One-Bedroom Apartment in Housing Project

 Location Red Hook (Brooklyn)
Rent $315 (subsidized)
Square feet 500
Occupants Emma Broughton (volunteer, Red Hook Senior Center; former school aide and counselor, HeartShare)

You're so happy the daffodils are up. Now, we first met at the Red Hook Senior Center down the street, with all the bright orange chairs, the pink-and-white crocheted dolls, the men playing dominoes. I go there every day, help the ones who have canes. I carry their trays. I've been in the projects since 1958.

You have this soft Southern accent. I was born in North Carolina, Durham. There were seven of us. My mother died giving birth to me. I think seven is a blessed number. I was raised by my grandmother. I moved to New York when I was 20, in 1950, to live with my aunt, in Spanish Harlem. I married my husband a year later. He was in the garment business—bice and binding, making lapels for suits. I got in the projects on emergency. I had small kids. I was living in a very bad building up on Bergen.

Emma Broughton in her Red Hook living room
photo: Jesse James
Emma Broughton in her Red Hook living room

I read that this red-brick public housing project was the largest federally funded one of its time when the first part, six-story buildings, was finished in 1939. It has very nice landscaping. On sunny days, the trees lean toward each other over the walkways—well, on cloudy days, too. Architecture critic Lewis Mumford, usually so down-in-the-mouth, called it "Versailles for the millions." First lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to visit. Can't you just see her smiling, in her hat, happily looking upon a world well taken care of? I met her, a very gracious lady. You should have seen the trees when I moved here. The center mall was nothing but green grasses, bushes with flowers on them—yellow bells. You didn't see one piece of paper in the project. They used to vacuum every morning. Not today. We had policemen who walked the development. If a child walked on the grass, he would yell, "Mother, get your child." When I moved in, it was really integrated—a lot of Italians, Jewish—a great community. It didn't matter what color you were. We had elderly people. My kids would go to the store for them. Then the piers started closing up in the late '50s; a lot of the Italians moved out. Newcomers have come, homeless, single parents. The mid '80s is when crack really hit. No, I was never afraid. When the drugs got bad, I started the anti-drug task force. My grandson got shot in the back—but he's OK. I've never had a problem being afraid. Maybe I'm crazy. But I'm out a lot. I move around. If you become a prisoner in your house, you're finished. I can't stand to stay in this house all day. If I do, I feel sick. I have to be around people. I don't think I could live in a house where you don't have neighbors.

You have 10,000 or something. I went to South Carolina to visit my sister-in-law. She said, "I feel so sorry for you." She could see I was miserable there. The houses are so far apart. At night, you just see the car lights on the highway.

So lonely. That sound of tires moving along, going away. How did you become so active politically? They call you the mayor of Red Hook. Oh, Councilmember Joan McCabe said that. I've been on Community Board 6 since 1984. I belong to a lot of organizations—American Legion Auxiliary, Red Hook Justice Center. After my husband died in '82, I decided to get active. I've always liked to do things, but in the background. People always come to me for information. I don't know why. All I did as a kid was run to the store for the neighbors. I think they picked me because they knew I'd come right back.

You're very excited about the Red Hook Public Library reading garden. It was a garbage-strewn lot. I looked at it one day. I said, "It's an eyesore." I spoke to Howard Golden. That was four or five years ago. Angel Rodriguez put in for renovation money. Thank God, I'll live to see it completed. I'm talking to Felix Ortiz to get a mural for the wall. I want it to be beautiful.

 
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