Bringing Down the House

A Brooklyn housing project, once home to 1,200, now houses just two.

On the surface, Fort Greene's public housing projects look like an example of good government. Late last week, a gaggle of workers in hard hats carried pipes on their shoulders to one of the towers, and the sound of a buzz saw occasionally broke the silence. As part of a $150 million modernization at the 60-year-old Walt Whitman and Raymond V. Ingersoll Houses, the workers were replacing counters, appliances, and elevators for thousands of low-income residents.

But four years ago, when 1,100 families learned that they had to move out, things weren't quite so rosy. Residents were convinced that they were being displaced to make room for condos to house high-rent folks moving into the neighborhood. While about half the residents are allowed to remain in their apartments while the work goes on around them, those that have left fear they will never return. And they have good reason to worry.

"The promise to us was five years," says Milton Bolton, a resident association president for a housing development where no one lives. Long ago, Bolton and all his neighbors were kicked out of Prospect Plaza Houses, a project in Brownsville built in 1974. Ostensibly, they were going to be displaced only temporarily while the New York City Housing Authority renovated the 368 apartments. Residents were promised bigger bedrooms and modern appliances, electrical lines that no longer caused fires, and a brand-new community center. "Now," he says, "we're going on a decade that they have not done what they promised." (The city has only demolished one tower and built nearby townhouses with the same name.)

Today, the abandoned brick towers look like they belong in a war zone. Broken windows dot the upper floors, and the lower-floor windows have been bricked in. A once-beloved basketball court is overrun with weeds, the pole and backboard tilting dangerously to one side. Vacant lots with rusted shopping carts and waist-high weeds sit on either side of the three towers. The complex, which once housed more than 1,100 people, now only has two occupants—a couple of young security guards lounging in a shabby office.

Bolton speculates that the NYCHA never intended to renovate in Brownsville. "You look around and you got land," he says, opening his arms wide. "And land is the most important thing in New York. This is big enough for another Atlantic Yards right here."

Bolton, however, is prone to conspiracy theories. A former NYCHA employee himself—he says he worked as a groundskeeper before taking his current job as a security guard—Bolton is now convinced that the housing authority is out to get him. "Every time I stir up trouble, they try to kick me out," he says. It's clear that trouble has followed him—or, perhaps, that he courts it. He says he was shot twice while defending his block against drug-dealing thugs. The father of nine carries around a clergy identification card, even though he can't actually claim to be a man of the cloth. He also can't claim to be an exemplary tenant: Last week, he says, he paid $900 in back rent that he racked up while living in his 11th floor Prospect Plaza apartment years ago. But for all his bravado and complications, Bolton is perhaps the only person earnestly trying to figure out why the NYCHA has stalled for eight years, doing nothing at Prospect Plaza but occasionally cutting the grass.

"Prospect Plaza has been a complicated project," explains NYCHA spokesman Howard Marder. After a series of broken promises—including projected completion dates that came and went unheeded—Marder says the problem is financial. Unlike the Fort Greene project, which is completely funded by NYCHA, Prospect Plaza is funded through the national HOPE VI program, which mandates a complex arrangement of both private capital and public funds. But according to Marder, Prospect Plaza's private development partner couldn't raise the money. Now, the NYCHA is looking for a new sugar daddy and won't give a timeline for the renovations.

Bolton says most Prospect Plaza residents have already given up and don't expect to return. He has warned the folks in Whitman and Ingersoll of the same fate: "I went down there and I told them, 'It's gonna happen to you, too!'"

For now, residents at the Fort Greene projects and their advocates are keeping a close eye on the progress, not daring to believe the city's promises. Skeptically eyeing a high-rise condo going up nearby, one resident notes that the neighborhood is rapidly changing, the rents ever rising around her.

 
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