In a Housing Project by the Sea


Location Staten Island

Rent $154 (public housing)

Square feet 720

Occupants Joan Henry (retired home health aide); Jeannette “Tootie” Stevenson (GED student, St. George High School; office aide, Work Experience Program)

From reading news clips, one might think there’d be all this action in the building—people coming from the city to buy drugs, shootouts—though most of the clips were from the 1990s. When we got here, it was so calm in the lobby, no people, just shiny red elevator doors. Of course it’s pretty cold out. [Joan] My aide came here and said she was afraid. She took off her gold and put it in her pocket. She’s Indian. I didn’t feel threatened when I moved here in 1992, but I knew it wasn’t safe. When I’d come from shopping, whoever was outside would help me to the elevators with my food and stuff. I mean, the building’s kept up pretty nice. We have a closed-circuit camera system now. The freaks come at night, you know. There’ve been a couple of shootings. I’m more scared for Tootie, because she’s out there, coming and going.

This 1964 project is one of 11 in Staten Island—345 in New York total. Though people often think the island is all houses and trees. To set the scene: Your son Vernon is here playing computer solitaire. Tootie, your granddaughter, just came in the door. Now here’s Manny, the maintenance man, and Muffy, a neighbor’s child. Everybody comes in and out. I used to be president of the Tenants’ Association. My son who lives in Jersey comes a lot, and Tootie’s mother, from Coney. We play dominoes, bid whist. Tootie’s lived with me since she was five. She’s 19. She had to go away twice to Brentwood. It’s a home for troubled females.

I first saw you in artist Perry Bard’s video installation at Snug Harbor. You were upset about Dick and Jane books. Oh, them! There’s no type of family like that. The mother may have had an affair, the baby’s hair was blond and the rest of them weren’t. Their house was just a line drawing out in the suburbs.

How did you end up in Staten Island? I grew up in Bed-Stuy, over a garage. I have five children. I had two husbands but got rid of them both. I got my GED when I was 48. I’m 59 now. I married my first husband when I was a teenager. I already had a child from him. Oh God, was I uncomfortable in my skin. He lived in the neighborhood, worked at the Philip Dodge Refinery—that’s the copper refinery. I worked there also. All that was a horrible story in itself. He made money and it didn’t get home. The second one married me for his green card. He comes from a different culture. He wouldn’t give me money. He had a bank book that he kept in a briefcase. You needed to know the combination to get it open. I was looking at The Three Stooges. They had broken into a safe. They had a glass to their ear. I said, “That’s an idea.” I just put the briefcase to my ear. I heard the tumbler clicks at 6:30. At 9:30, I was at the bus depot. I went to victim services. They wrote me a letter of referral for housing. I couldn’t live in the borough that he lived in. They won’t let you. They want you to start a new life. I picked Staten Island. When people talk about going to Staten Island, they talk like you’re going down South and need a suitcase and everything. I remember getting on the bus and asking the driver to get us to Pathmark and we rode and rode and Tootie said, “Gama, we’re going through the forest.” We got back, but I’m wondering, Where did that forest go? When I first moved here, it was so strange. We were standing outside and this big huge yellow ship came, just at the opening on Jersey Street where you can look down at the water and all we could see was that ship. We stood there in amazement. It was going away, across. It looked like it would never end.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 18, 2003

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