Housing Generations | Life in the Projects: A Shift to Violence

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, Queens. The Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, Queens. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

WNYC is telling the story of public housing in New York City through the lens of one family that has lived there for four decades. The Alstons arrived in the Queensbridge Houses in 1954 and have lived there ever since. This is part two of a four-part series.

Karen Alston lives two floors above her childhood home in the country’s largest housing project, the Queensbridge Houses. Like many members of her sprawling family the 52-year old has had every reason to leave over the years.

At 15, she was raped in a laundromat near her home. In her 20s, she was addicted to crack. She has witnessed one after another of her brothers sent to jail.

Karen is a twin, and one of 12 children born to Virgie and Walter Alston. Like many in her family Karen got caught up in the kind of drugs that became commonplace in New York during the 1970s and 1980s.

“I used to smoke crack when (my son) was a baby,” she said recently. “I grew up in the heroin era—where everybody in my generation we had a brother or sister addicted to dope. Everybody.”

Dozens of members of the four-generation Alston family still live in Queensbridge, including four of Virgie’s children who were raised there, many of their children and even some of their children. For more than 60 years, the Alstons have witnessed the landscape shifting as diversity dissipated in public housing and drugs flooded the streets.

Still, leaving her childhood home, her family, was never an option. Even when she was sent to the country through the Fresh Air Fund she pined for familiar sites like the smoke stacks of the nearby power plant and the familiar faces of Queensbridge.

Public housing started as a solution to urban crowding and an alternative to the unsanitary tenements. But decades later it too became a stigmatized problem in search of solutions.

One of Karen’s brothers, Keith, now 48, said he used to be a junkie who would hustle to keep up with his habit. Now, clean after a seven-year jail stint, the married father of two said a life on the streets was all he knew growing up.

"When you have an example of a life of hustle that’s set before you, you have no choice but to hustle,” he said at a family gathering in New Jersey this past spring. “That’s all I seen — how to get a fast buck. How to gamble. How to sell drugs.”

Keith now lives in Far Rockaway. Leaving Queesnbridge was the best thing for him – it distanced him from temptations, he said.

“I think back where I came from and where I could of been today and I’m grateful. I could of still been out there in Queensbridge. Because I know a lot of my friends that are still out there,” he said. “And I’m not better than them. God just made an escape for me. I’m living now—I’m not just existing, I’m living.”

Karen Alston outside of her home Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Couldn’t Evict Jack the Ripper

As an agency, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has a complicated funding structure that since its inception has used federal, state and local funding. Early on, the housing authority covered most of its operating expenses from rents, and did its best to attract and keep paying tenants. They even put a cap, 30 percent, on the number of tenants on welfare.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia hoped public housing would supplant the slum landlords he saw plaguing the city. But landlords and real estate interests claimed the city was taking away their middle-income paying tenants.

“Look at the scale of the plans of the early years,” said professor Nick Bloom, with the New York Institute of Technology, referring to large complexes like the Queensbridge Houses, with 3,142 apartments and the Red Hook Houses with 2,545 apartments.

"They’re really not just about building transitional housing. They really had the goal, much like happened in England, of pushing out landlords from the working class rental market."

At the same time, the balance of black and white residents was steadily sliding. Every year since such records began in 1946, the number of white residents decreased at Queensbridge as the number of blacks increased.

Experts say this was in part because there was more available housing for whites, many of whom moved out of urban centers and into suburbia in the 1950s. And although the 1944 G.I. Bill bolstered home ownership with low-cost mortgages in the suburbs, blacks were routinely discriminated against living in certain neighborhoods.

“Change in the racial complexion, quite literally, of public housing residents coincided with the boom in American suburbs,” said Owen Gutfreund, director of the Urban Affairs program at Hunter College.

At the same time, advocates argued that subsidized housing should go to the neediest residents, said Bloom. “Emergency cases or the homeless, moved up the (NYCHA) waiting list very quickly and moved into public housing very rapidly.”

By the 1960s, NYCHA had made it harder for higher income tenants to stay and easier for the poor and homeless to enter public housing. In 1961, rent was capped at 25 percent of a tenant’s income.

But nothing did more to change life in New York public housing than a 1971 lawsuit brought by a couple evicted for keeping a dog illegally. The resulting consent decree, known as Escalera, tied NYCHA’s hands by making it difficult to evict tenants who broke NYCHA rules.

One housing official told Fritz Umbach, a specialist in criminal history of New York and professor at John Jay College, that with this ruling “they couldn’t even evict Jack the Ripper.”

In the '70s and '80s, as the drug epidemic gripped the projects, crime in NYCHA exploded, and the stereotype of the projects as dangerous was cemented in the public’s imagination.

But some experts were quick to point out that welfare tenants weren't necessarily more likely to commit crimes than paying tenants — it had just become harder for the community to police itself.

The culture at NYCHA was also changing. Growing up, members of the Alston family remember fearing fines from the housing police for minor infractions like playing ball on the grounds, walking on the grass or stepping on the benches. NYCHA police could also fine tenants for hanging their laundry out to dry or poor housekeeping.

But by the 1980s crime in NYCHA spiked “ferociously,” Umbach said. “And the police force and the residents begin to go their separate ways.”  

Patricia Alston, center, with her family in Virgie Alston's living room. Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Crime Plagues the Alstons

“This whole neighborhood just turned into hell,” said Patricia Alston, 55, one of Virgie’s daughters. “We all playing and all of a sudden we can’t go to certain areas, we couldn’t go to the avenue anymore. Literally, we saw people overdose on the bench outside.”

Many Alstons succumbed to drug addiction too. Virgie and her husband said they didn’t know much about drugs—but they knew when one of their children began acting strangely.

“That drug business that was the worst time in my life tell the truth. It was the worst,” Virgie said recently. “You can tell when there’s a change in your kids. All you do is say a prayer and keep talking to them, is all I can do.”

And one by one—the Alston boys all got arrested.

Chick, the oldest brother was the first. In the mid 1970s, he was charged with manslaughter after a scuffle that ended in violence at the Astoria Houses, several family members said. The police did not confirm specifics about Chick’s arrest record.

Eventually, six out of the seven Alston boys served time for various crimes — many involving drugs.

“How did it go from just how nice it was to everyday fighting in the house because my brother would be nodding on the floor." Patricia said. “And my father would be like, ‘Get out of here with that in front of these kids.’ ”

Crime soared in public housing from 1985 to 1991, the peak of the crack epidemic. And this spike was, some experts say, a result of major changes to NYCHA’s ecosystem. In the 1960s and 1970s there was an informal economy for things like lunch services, baked goods and auto repair. But in the ‘70s and ‘80s this became less profitable.

“Suddenly there are fewer opportunities for this gray market activity, and there’s all this money to be made from dealing drugs,” said Umbach.

Umbach doesn’t believe it was the architecture that contributed to the proliferation of drugs, but rather the social dynamics of having fewer residents with full-time employment. And according to members of the Alston family, a quick buck, the latest sneakers and fast cars were also part of the allure.

NYCHA doesn’t keep crime statistics anymore, and the police don’t keep statistics for specific housing projects, but this year a child was shot in the hand while doing her homework at Queensbridge. And when gun shots rang out in Queensbridge this summer 83-year-old Virgie dropped to the ground outside the Jacob Riis Community Center.

As for Karen, who battled drug addiction and is now clean, she’s retired from her job at Queens College and has a son who is a recent graduate with a Master’s degree. She says she sees no reason to leave.

“I been here all my life—and I have no desire to leave Queensbridge either,” she said defiantly.


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Comments [10]

Rodney Agers from Charlotte NC

I grew up in Queensbridge from 1969 at the age of 1 to 1982 @ age 14 then again from 1988 to 1989. I had a good childhood for the most part. The majority of the families during that time had 2 parents. But what I remember most was the fact that most people worked hard everyday and wanted the best for their children. I remember the heroin junkies of the 70's shooting up in the elevator. Then the crack epidemic swept through the neighborhood like a tornado in the mid 80's just as it did to many other communities across the country. My parents finally moved out in 1989.I wouldn't trade my childhood for anything.

Mar. 24 2015 10:43 AM
david firestone from NYC

! Please send this urgent appeal to as many people & officials as you can !

Homicide, rape, vandalism, poverty, illness, incarcerations and all criminal activities in the Public Housing projects across the country are a direct result of the Lack of basic security. The first cause is deliberate negligence; the fact that the security cameras are not being used for the monitoring of all crimes and violations like it is done in all other residential building. This would be a common sense thing to do; unless the criminals are the ones in control of the cameras. People and their pets are allowed to urinate and defecate, do graffiti, in every elevator, stairwell, and in front of the lobby door all day long, smashing the lobby entrance door glass almost every month, to trespass and gain illegal access. All this is often done in plain sight of the cameras, and nothing has ever been done about it for decades. Every minute you must watch where you are stepping to avoid the urine and feces. Secondly, because of the high level of homicide and criminal activities, the cameras in the building should be made to broadcast into the cable network of the building so that the tenants can help in monitoring building security, like it is done in all other buildings in the city where they value the life, health and safety of the residents, without judging their race or economic condition.

Secondly, homicide, rape, vandalism, and other criminal activities can quickly be eliminated by having two security officers to patrol each project, one in uniform, the other undercover. The Officers must get out of their patrol cars at each building to make sure that the exit doors are kept closed and locked, so that criminals do not come in and out of the building all night like roaches to urinate, victimize the residents and vandalize the property. Every night, after about 2:00 AM, the gangsters and criminals start jamming the doors open. The building doors not being kept closed and locked, especially at night, is the primary cause of all the danger, violence, health and sanitation hazards, and criminal activity. And something must be done about the sound of gunshots being heard day and night!
We beg you for the love of God to please help stop this campaign of hate and genocide against the residents by providing residents basic security and safety. Public housing in the City of New York and across the nation has been turned into death camps and genocide machine. Reversing this ferocious atrocity can be done overnight, once the management is made to realize that even if the residents are mostly poor blacks and Hispanics, they are just as human and are not inferior to anyone, and deserve a chance for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!
. Email: -- TWITTER: @projectsofdeath

Oct. 26 2013 06:21 AM
Sharon Alston from Queens Bridge

emjayay from Brooklyn, I am Sharon T Alston, PhD, youngest of the Alston family. I am not sure if you are interested in the lives of my siblings or the operation and purpose of public housing. If it is my siblings please feel free to conduct your own interview!
About the housing projects, you make these strong statements about public housing being a mistake and it being "a sinkhole of multigenerational dysfunction". Where do you live, what are your sources of support, have you ever been without housing? Housing for the poor and low income without supportive services is just that "housing"! Providing housing for the two-year period as suggested is at best a band aide solution. I am not sure if I am insulted by your comments as you appear to be extremely judgmental about a family and topic of which you have limited knowledge and experience, or if I am excited to educate you on the experience of living in a community like the Queens Bridge Projects. If your concern is the purpose and operation of public housing, we invite you to the community to assist families in public housing reach their full potential and exit out to housing suitable to your standards.

Mar. 29 2013 09:25 AM

Part 2 of the Alston story

Jan. 17 2013 02:48 PM
Fritz Umbach from Brooklyn, NY

As the historian cited in the story re: "Jack the Ripper" comment, it's important to provide the context that the WNYC story did not. In 1971, the Escalera Consent decree did, indeed, dramatically limit NYCHA's ability to evict residents--as captured by the NYCHA official's "Jack the Ripper" complaint. That situation, however, would change dramatically in the early 1990s as legal and policy changes (fought for and supported by, it's worth noting, tenant groups) made it easier for NYCHA and, later, all housing authorities, to evict residents. In particular, the Rucker supreme court case grants housing authorities broad powers to evict entire households based off the behavior of a single member, whether on or off the grounds of the complex. NYCHA, however, generally chooses not to take advantage of the ruling and evicts only the family member whose behavior has been troublesome, while making the lease of the tenant of record conditional on the continuing exclusion of the evicted resident. Moreover, such cases--when considered against the 600,000 or so NYCHA residents--are extremely rare. So John Gray is partially accurate for the current situation but wrong for the recent past.

Jan. 05 2013 08:38 PM
Rob B. from Va. Beach

In support of public housing and the Alston family let me say that I know all of the first generation and they are good people. Spending time in jail does not make you an animal, as many of us should know. Also my family, like the Alstons, spent 40 years in Queensbridge and five out of six of us siblings obtained college degrees. I can name dozens of families out of Q.B. where the first generation turned out to be educated, hard working people. The street education I obtained was priceless. If I had to do it all over again I would not change being born and raised in Queensbridge.

Dec. 20 2012 06:52 PM from

Part one played OK, but Part Two is not playing.

Even after I downloaded instead of streaming and loaded into Audacity, it still will not play.

Is Part Two it playing for anyone else

Dec. 19 2012 05:27 PM
emjayay from Brooklyn

After I read Part 2 and commented I read Part 1. For anyone who missed it, here is part of a comment by KK from Part 1:

"....part one fails to mention that Chick was incarcerated for the shooting murder of a youth in the nearby Astoria Houses back in the 1970's. The male members of his family have extensive criminal records and have been entwined in Queensbridges illegal economy for 40 years, and two-thirds of his siblings appear to have been unemployed for as long. I await the outcome."

WNYC, is this true? If so, why was this left out? If not true, you owe it to the public to refute it. Obviously, if it is true, it more than supports my previous general comments about public housing.

Dec. 19 2012 05:25 PM
emjayay from Brooklyn

What John Gray said, but I don't agree with the law and order comment, just the shallowness of the reporting. The report so far actually seems to be bizarrely uncritical to me. This family, living a lifetime in housing massively subsidised by the rest of us, decided to have 12 children. Pathetic. At the risk of jumping to conclusions, were they receiving any other governmental subsidies besides housing and the huge cost of educating all those kids?

Public housing seemed like a good idea at the time, but it proved to be a sinkhole of multigenerational dysfunction that costs society far, far more in many ways than the massive subsidies alone and is actually ultimately a disservice to the people in it as well as society as a whole. It was a huge mistake. We should have the honesty to face it and do something about it. A policy of allowing people to use public housing for a year or two maximum, not a lifetime, would be a start.

We are ignoring many other problems as well, but this one is glaringly obvious and has been for decades, and to make it worse entirely caused by our own well meaning but misguided action. The definition of insanity....

Dec. 19 2012 05:16 PM
John Gray from Brooklyn, NY

In my opinion this piece is one of the one-sided and poorly researched articles I have ever heard on NPR. I was particularly set off by the "Jack the Ripper" comment, which is seriously off-base, as you would have discovered if you had actually looked into the reality of NYCHA of evictions. But the piece as a whole is remarkably naive. There is an interesting and difficult story here about the interaction of politics, housing, and race in NYC and nationally. Your article hints at this story at times but abandons it to go with a stock law-and-order approach. You should be ashamed.

Dec. 19 2012 08:54 AM

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