Same kind of buildings; what's the difference? They don't want to talk about the differences. It is all the people they hire and how they budget each year, and who sets the agenda for what? How should public housing function? You can't say that Stuyvesant Town gets smarter people. Public housing wasn't this way at the beginning. We had a lot of serious rules, and you abided by them because you wanted to live here. How is it that we do not even know who lives here anymore? We got more bed and breakfasts in these buildings than anywhere else. They don't go to people's houses anymore, and people don't have to go into their rent office any more. So, they don't. People are living and can be invisible.
Neighborhood and Citywide Planning Initiatives
I pretty much tried to get involved with everything in the community, even in the hospitals and clinics to plan about what health services are needed in public housing. We had focus groups at five housing developments. What came out of that was that people needed assistance. Seniors need assistance filling out papers when they go to the hospitals. High blood pressure and diabetes have been issues to this day, but people do not always take the exercise classes that the health department gives. They have classes to have seniors walk together in groups because they need to do the exercise. There is also a yoga and healthy eating workshop on simple healthy foods preparation, like smoothies without going deep into pots and pans. We worked on that with the health department, and they got a grant to service not only our development, but also five developments. My conditions were that they hire a person from each of the developments to be the communicator within the development.
So, the residents pretty much use our community center to have their meetings, and have all kinds of workshops and focus groups. Between the health station on our corner and our center there is ongoing information. Every Tuesday people can come and get their blood pressure taken but they stopped doing the diabetes stuff. There is a social worker there that can speak to you all the time if you need any help, or, if you lost your Medicaid or you need Medicare. That was a service/workshop we worked on, and our residents are happy it got funded.
I've also worked with Mount Sinai on a lot of different issues and was part of the planning board at one point. We developed a lot of workshops and programs, like the asthma program that they brought into East Harlem and the Healthy Heart Program. It is better when you have things right in the community because often people, especially as they get older, don't like to go outside the community.
I was involved with the building of La Marketa in the beginning. They hired my kids to go out and do surveys before they even started building it. I want people in the community to be involved in everything. If you just give them a little stipend, the kids are ecstatic running around. They were architects, but they included people in the community. With the Parks Department, we just did a video of how they worked with our kids. They had focus groups with the kids, talking about the things they wanted for the park when they redesigned the park. The kids were so happy because when they went to this park, they said, “That was my idea”. They were included in its design. Every time they get involved with something, it makes a difference on their self-esteem, on how they feel about themselves. If you want people to have ownership, it doesn’t happen just by looking.
I get involved in aspects of what goes on in this community at some point, but mostly from the beginning, because that's my preference. I can leave a project after I put in my little footprint and then walk away. There's just so much going on in this community. One of the things I don't like to do is to be involved with politicians. Last year was probably one of the first times that I supported a pilot petition and the politician because that person was really involved in the community before becoming a politician, before he even thought about being a politician. But I try to keep a neutral base with anybody who's running because I feel it doesn't matter, since I am going to work for the community anyway.
Every single day there is something going on with these developments. Some stuff is just heart wrenching. One thing I'm just finding out, what I really didn't know about before, is domestic violence on seniors, and nobody's really talking about that. I don't know if it's happening now more because of what we're going through, but it's a sad thing.
Citywide Climate Change initiatives
We have been thinking about what we have to do for our residents so that they can be prepared for emergencies. We are on Third Avenue, so we weren’t affected by flooding during Sandy. But the water came all the way up to Second Avenue. First and Second Avenues looked like a river and were really scary. We thought the water was going to come up this far, too, but it didn't. It was unreal. It makes you realize we're on an island here.
During this COVID-19 epidemic, we had a lot of volunteers that delivered meals. We gave out about 580 meals a day, and on some days, more meals than that... Some days we also had first aid boxes that we were getting from our borough president. The building reps would take the food into the buildings to distribute so the people wouldn't have to come out and wait in lines. It was important for social distancing as well. We had lines only on Wednesdays when the City would come to give out water and maybe tissue or something like fruits.
There is a resident watch program, with a tenant patrol supervisor. And this is the person who's supposed to go around and check every day what’s going on in the buildings and t if the doors are locked. That is also under the tenant association. Right now, we're getting ready to start a whole new group, which is called the Cadets.
We will distribute walkie-talkies to our building representatives, and they’ll get trained to use walkie-talkies as a way of communicating. In our area cell phones are not working well. If you remember, when we had the blackout, there were no cell phones working. The only thing that was working were the landline phones, not the cell phones. I am surprised that we haven't had blackouts in the apartments recently. That’s why we wanted to train the young people on how to use the walkie-talkies. All the 40 developments in my district are going to be getting walkie-talkies as well.
We also have a radio station. We're getting ready to completely finish hooking up so that when anything goes wrong in the development, residents turn to that radio station and would be able to get any update news about what's going on. That is communication on a different level.
Our goal for this coming year is getting people ready for emergencies. Nobody wants to hear about it, but we need to teach people about emergency preparedness, about the type of things they need to do and have. Should we put that kind of information on a thumb drive or a CD? We also need a hard copy to have in our go-bags. That's a bag with the things you could just pick up and go. What are the necessities other than a toothbrush, your medicines, socks and underwear and stuff like that? We want to work on putting together packages like that for people. Also, what type of things do you need inside your house? We gave out flashlights that you wind up that don't need batteries, etc. What kind of lantern should you have in your house so that if there is a blackout, you don’t panic. Should you keep water in the house and not just water to drink, but water for your bathroom? Should you keep a five-gallon jug of water in your house? We've been talking about different things we need to do moving forward. Some of the things are about how we prepare ourselves and avoid being isolated. We will probably find out more from the survey we are conducting right now.
Engaging young people in the organization
When I was recruited, I was recruited because I was young. I think the young people now find it hard to join the Residents Association because they think it is an old people’s group. We have to have something to offer the young people for them to get involved in and that is what I want to do right now.
I took time off from working with the young people when I was trying to do citywide organizing. But now I'm coming back to the young people. We've got to tap into the youth early on. Then they understand the meaning of volunteering for the community real well. We need to get them and try to nourish them when they are young for them to want to do things. The group I had worked with before are now about twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-nine years old. And they're gung-ho on helping out and volunteering and being creative.
We want to go into business training, teaching people how to become city vendors. More people are into becoming entrepreneurs now than they were before. But they need that support and help for them to get there. That's what they've been telling me. So, we have to have things in our community that are geared to bringing young people in so we can get them involved in this association, like during the Covid-19 feeding period. I got quite a few young people to come and help out, and they felt good about helping people. They really did.
Sometimes we have to help these young people to think out of the box and want to be more creative and not to be scared, to be creative within their community. We have to help and support them; our school system is jacked up. We’ve got to fill the gap, support them and make them feel really good about themselves.
And this is what happens when they get jobs. I tell them, if I get you a job, on your first day you're going to pay your membership. Sometimes they say, “Here’s ten dollars. Don't bother me for five years”. That's a small criteria they have to pay to pay their little two-dollar dues.
I try to get young people as much and good jobs. We had an agreement with the unions to get our young people many union jobs and they got into the union. But the last chairperson of NYCHA stopped that. One of the things the unions were doing was if we had a two-million-dollar job at Johnson, they took a percentage of that money to have a young person join the union. We would get young people in the union, they would get their card, they would get their training, and jobs. At one point we had so many kids getting jobs that there were no drug dealers on the street. When young people were employed and making eleven or thirteen hundred dollars a week, they got off the street. There is no reason to be on the street if you're making some nice money. But the Housing Administration took that off. That's another flight we have to jump back into right now.
Young people sometimes have to be coerced into getting involved. Someone who's probably in their 50s, in their 60s already will get involved because they know the importance of being involved. But you have to work with the younger people to get them involved, and then they see how it's going to be beneficial to them. They talk about all the other burdens they may have: their school, their job, their children. Most of what I get is “I don't have the time; I want to, but I'm working.” So how do we make the time for them? How do we make it that it is in their time and they don't feel like they're, you know, giving up too much of their freedom?
We have conversations all the time about young people getting involved and right now [about the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. One of the biggest reasons the young people are getting involved in the BLM is because the police department has really stepped all out of bounds. I've had to intervene so many times with police brutality. That's the only word I can say for it. I was on a call with the DA's office the other day to talk about community police officers we used to have. While on the beat, they spoke to everybody; they knew everybody, not only the child, but also the parents and relatives. But this NCA??? is not the same thing now because the new ones are here for only six months; it's a training field for them. Before, a community officer stayed in our community for years and we all knew each other. We knew if he had children, when his kids were born. He talked to people and chastised the kids; arrest wasn't the first thing in dealing with them. He talked to the families and tried to get a handle on what was going on. A community officer, who was in the community every single day, made a big difference.
Kids are scared of officers right now. They weren't scared of community officers before; they’d talk to them, play basketball with them. Now, just because kids are walking on the street, they search them, or call them over and ask what they are doing. That is not the job of the police. They’ve got to change the behavior that has been horrible for so long, since the late 80s. They’ve been horrible in the community. People didn’t know what was going on in so many places but now everyone knows it. Seeing this [Black Lives Matter demonstrations] is like a breath of fresh air. So maybe we can stop this…
I stopped the officer one day. A kid was in a building and an officer ran up to the kid and put him up against the wall. “Where are you coming from?” He said, “I'm just coming from my friend's house.” He then asked him his name and address. When they went to the kid’s apartment and asked if so-and-so was there, The father said he did not know anyone with that name. You know a lot of kids have nicknames that the parents don’t know. So, they handcuffed the kid and flushed out his pockets and asked why he got that money. He said he had just got paid; it was a Friday night. They started smacking him. So, I called their captain, he is a good one, and asked him to come right over. That stopped it. A lot of times, other officers don’t stop what is going on. They are overly abusive.
Why is it that they've got to be abusive just with the black kids? Sure, we’ve got to address the kids shooting each other, but we're not the ones bringing the guns here. Why are we infested with more guns than ever before? Who brought all these firecrackers up here? Kids much rather buy some weed than buy firecrackers because firecrackers are very costly. So, stuff is systematically placed here for us to downfall, and we fall into it. What's on television? Nothing. Shows on nothing but violence, the shows teach kids nothing, except how to be a good drug dealer and how to be a good pole dancer. That's corrupting their minds.
They started opening businesses, and even the liquor stores on Sundays. Before, there was nothing else to do but to go to church on Sundays. No one asked whether you wanted to go to the church or you went to Coney Island. You didn't always have money to go to Coney Island, so you went to church. And even if you didn't believe in it, you heard something. That respect has gone out of our communities. That started the deterioration. How can you be mad about something you've created? The parents can't scold or chastise their kids because there is a BMW at their door. So now there's no discipline. There's no teaching… I don't know if we could pull all of this back, but I don't think this is going to go on for a long time. They are enjoying this while they can because they see it on television. They've been seeing it for years. And they feel this is part of some kind of a revolution that is happening under their watch. I've never heard anybody burning up a police station. Well, you get the police to burn a police station. We've created monsters and until we get a hold of this, everybody’s got everybody. The guns are out of control. We don't buy guns in Wal-Mart over here. So, somebody is bringing the guns up here. It's just like somebody brought in the crack. That's it.
 The HUD 964 rule is a section of the Code of Federal Regulations under Title 24 Housing and Urban Development that establishes Tenant participation and tenant opportunities in public housing. See: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CFR-2019-title24-vol4/xml/CFR-2019-title24-vol4-part964.xml#seqnum964.11
 As the co-chair of the New York-based National Congress of Neighborhood Women Gilkey negotiated for government grants helping establishment of tenant management in New York and other cities https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertha_Gilkey
 See the section “Cabinet 1989-1993” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Kemp