By number, it's a city – a large one. As of this past January, 403,736 people live in 2,596 apartment buildings owned and run by the New York City Housing Authority. That population is bigger than Miami, Oakland and Tulsa.
NYCHA buildings do not comprise a city of course. But their people, history, importance and problems are no less critical and complicated.
Rico Washington, a journalist who attended Fordham University and lives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was raised in Washington, D.C. public housing. He began this project when Sonia Sotomayor was nominated by President Obama to the Supreme Court in 2009. Sotomayor grew up in Bronxdale Houses, a NYCHA project now renamed for her. During her confirmation hearing, Washington believes her social and economic background was focused on superficially and negatively by opponents, without sufficient attention paid to her education and judicial experience. Along with photographer Shina Yanagawa, he decided to talk to many, many people who live, or have lived, at NYCHA and record the diversity of their backgrounds, beliefs and experiences.
In this and the three photographs that follow are four of the people he interviewed and Yanagawa photographed for the "We the People" exhibit at the Gordon Parks Gallery at the College of New Rochelle’s campus in the Bronx. The exhibit runs through May 5
Yvonne Shields, Sous-Chef
NYCHA Resident: Highbridge Gardens (Bronx)
For the past 3 years, Yvonne Sheilds has been a sous-chef at Broadway Community, Inc., a community kitchen generously housed in a space at Broadway Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. She was also an active member of the NYC-based grassroots organization, Community Voices Heard.
How long have you lived in public housing?
For me, this is the first time I've ever lived in the projects. I've been there going on 9 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. And you have to do it every year. They want to know if you got a cat. They want to know everything about you. I got in there because I was homeless. It's six buildings, and it's like a compound. So every year, 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, I moved in October of 2000. And one of the things they tell you is that you can't get a new refrigerator; it has to be second hand. As long as it works, I don't care. 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 everyday 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. The powers that be have no respect for people who live in the projects. I live in the projects. I want better things for myself. I want a job where I cannot only just pay my bills, but to buy a coat or a pair of shoes. With the assistance you get, for every penny you make, they're taking a dollar. At least it feels like it.
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. Within one year.