Did It Take a Natural Disaster to Get Middle-Class New Yorkers to Acknowledge Public Housing?

When Sandy came, residents of New York public housing took the blow harder than most. Several of NYCHA’s projects — in the Rockaways, the Lower East Side, Coney Island and Red Hook — are in the city’s Zone A, which faced a mandatory evacuation order. Residents in those buildings saw their elevators, heat and hot water shut off as a preemptive measure at 7pm the night before the storm rolled in. When the worst of the weather was over, according to NYCHA documents, nearly 80,000 residents in hundreds of buildings were affected by outages of power, heat and hot water. “We had a lot of people come down to assist,” said June Clark Smith, a Red Hook Houses resident. Visitors are unusual in the complex of massive brick towers that Smith and about 5,000 other Brooklynites call home. The single largest public housing development in the borough, the houses feel cut off from the rest of Red Hook, though they occupy the geographic middle of the gentrifying waterfront neighborhood, increasingly a destination for artists and professionals seeking views of the New York Harbor. Yet after Sandy, ”even the homeowners from around the development came into the community, Clark Smith said. “They realize there’s good people inside the projects.” It was as if those who live outside of public housing were able to really see these developments for the first time, as the complicated and diverse communities that they really are.

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