The push to wipe away from public places the names of past figures judged deficient by today’s standards has now reached New York’s public-housing projects.
The City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus just urged that eight public-housing developments named for those it views as implicated in the slave trade should be renamed: the Andrew Jackson, James Monroe and Daniel Webster houses in The Bronx; the Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Ulysses Grant and Henry Rutgers houses in Manhattan; and Peter Stuyvesant Gardens in Brooklyn.
In each of these developments, NYCHA itself has recently reported appalling maintenance problems...
As the councilmembers put it, in reference to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, their “historical contributions are far outweighed by their evil deeds.”
People of good faith can differ on this, but there’s a good argument to be made that such changes rob our children of the opportunity to confront and understand the past.
But is the name of a public-housing development really the greatest concern to residents plagued by disproportionately high crime rates and long backlogs for repairs and maintenance?
As it examines the names of New York City Housing Authority projects, the caucus would be well-advised to look at the ways in which its maintenance record might be disrespecting the non-slaveholders it has honored — particularly the many accomplished African-Americans for whom projects have been named.
There are, in fact, many New York public-housing projects named for prominent people of color. James Weldon Johnson, namesake of East Harlem’s Johnson Houses, was a prominent poet, whose “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” set to music, has long been known as the “Negro national anthem.” (Listen to the Kim Weston version recorded for Motown.)
The Douglass Houses are named for freed-slave-turned-author and -abolitionist Frederick Douglass; the Carver Houses for the brilliant agronomist George Washington Carver.
Honored, too, are President Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Grand Army of the Republic in freeing the slaves, and Samuel Tilden, the governor of New York cheated of the presidency by Rutherford B. Hayes — whose withdrawing of troops from the defeated South set the stage for the rise of the Klan and Jim Crow.
In each of these developments, NYCHA itself has recently reported appalling maintenance problems: gas cut off in the Douglass, Grant and Johnson houses, while the Armstrong Houses suffer from outages of electricity and water. At the Carver and Tilden houses, trash compactors are broken — the sort of problem that leads to garbage bags piling up in halls and courtyards.
These are far from exceptions in a system facing a capital backlog estimated at up to $19 billion and described by the nonprofit Community Service Society in a 2014 report as having “fallen into critical condition … and accelerating deterioration.”
The report goes on: “The impact on resident living conditions has been disastrous, spurring a mounting resident outcry about elevator breakdowns, perennial water leaks, untreated mold, and the like. Long delays in getting repairs were common — often a year or two.”
And that’s not all NYCHA residents face on a daily basis. As I point out in a new report for the Manhattan Institute, nearly 200 NYCHA projects are so distant from adequate full-service supermarkets that they can be classified as food deserts.
Introducing commercial development on NYCHA sites would be a two-bird stone, increasing access to fresh food for public-housing residents while creating a new revenue stream to fund the system’s massive maintenance backlog.
It’s worth noting that, when he was public advocate, Bill de Blasio found public-housing conditions to be dire enough that he started what he called the NYCHA Watchlist project, which allowed the public to view and track public-housing repair requests. Once he became mayor, the project ended, and current public advocate Letitia James has not re-started it.
The City Council would be better off addressing the living conditions of today’s public-housing residents than the historical records of Washington and Jefferson.
Because what’s more important to residents of the George Washington Houses: changing its name or getting the gas back on?
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Howard Husock is the Vice President of Research and Publications at the Manhattan Institute.