Accountability through Celebration
How a block party celebrating the New York City Housing Authority led to over 1600 repairs for Brooklyn residents in 60 days.
by Teju Ravilochan
Author’s Note: Though originally published on July 15, 2023, this piece was updated October 29, 2023 with results.
30 years ago in 1993, Barbara Cole was thrilled to be moving into Glenmore Plaza, a public housing development in Brownsville, Brooklyn. “It was one of the best developments in the neighborhood,” she said.
But like many of the 177,000 apartments housing 333,000 residents administered by the overwhelmed and under-resourced New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), Glenmore Plaza fell into disrepair over the next few years.
Because Ms. Cole suffered from seizures, her doctors recommended she have a grab bar installed in the bathroom of her new Glenmore apartment. That way, she’d have something to hold onto should she seize while in the tub. She opened an official work order with NYCHA with this request. But, despite repeatedly following up, she didn’t hear back. Because NYCHA, the nation’s largest housing authority, must approve any contractor who makes repairs within NYCHA buildings, Ms. Cole had no choice but to wait.
A few years later in 1996, her doctors’ worries were realized: she seized while in the tub. She fractured two ribs and sustained a blow to the head, requiring brain surgery to treat. When she finally recovered, she shared the incident with NYCHA and repeated her request for a grab bar.
NYCHA did not respond…for 27 years.
The long wait
“Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I met Ms. Cole at a Glenmore Plaza Residents’ Association meeting in September 2022, where I learned her story is tragically common. Thirty residents gathered to vent their frustrations with perpetually unacknowledged repair requests to the super and manager of the building, who serve as NYCHA’s liaisons. The super responded by encouraging residents to follow proper protocol by opening a work order. This is when Ms. Cole shared her story. She had followed protocol — for years — and received no support. The other residents resonated, piping in with their own stories. Ms. Miriam Robertson, for example, President of the Residents’ Association, shared how her bathroom had no water for eight months. During this time, she was forced to live with her mother to access a working shower, sink, and toilet, all while NYCHA continued to charge her rent. Only after suing NYCHA in housing court did NYCHA finally respond to her work orders, fixing the water and reimbursing Ms. Robertson for the rent she paid during these eight months. The super and manager had nothing to say in response.
After many residents shared such stories, Ms. Robertson invited me to share GatherFor. I came hoping Glenmore residents would be interested in trying our approach of forming “Neighbor Teams” of 5–7 that support each other like family. But with the tense exchange between the super, manager, and residents hanging thick in the air, my presentation no longer felt relevant. So I pivoted to asking questions. What had the residents tried to do to get NYCHA to make repairs? Had they ever come together to speak to NYCHA with one voice, for example? They hadn’t. When I asked why not, one resident said, “People are always coming and going, moving in and out. We don’t have time to get to know no one.” Another said, “We always see folks with needles in their arms passed out in the hall. There’s drug deals going on. Sometimes, we hear gunshots.” One other resident said, “I wouldn’t knock on my neighbor’s door. I don’t want to start nothing with nobody.” The residents didn’t only not know one another, they feared one another.
An organizer’s response to government inaction
I felt discouraged. The premise of our work at GatherFor is that in community, we have everything we need. But how can we access the power and wealth available to us in community if we cannot even say hi to one another?
I turned to my dear friend and mentor Robbie Block for guidance. Robbie works for Metro IAF, one of the nation’s (and New York’s) oldest and most effective community organizing institutions. Robbie had regular success getting NYCHA to do right by residents in Brownsville. He told me that helping these residents get their repairs completed would be the best way to build trust and make GatherFor possible at Glenmore. When I asked how we might do that, he shared the framework below:
- Organize a team of 8–12 residents willing to knock on doors or host lobby meetings to collect repair needs of all residents.
- Compile these repair needs into a spreadsheet.
- Present this spreadsheet to an official at NYCHA with the power to get the repairs done, along with an invitation to meet with at least one-fourth of the building’s residents and the press.
- Have the residents practice clearly making their requests at the meeting.
- Host the meeting in which residents ask the NYCHA official for the date by which they will complete repairs, with the press publishing what is agreed to.
Robbie explained NYCHA officials respond to the threat of bad press, which could also lead to losing their jobs. I found this approach compelling but also felt uneasy. Would such an approach produce more animosity between residents and NYCHA? Whatever NYCHA’s past failures, weren’t many of the people who worked there themselves residents of NYCHA buildings?
The power of a party
Contemplating this complexity, I hopped on a call with Jordan Reeves (they/she/he), one of my best friends. They told me that back in 2017, they were living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Every evening, a band of young men in the neighborhood would start taunting Jordan, who is queer trans nonbinary. They threw bottles and launched fireworks at them, shouting, “you better run f*****!”
Jordan contacted the police, local officials, and neighborhood watch. But none took action. A community organizer friend, Anooj Bhandari, suggested to Jordan that if these young men could meet Jordan and shake hands with them, the harassment would stop.
So, to create the conditions for that handshake, Jordan dreamed up “Kindness Party”, a block party open to all in the neighborhood. They put up hand-drawn flyers and got free food and drink donations.
400 people showed up, including Jordan’s harassers. “You did this?” they asked Jordan. “We’ve never seen anything like this here!” And as hoped for, they shook hands with Jordan.
From that day on, they never harassed Jordan again. By throwing a party, Jordan had done what the police, local officials, and neighborhood watch were unable to do.
Jordan inspired me. What if the best way to get hundreds of residents to turn out for a meeting with NYCHA, which Robbie also indicated was the hardest part of all of this, was by throwing a party with free food, drink, music, and kid-friendly activities? And what if the best way to get NYCHA to act was by inviting them into an environment of kindness and community, and not of hostility and frustration?
The beginning of the Glenmore Proud
Jordan came to Brownsville with me to share their story and this idea at the April 2023 Glenmore Residents Association meeting, attended by about fifty residents. Before the meeting, one resident I met started yelling at me just for mentioning NYCHA. He called the agency irredeemably corrupt and dismissed me for even considering working with them. Though this made me nervous, the residents appreciated Jordan’s story, and when I asked for 8–12 volunteers to form a core organizing team to gather people’s repair needs, we got eight women to sign up.
In our first meeting, I asked the women why they signed up for this organizing team, Tammie Durosinmi responded saying, “I want to feel proud of where I live. I used to be, and I want to be again.” Agreeing with her comments, these eight women decided to call themselves the Glenmore Proud.
The Glenmore Proud started collecting repair needs through lobby meetings. But the pace was slow. They were able to get only about 10 residents to stop and fill out one of our repair forms each time they tabled, gathering repair needs from 93 apartments after a few weeks. Many residents, like the man who called NYCHA corrupt, saw no point in our effort. “NYCHA’s not gonna do nothing,” they’d say.
Nikki Farrell (pictured in the center of the above photo in the striped shirt), one of the Glenmore Proud, pointed out that until we got some repairs done, we were all talk. “Why should anyone see us as different from anything else that’s been tried?”
Kindness Party as a deadline
She had a point. So instead of our Kindness Party being a place to put even friendly pressure on NYCHA to initiate a repair plan, we re-envisioned it as a celebration of NYCHA completing repairs at Glenmore. We emailed NYCHA officials in charge of repairs, including Daniel Greene (Executive Vice President of Property Management Operations), Jimmy Santana (Vice President of Brooklyn Operations), and Samantha McMillian (Operations Administrator) explaining our idea and sharing a spreadsheet with the 93 repair needs we’d collected so far. We included Ms. Cole’s story to show that despite residents following proper NYCHA protocol, they were receiving no support.
They responded quickly, installing Ms. Cole’s grab bar four days after receiving our email. They informed their team that Glenmore repairs would be prioritized until our August 12th party, who in turn contacted the residents who’d filled out our forms to schedule repairs. “I have waited almost 30 years for NYCHA to respond to my request,” said Ms. Cole. “They finally did thanks to us coming together like this.”
Emboldened, the women of the Glenmore Proud began knocking on doors to get more residents to fill out our forms. They simultaneously distributed this letter featuring Ms. Cole’s success story to show residents the process was working.
But many remained skeptical after years of NYCHA inaction. “I took NYCHA to housing court five years ago because they didn’t fix a broken pipe that led to flooding in my apartment,” said Vernice Williamson. “The judge ordered NYCHA to fix the pipe, but they just sent a maintenance man to put a patch on it. If that didn’t work, how could filling out this white form do anything?” But for whatever reason, Ms. Williamson did fill it out. “That’s when things really started moving,” she said.
When we became aware that her broken pipe was causing flooding in her apartment (see video below), an emergency requiring action within 24 hours by NYCHA, we contacted Ms. McMillian (Operations Administrator at NYCHA).
Ms. McMillian had plumbers at Ms. Williamson’s apartment within hours, who patched up the pipe to stop the flooding. She and her team then dispatched the asbestos team to clean up the pipe (see picture below), with plumbers coming back to fully replace the pipe the next day. “I waited five years for NYCHA to fix this pipe and it all got done two weeks after I filled out the form.”
I wrote back to Ms. McMillian to thank her for her team’s quick response, and she wrote back, “This is teamwork!” Even NYCHA was feeling something special about this community-government collaboration.
Other residents shared similar stories and hundreds of residents across Glenmore Plaza were seeing sudden and rapid responsiveness in fixing their homes.
“I’ve never felt more hope about housing than I have because of this [campaign],” said Ulysses Mason, who’s lived in Glenmore Plaza for more than 15 years. “This is the first time anyone has cared about my home.”
Just the start
For some, like Mr. Mason, the hope paid off: NYCHA addressed 1,626 work orders in 60 days, responding to 87% of the issues residents had raised at a speed at least 3x as fast as average. Local news covered Kindness Party and emphasized both the power of the residents and NYCHA’s responsiveness.
Residents were indeed in a celebratory mood on August 12th, when GatherFor participants prepared enough food to feed the 300+ attendants who turned up (including nearby unhoused neighbors, some whom hadn’t eaten in 3–7 days).
While repairs will continue to be needed and root cause issues that drive this pattern in public housing are on docket for us to work on next, the residents of Glenmore have demonstrated to themselves the power they have in community. “I’m living proof that this process works,” said Ms. Williamson as she came to visit members of the Glenmore Proud hosting a lobby meeting. “I’m taking three of these white papers to get my neighbors to fill them out and I’m going to tell them what happened to me. Whatever you all need, I’m here to help.”
Initial (and understandable) skepticism has given way to imagining a better building and even a neighborhood movement. “What we’ve done already has been great,” said Glenmore Proud member Nikki Farrell. “I want us to show other buildings in the neighborhood how we did this because it’s not fair that they don’t get this kind of attention too. This is just the start.”
I could only smile when I heard her, thinking “maybe this is how revolutions begin.”
I want to share a big thanks with Vidya Ravilochan, Colette Kessler, Esther Meroño Baro, Michael “MCK” Keefrider, Rachael Chong, and Kamasamudram Ravilochan for editing and improving this post! And I especially want to thank Jordan Reeves, Robbie Block, John Napolitano, Taurean Lewis, Franklyn Mena, and Miriam Robertson, without whom none of this would have happened.