Secret Lives

Life in Public Housing

New York’s public housing projects have more residents than the entire city of Cleveland. But seven current and former residents reveal that life in the towers is not always as it seems.

Life in Public Housing

More than 400,000 New Yorkers live in housing developments overseen by the New York City Housing Authority—towers more commonly known as “the projects.” Yet the public’s collective image of life in these communities is far more simplistic than the true, complicated stories of the people who actually live there.

Over the course of twelve months, journalist Rico “Superbizzee” Washington and photographer Shino Yanagawa facilitated a series of candid interviews and photo shoots with current and former residents of various housing projects throughout the city, including seminal hip-hop icon Afrika Bambaataa, author/ filmmaker Nelson George, and hip-hop artist/actor Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def). Inspired by the documentarian works of Jacob Riis, Gordon Parks and Ruiko Yoshida, Washington and Yanagawa aimed to explore and challenge the stigmas and stereotypes associated with blacks and Latinos in New York City’s public housing community.

Seven of those stories are told below. The project, which includes video loops and interview excerpts, is currently on exhibition at the Gordon A. Parks Gallery in the South Bronx through May 5th.

Jamel Shabazz

Former NYCHA Resident: Red Hook Houses (Brooklyn)

Jamel Shabazz
Jamel Shabazz

For the past 30 years, Jamel Shabazz has documented the world and his community through captivating still images, including the acclaimed books Back In The Days and A Time Before Crack. He is actively involved in community arts education through initiatives such as Rush Arts Philanthropic Foundation and Plays For Living.

What are your earliest memories of your housing project?
Growing up in Red Hook Houses was a beauty. It was a joy as a child, because most of my family was out there. My grandmother lived in the same court as me. My uncles lived there. It was family. Everybody had family. It’s so interesting to reflect back on those times and know that everybody had a father in the home. If you didn’t, for the most part it was because he died in war.

All the families knew and respected one another. It was always “Mrs.” Beverly, or “Mrs.” Gail, or “Mrs.” Johnson. There was respect. It was just amazing to experience that.

We never saw poverty out there. We had a stadium, where schools from all over the city would have track meets. We had a baseball field. We had a serious swimming pool. We had a center where we could learn martial arts and play ball. It was just beautiful.

We never saw poverty until I got a little older. Hard times befell on many of us and people got caught up from public assistance. I remember my parents would have the kids go. I would go with my cousin to go get public assistance. It was interesting, because we would go with our shopping carts and the whole entire project would be there. Everybody was on that line. There was an embarrassment and a stigma attached to it, but we were all poor at that time. We were all struggling to survive.

Susie Mushatt Jones

NYCHA Resident: Vandalia Houses (Brooklyn)

Susie Mushatt Jones
Susie Mushatt Jones

At 112-years-old, the Alabama native owns the distinction of being the oldest living resident of NYCHA’s collective housing sites. Over the past decade, she has received numerous proclamations from local and state politicians as well as from President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle.

How long have you been living at Vandalia Houses?
Ever since it has been here. I was the first tenant. I’ve been here a long time. The only thing is, I don’t like Brooklyn.

Why not?
You see, I was in Westchester County. That’s where I lived when I first came to New York. I came from Asbury Park, New Jersey. All my friends were there.

What would you say to people who think that housing projects are bad places to live?
I haven’t found anything bad since I’ve been here. I can’t say anything bad about it. I really can’t . . . I live here and I think it’s very nice.

You were a member of the tenant patrol for many years. What was it like?
I used to sit in the lobby and greet people as they came in. I knew everybody here. I was able to see then. I lost my eyesight about 10 years ago. If I could see, I would talk you to death! There’s so much I could tell you if I could go back, but it’s been such a long time. Do you know how old I am?

Did you ever think that you would live to see your 100th birthday?
No I didn’t. I really didn’t. But I’m not sorry to be this age. I have another friend that reached 100.

What is your secret to a long life?
Just living.

Ephraim Benton

Former NYCHA Resident: Tompkins Houses (Brooklyn)

Ephraim Benton
Ephraim Benton

Ephraim has appeared in several television series, including Law & Order, The Sopranos, and Chappelle’s Show, as well as films such as Baby Boy, American Gangster, and the Oscar award-winning Precious. He is also the founder of Chillin’ On Da Corner & Beyond, a series of outdoor film screenings, health fairs and community resource events held in his native Bedford-Stuyvesant.

What are your strongest memories of your neighborhood?
When it used to be fun. Before you find out what life is truly about in these harsh realities. Especially growing up in the hood. When friends were friends. When things were innocent, simple. Then as you get older, friends stray away from each other and become enemies. I miss the good times. I miss my friends that are no longer here, whether they’re locked up or dead. Playing childhood games, whether it was basketball, softball, baseball, football. All that stuff, we used to play together. Running around, bike riding through different neighborhoods, playing tag and skelly. These kids nowadays don’t know what any of that is about. That’s the sad part.

Do you think there were programs that the city could have put in place that could have saved your fallen comrades?
When I was growing up there were things still in place like after-school programs. Not educational, but recreational. So you could at
least do something constructive with your time. But slowly, people feared that violence would occur. So they just stopped the programs. So after a while, all the kids did was hang out in the streets.

My whole thing is to come back. The kids see me on television and in films, so I’m setting positive images out there and trying to be a positive role model for them. They can say, “Yo, E is really doin’ it.” I’ve seen, I’ve conquered, and now I’m bringing it back.

In housing projects, there seems to be an ever-pressing theory of “getting out and staying out.” But it appears that you have countered that theory.
There are plenty of successful doctors and lawyers from the hood, not just entertainers or athletes, that tend to give to charities for cancer and AIDS, to move up in society. They want to put an image out there that would look good to upper-class society. They want to fit in. The charity that I want to give to is the place I grew up. That’s in line with my morals, values, and beliefs.

At 18, I made it out of the hood. I went to live in California and stayed for five and a half years. But I always came back. I don’t want to put any names out there, but there are famous people who are from Tompkins Houses who claim they’re not from here because it’s a blemish. They don’t want to reach back and help. If you’ve made it and you have money, what’s wrong with taking one of these vacant buildings and opening a space to help out – a space to teach job training skills? You’ll sit up there and buy a $50,000 to $100,000 watch, but that kind of money in the hood could go a long way in starting programs. That doesn’t add up to me.

Jayro Espinal

Musician/ Illustrator/ Graffiti Artist
Former NYCHA Resident: Queensbridge Houses (Queens)

Jayro Espinal
Jayro Espinal

A native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Jayro has been a graffiti writer for more than a decade. He is the subject of the recent short documentary, The Writing On The Wall. Jayro has recently released an eponymous 14-track album of experimental rock fusion under the nom de plume “There’s No Such Thing As Giants.”

How long did you live in Queensbridge Houses?
About 7 to 8 years.

You’re originally from Brazil. Talk about the contrast between the favelas in your native country and Queensbridge Houses.
Living there, that’s dirt poor. Favelas are houses built on top of houses. The roof was made out of soda cans that were flattened out and nailed to boards. I remember helping my parents make that, so I learned at an early age how to use your resources. We had to go out and hustle and find the means to get what we needed.

Here, I felt like, “Wow! We’re poor, but we have something. We have a roof over our heads. And not just a roof, but a nice roof!” When I was in Rio, everybody knew everybody. If someone was in your house and the neighbors saw them, they’d be like, “What are you doing in that house?” But that’s the only thing about here that was different. My friend in Queensbridge got his house broken into and nobody said anything. I said to myself, “This is nothing like home.” When I was growing up back in Rio, everybody would talk to you. But here, no one would talk to you; they’d ignore you and just go their own way. If you try to say “hello,” they think you’re crazy.

Do you feel like the stereotypes of housing projects are justified?
I feel like most people are on the outside looking in, or on the inside looking out. So one person would say, “That place sucks. There’s nothing good coming out of it.” Someone else can always raise an objection and point out an example of something good. I can see the bad that comes out of the projects, but I can also see the bad that comes out of the wealthier side. Who’s to judge which one is better or worse?

Olu Dara

Musician/Recording Artist
Former NYCHA Resident: Queensbridge Houses (Queens)

Olu Dara
Olu Dara

Olu Dara was an ever-present figure of the avant-garde New York Loft jazz scene in the 1970s. Proficient on the cornet, horn and guitar, he has played alongside jazz luminaries such as Doug Carn, Art Blakey, and Henry Threadgill. He has released two solo albums and still maintains an active performance schedule. He is the father of Hip-Hop icon Nas.

What are your first memories of stepping into the projects of New York City for the first time?
When I first got to New York, some of the greatest musicians I knew were living in housing projects. The first one I remember hanging around a lot was the Marcy Projects where Jay-Z was born and raised. Some of the most talented people I’ve ever met in my life. The most articulate people. The most interesting people. They had a lot of great artists of all types. And a lot of business people.

A lot of people didn’t want to move out because there was no reason to. The places were large enough to raise a family. The walls were thick. They had heat and hot water.

Could you contrast the Queensbridge of your jazz days with the Queensbridge of today?
Well, I haven’t been there for a while, so I don’t know what it’s like now. But I know that it was just recovering from a very heavy heroin situation. All black communities in New York were infested with heroin. It doesn’t mean the people were inherently that way from the beginning. They just dumped [the drugs] in there.

But I thought it was a very organized place, because there were places for kids to play- lots of room to play, benches to sit on, a nice park by the river. I spent most of my time in the park. I used to just sit there on the bench and look at the East River.

What do you say to people who feel that housing projects are like social black holes – that you can never evolve as a fully functional, productive member of society?
I grew up in Mississippi where everybody had houses. We had no apartment buildings. So even the poorest of people had houses, yards, and owned property. But as a little one, I noticed that American society was divided. Television and sitcoms had a lot to do with it. They would show you the house and the family, and you are just one entity. And your next-door neighbor is completely foreign to you. There was, “Hello!” and “How are you,” but they never visited each other’s homes or did anything together. It was a case of “I have my house, you have your house.” You don’t know their names or their kids’ names. You see them across the street, but they close their doors. That’s about it.

The projects were more human. I saw humanity because everybody knew each other. They walked amongst each other and their kids played together. You didn’t know who had money and who did not have money. So, I saw the positive aspect of being together as a group of people. You actually knew each other.

Yvonne Shields

NYCHA Resident: Highbridge Gardens (Bronx)

Yvonne Shields
Yvonne Shields

For the past three years Yvonne Shields has been a sous-chef at Broadway Community, Inc., a community kitchen housed in the Broadway Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.

How long have you lived in public housing?
I’ve been there going on nine years now. As a kid, my mother was trying to get us into the projects. But we could never get in there. So years later I found myself homeless and finally got the opportunity. But just to get into the projects, you have to give up all this information about yourself. They want to know if you got a cat. They want to know everything about you. They’re asking what you make, who’s in the apartment, what they make, whether or not you have doctor bills. It’s just so confining to me that it feels like a compound. It feels like a prison. I guess this is how they regulate the poor.

Do you have any concerns about the way your site is run?
If you want anything done to your apartment, you have to go through all these different changes. First, you have to make a phone call downtown. Then, downtown gives you a [repair] number. Then, the maintenance department at your site calls you up and comes on the so-called date. Sometimes they come; sometimes they don’t.

For example, one of the things they tell you is that you can’t get a new refrigerator; it has to be second-hand. I’ve had two refrigerators. The last one, the maintenance man told me not to put so much food in there. So, what you’re telling me is that I have to shop every day so my food won’t spoil? Instead of them fixing the refrigerator to the point that it actually works properly, they give you all these instructions.

What is the perception of people living in housing projects?
I tend to feel that people think we don’t want to go anywhere. You get the feeling that the minute you tell somebody that you’re receiving public assistance, it’s a thumbs down. There is no respect for people who live in the projects. I live in the projects but I want better things for myself. With the assistance you get, for every penny you make, they’re taking a dollar. At least thats how it feels.

Do you feel that government housing gives underprivileged people a leg up?
At one point in time, public assistance really helped you move on. Today, public assistance is about keeping you right where you’re at. It’s indentured servitude, but you never get the chance to work out of it. My rent went up, but I’m on a fixed income. Minimum wage. When they asked me to send in my housing recertification, my daughter was getting unemployment, so I had to send in her papers too, and my rent doubled.

Sharon Jones

Singer/ Actress
Former NYCHA Resident: Samuel J. Tilden Houses (Brooklyn)

Sharon Jones
Sharon Jones

A native of Augusta, Georgia, Sharon Jones arrived in New York City at the age of three. She has since gone on to great success as a singer with her soul revival group, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. In 2010, the group’s fourth critically acclaimed album I Learned The Hard Way debuted at #15 on the Billboard chart. The group has been featured on television shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live, and
in 2007 Sharon was featured in The Great Debaters, which starred Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker.

Was there ever a time when you felt ashamed of living in public housing?
I remember when I first joined an Italian wedding band. That was in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. I was ashamed to tell them I lived in the project. They always asked me where I lived at, and I’d say “East New York.” Like that made it better. Then after a while, I thought, “Why lie? This is what it is. One day, I’ll get out of there. I’ll get my mother and my sister out.” And believe it or not, I’m an official homeowner as of October.

I’m not ashamed anymore. But I’m still mindful of other people’s perceptions. In the last few years, my career has been climbing. NBC News wanted to come and film me in my apartment. I said, “Oh no you’re not!” Not so they could come up in there, in the elevator stepping over urine and feces. I’m not going to bring them up in there so they can see the plaster falling off in my mother’s room and the leaks from the rain. I didn’t want that.

What are your thoughts on the common stereotypes applied by individuals living outside these communities?
People can say that all people in the projects have certain behaviors, but that’s not true. It’s about the individual. My mother raised six kids there. But just because I lived in the projects didn’t mean I had to become the projects. I didn’t throw garbage out of the window and I didn’t pee in the elevator.

You’ve obviously had great success with your singing career. Do you think it’s generally tougher for people from public housing to achieve at least a comparable level of success enough to transition out?
I think it is. You have to work extra hard and you have to really want it. If it was that easy, you’d have many more people coming out of the projects doing it.

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These interviews and photos are excerpted from “We The People: The Citizens of NYCHA,.” For more information, visit