On a warm Saturday morning a few weeks ago, a group of older tenants at the River Park Towers in Morris Heights, a neighborhood in the South Bronx, set up a plastic table across from their building. A handful of women stacked small, store-bought cakes wrapped in plastic on top of it and sat down to wait for customers.
Someone wheeled in a PA system and a steady stream of 90s hip-hop tunes began to draw neighbors out of their apartments. Soon, a crowd of tenants and their children were sitting outside, enjoying the sunshine and talking about the conditions of the place where they live.
"This is about taking back our building, ya'll," one woman shouted into the microphone.
The story of New York City is often understood as a neat movement from peak to gutter and back up again. The city suffered in the seventies, muddled through the eighties, endured crisis in the early nineties and, at least until the recent recession, has enjoyed a steady ascent colored by declining crime and increasing real estate investments.
The problems the city has, meanwhile, are discussed and dissected in isolation. There is the problem of where to house the homeless. There is the problem of how to fix deteriorating buildings. There is the problem of crime. And in each case, poor people are victims or, perhaps, perpetrators. It's as simple as that.
But there are thousands of buildings in hundreds of neighborhoods in New York, and while some reflect that popular history and those simplistic diagnoses, others defy it. River Towers is such a place. It has struggled even during good times. Its problems do not operate independently, but interdependently. And its residents, all poor people, play nuanced roles in the buildings' days and nights. At least, that's what City Limits saw one day, on April 24.
Letitia Ledan, a 42-year-old River Park resident, wasn't home yet but she was anticipating the afternoon's festivities. She sat in a KFC in Morris Heights with her 47-year-old husband, Tony, and her young nephews, Maurice and Rashie.
Eight-year-old Rashie, known to the family as Ra Ra, had just finished Tae Kwon Do practice down the block and was polishing off his chicken poppers and potato wedges. Three-year-old Maurice, or Mo Mo, picked at his food while Letitia talked about where she lived.
"When I first moved there, people were like, it's bad there," Letitia said and leaned back in her booth. She adjusted her knee, recently operated on, under the table.
"Well you got like 3,000 apartments in one little area," Tony said.
"Yeah," Letitia said. "It's too concentrated. I don't know. It just seems like things are getting worse." Has anyone been killed in the Towers recently, she asked Tony. Tony stopped chewing his chicken. "Not recently, I don't think," he said, and shrugged.
A few minutes after noon, Letitia pulled herself up the Tower's parking ramp with her two canes. Her husband and nephews walked in front of her and a stream of stray marijuana smoke wafted past her. She greeted the older ladies at the bake sale table. Eighty-year-old Marguerite Janey intercepted Letitia and asked her to help plant.
It's "Clean up the Towers Day," Janey said. The residents were tidying up and raising money for activities for the building. She wheeled a dolly stacked with bright orange French marigolds, purple pansies and pink impatiens towards an empty flowerbed near the entrance of one of the buildings.
Leon Johnson, president of the tenant's association, greeted Letitia as she looked over Janey's flowers. "You ready to scratch in the dirt?" he asked Letitia, and she said yes, of course, but she wasn't a good planter. "That's OK," Leon said. Mo Mo and Ra Ra pulled at Letitia's windbreaker and asked her to let them play on the playground by the river.
The Towers, which sit next to Robert Clemente Park a few minutes drive from Yankee Stadium, sit on a prime piece of real estate. In 1974, when its doors first opened, city officials and planners lauded it as the first modern high-rise for the poor. But things quickly fell apart.
Johnson watched the women plant and reminisced about the early days of the Towers. Before he moved to the building in 1981, he used to drive down Harlem River Drive at night and stare at the Towers, its 40 stories lit up like beacons in the darkness. "I wanted to live there," he said.
When he got to the Towers the floors shined like glass and fancy draperies hung in the windows, he said. But when RY Management took over the building a few years later, the floors turned dull. Men came one day and took down the draperies. Johnson and other tenants thought they were taken to be cleaned, but the curtains never came back.
Residents complain about the elevators, garbage and vacant apartments, and request repairs, but management is either slow to respond or doesn't respond at all, Johnson contends. Department of Buildings records show a long history of broken or unsafe elevators. Residents in one section of the building complained that elevators were hurtling past floors. In the other, residents complained that some elevators had not been working for more than five years. There are currently eight open complaints, all filed last month, that say three out of four elevators—and sometimes all four—in one section of the building do not work.
Letitia, with a painful knee, often has to walk up 36 flights of stairs to her apartment. The wood of her cabinets is rotting and no one will fix it.
RY Management did not return requests for comment.
But Johnson also said that an influx of residents who are unemployed, some receiving public assistance, has contributed to its downfall. Drug dealers roam the hallways. Many parents don't watch their children.
"The tenant base has changed," Johnson said, pointing to a group of young men drinking out of brown paper bags across from the bake sale table. High unemployment rates among black males, currently at around 20 percent, led to idleness and crime and make them prime recruits for gangs, he said. "This goes on all day. It's 1,000 times different than what it was in 1981."
He hopes, he said, to organize captains for every floor in the buildings that will supervise and report problems to the Association.
"We want people to stop looking to management to fix up the place," Leon said. "'Cause management don't live here."
The song "Juicy" by Notorious B.I.G. marked the descent of the early afternoon as Janey and Letitia planted their third flowerbed. Further down from the women, across from the bake sale, groups of residents sat on round concrete benches, some smoking marijuana, some sitting with their families, pushing strollers back and forth and chatting with friends. In the distance, an old woman, limbs like a scarecrow, began to dance in place to the music.
It became clear that the residents trying to make the building better were facing stiff competition. As Janey delicately tucked a pink flower into the soil, two hands appeared out of a window 40 stories above her. They held a plastic two-liter bottle filled with white paint, and, as she mused about the pleasures of gardening, they let go.
This is the first part in a two-part series about a day in River Park Towers. Part II will be posted on May 26.