2:25 pm Jul. 14, 2011
Last month I returned to the neighborhood in East New York, Brooklyn that had been home to me for most of 2008. My time living there seemed like yesterday, though I hadn’t been back in almost three years.
I was there to meet up with members of the advocacy group Picture the Homeless, to help them count vacant properties all over New York. The idea was for the data we collected to be presented as a report to city officials as evidence of spaces that could be repurposed for affordable housing. Picture the Homeless drafted a piece of legislation called Intro 48 that would make the city responsible for such counts in the future.
When given a choice of boroughs and areas to canvass, I had immediately picked my old neighborhood. Often called the worst neighborhood in New York, it actually hadn’t been so rough in my experience.
Only minutes after stepping off the L train and walking up Livonia Avenue, I ran into Shah, one of my old housemates. He was standing near the corner of Pennsylvania and Livonia, as he had nearly every day in 2008. Same do-rag, same oversize jersey, same baggy pants, same habit of looking pained and cautious. I remembered that he used to have terrible stomach pains that he only talked about seeing a doctor for, something that a daily diet of $2 microwave burgers and Twix bars didn’t help.
Smallish and slender, he had to be pushing 60 by now. We had lived together for seven months in one of the illegal boarding houses that did business with the city. The idea was that welfare paid a resident’s rent until he got on his feet sufficient to pay his own way. Except that, who would continue paying to stay in a bunk bed, sharing a bathroom with eight dudes? I had left in October 2008, after working for a month and paying a month’s rent and feeling stupid.
I walked up to Shah, who was looking in the opposite direction. The younger men at his side tensed up and gave me dead looks.
“Yo, Shah,” I said.
Shah turned, and when his eyes focused on me, his pained expression gave way to a great big smile. “Oh shit, my man, what up?”
He gave me a pound and a hug. “You staying out this way again?”
I told him no, and explained my business with Picture the Homeless.
He said, “You know they shut down the house?”
“That’s a good thing you doing, though,” he said. “People need spots they can afford out here.”
Since I was running late, I didn’t take time to ask him where, or how, he was living now. I remembered one day when he came back to the house excited about getting a temporary gig watching traffic cones. His excitement. When a felon gets a chance to make decent money without standing on the corner, flanked by thugs, his gratitude and optimism can be touching. But here I was, walking away from him three years later, and he was back on the corner.
I headed up Livonia, passing The House, the shoebox we had called home, and, in the softening diffuse light of that overcast day, it might as well have been the Mt. Vernon house I grew up in. Where were all these guys now? That little gray, stuccoed shoebox had been a source of apprehension from the neighbors, who tended to think of us as a bunch of drunks and criminals. Nobody who wasn’t there will know how hard we worked to find a place in this world.
I continued up Livonia, past bodegas, schoolyards, churches and community gardens until I reached the New Lots branch of the New York Public Library. Upstairs, a group of volunteers was getting ready to head out for the count, now that a morning drizzle had let up. Surprisingly, the organization’s executive director, Lynn Lewis, was there. I had assumed the head honcho would have chosen to canvass a “safer” neighborhood like Park Slope or Williamsburg. Assumptions are terrible.
I was paired up with Christian Siener, a grad student studying geography at Hunter College. With a map to guide us and yellow highlighters to mark the ground we would cover, we set out to canvass the densely packed blocks near the New Lots subway station, between Livonia and Atlantic Avenue.
Having already been to a property-count training session, I knew we were supposed to “engage the neighbors”—that is, ask them for any information they might have about vacant lots or buildings and inform them about Picture the Homeless. Outreach.
Christian, who is as slim and soft-spoken as I am, said he was a little apprehensive about pestering potentially suspicious, hostile locals. I told him that, having lived here, I could assure him this was not the 24/7 gangland depicted in tabloid crime reports.
We marked the properties that seemed to qualify as vacant on survey sheets that let us specify whether we found chains on doors, boarded-up windows, trash, graffiti, etc. Right at the start, we came across our first headscratcher. A brick and plywood structure that looked like a garage but had only a human-sized doorway, jammed between two buildings.
Inside, furniture and tools were packed almost to the ceiling. Way in the back, a man somewhere in late middle age with a kind of slovenly-cool Charles Mingus appearance, was moving some of the junk around. I called out to the man and he came forward. He confirmed that this place was, indeed, not vacant. It was his home, for the time being. He said he paid rent on the space by doing furniture restoration and other odd jobs.
I didn't ask him whom he paid rent to, or how he heated this undoubtedly drafty box in the winter. None of our business, and we had a lot of blocks to cover.
The number of properties that did qualify was shocking to me. On nearly every block we found at least one definite or maybe. Neighbors were eager to tell us about neglectful landlords who left trash and rusting cars in lots choked with weeds, or apartments bricked over, a dusty sign for the realty company (“WE BUY PROPERTY. ANY CONDITION”) hanging lopsided.
But it’s not easy to spot if you’re not looking for it. If you were to look at the Google Maps “street view” of many of these blocks, you would see mostly moderately well-kept two-story apartment houses and buildings, punctuated by the occasional lot or bodega. Even driving or walking by, an eye trained to think “urban decay” in terms of the classic South Bronx images that resembled bombed-out Beirut won’t peep the whole story.
On Jerome Street we found the kind of sleek, compact family homes I remembered seeing on Livonia, a few blocks away from my boarding house. Brand new at the time, they had featured wide, freshly paved driveways pristine enough to eat off. The two that Christian and I were studying now were of the same design. What almost failed to stop us in our tracks was the amount of un-bagged trash accumulated where the downward-sloping driveways and garage doors met. We looked at each other.
Christian went to one house, I to the other. Each of us had to climb stone steps to the front door, where newspaper circulars were piled high. It was like after the zombie invasion: Beyond the front screen door, the actual front door was hanging open, and the place was gutted. Pipes, wires, a sink sitting cockeyed on the bare living room floor.
A man came out of his car to ask us what we were up to. Christian gave him the whole spiel, and the man, who said his name was Mike, was ecstatic. “Good, man. I’m with a group of investors who have been trying to see about buying that property for six years now. We get nowhere.” He complained that the two houses had been built shortly after he arrived in the neighborhood six years ago and were just left to sit unoccupied ever since. He said neither the city nor the property owner would respond to his requests for information. “Now the thing just sits there collecting rats and garbage.” Since he lived right across the street, this was a big problem.
As the day went on, Christian and I shared our stories in brief installments between blocks. He had once worked for Ready Willing and Able, the homeless shelter that I’d stayed in just before I moved to East New York in 2008. There, his interest in geography and urban planning became bound up with a passion for exposing what he calls the “shelter-industrial complex”—a system of government agencies and private-service vendors that benefit and in some cases even profit from perpetuating a homeless population. He also sings in a travelling choir. Cool guy.
By the time the rain returned late in the afternoon, we had counted almost fifty vacant sites. We headed back to the library.
The other two-person teams, including Lynn and her teammate, got there around the same time. Genghis Khalid Muhammad, a volunteer whom I had met at my first Picture the Homeless meeting, was manning the desk. I was happy to run into him again, mainly because he reminded me of sly, wry Jason Robards in the movie The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The Picture the Homeless crew is heavy on charm and hard-earned wisdom. We all sat around the table drying off, tallying up our counts and sharing homeless war stories.
Even though the count was done for the day, no one was quite ready to leave. Our informal discussion went on to cover the mechanics, politics and bureaucratic roadblocks to truly progressive homeless policy in the city, but every time, it all came back to the fact of mainstream society’s fear and loathing of homeless people.
What might sound like idle speculation is actually the reason Picture the Homeless first turned my head. The catchphrase on their website and printed materials is, “Talk with us, not about us.” Many of their staff members, like Kendall and Ghengis (a record producer whose bio on the organization's site says he has “fallen on hard times”), are homeless people. These folks are poor, but they hold their heads high, ready to engage with city officials as collaborators on a solution to this housing crisis. They're probably not going to be hearing from Michael Bloomberg anytime soon. But it won't be for lack of trying.