Ebone Ryals, a resident at the Towers for many decades, helps Janey and Letitia plant.
Photo by: Hannah Rappleye
A day at River Park Towers reveals a lot about what low-income New Yorkers face from government, management and each other.
By: Hannah Rappleye
When it opened in 1974, River Park Towers in Morris Heights, the Bronx, was lauded as the first modern high-rise for the poor. Much has changed since then. City Limits spent a day with some of the residents. This is the second part in a two-part series about a day in River Park Towers. To read part one, click here.
The bottle whistled past her head, nearly hitting her, and exploded onto the cement with a loud POP. White paint splattered across the sidewalk like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Janey looked down at her feet.
“Now you see what we're up against,” she said, and raised one eyebrow.
After the last flower was planted, and Letitia sat down on one of the round benches across from the PA system, a woman took the microphone.
“It's clean up day at River Park Towers,” the woman shouted. “This is on us! If not for the Bronx, if not for the River Park Towers, then do it for yourself.”
“I'm tired of ducking bullets all my life,” the woman said, her voice cracking.
An older woman hovered near Letitia as the woman on the PA spoke. “Tell 'em to fix the goddamn elevators,” she muttered.
Before they moved to the Towers, the Ledans spent six years living in a vacant lot in East New York. They moved to the Towers seven years ago after a shelter helped them receive Section 8. It hurts when people accuse those who are on assistance of ruining the building, Letitia said. “I don't want to hurt where I live at,” she said. “I hear a lot of people say that people from the shelters mess up the building. Maybe I'm different. I don't know.”
Letitia's life is ruled by the same problems as most everyone in the building. She struggles to make ends meet. Her nephew was tragically killed this month in a gang-related incident in upstate New York. She is trying to do something about this. She tries to be a positive influence on her nephews. She became an organizer for Picture the Homeless a few years ago, with no prior organizing experience.
“A lot of people give up on their neighborhood,” she said. Letitia wanted to, at one point. A year or so ago, she said, someone lit a small fire in the hallway and she and Tony stayed inside their apartment as smoke curled underneath the front door, and joked about who would jump out the window first.
Letitia has since organized the tenants into a successful protest when the owner of the parking lot tried to raise lot fees to $100 a month. Now, she is trying to figure out what to do about the interplay between crime and police intrusion.
Crime seems to be going down in the building and around the neighborhood. Major felonies in the local 46th Precinct are down 14 percent compared to 2009. The drop in crime might be due to the heightened police presence, Letitia thought. The police regularly sit at an outside station on the bridge that connects the Towers to the street and patrol all 40 stories of the two buildings.
But to the Ledans and many other residents in the Towers, it's getting hard to fully appreciate the police presence. The police regularly enter apartments without warrants, residents say. Last February, the police burst into Letitia's apartment at six a.m. without a warrant and without reason, she said, scaring her and her husband. The police ran their flashlights over ashtrays in her living room, into her cabinets and lifted her mattress to look underneath. They said management asked them to inspect the apartment for squatters, Letitia said.
It made her suspicious that police were being instructed to search apartments for illegal materials, Letitia said.
“I feel like I'm a prisoner in my own house,” she said. “I thought us people, we had the right to privacy.”
Since then, Letitia has been knocking on doors around the building and talking to her neighbors, asking people if their apartments had been entered illegally and if they had been treated poorly by the police. Many have complained that police regularly harass the young African-American men in the building with stop-and-frisks and what many in the building feel are unlawful searches.
Tyquan Williams, a 27-year-old father of four, lives in his mother's apartment, a few floors down from Letitia and Tony. He said that early last December, when he turned away from his mother's apartment after locking it and started down the hallway, he was intercepted by a group of police officers. He said the police ordered him to put his hands against the wall, frisked him, reached inside his pockets and pulled out his keys and $400 in cash he planned to use to buy his kids Christmas presents.
The officers said he was under arrest for trespassing and dealing marijuana, Tyquan said. As he was escorted down the hallway, he said, one officer opened his mother's apartment.
“I told him, 'You can't go into my apartment,” Tyquan said.
The officer cursed at him and called him a drug dealer, he said. Tyquan spent the night in jail and was charged with possession of marijuana after the officers found two joints in the apartment.
When Tyquan went to court that December, he said, the charge of possession of marijuana was dropped. He said he told the judge he never received the $400 back, but the judge said if Tyquan could not provide a receipt for its origin, he would not be refunded.
“I'm really tired of this,” Tyquan said this May. “I can't deal with this. I can't even have my kids over because I don't want my kids to go through this stuff.”
The NYPD declined to comment.
The afternoon dwindled down to early evening. The white paint on the sidewalk was hosed off. The sun glittered off Harlem River's water. The boys, after eating free pizza and kicking around a basketball for a while, began to argue with Letitia about whether they could go back to the jungle gym next to the river. Letitia told them they had to wait with her until Tony came back from running an errand. “Please,” they begged her. “Please!”
Then a group of young men, sitting on the concrete benches nearby, lit up a blunt. The marijuana smoke drifted past the boys.
Letitia looked at the men and frowned. The man holding the blunt moved it to the other hand and fanned the air in front of him. “Sorry ma'am,” he said.
“OK,” she said. “Go play.”
“Really?” Ra Ra exclaimed.
“Yes,” Letitia said. “Go.”