Article and photos by Jason Shaltiel
As he walks through the Queensbridge Houses, Raymond Normandeau, who has lived there since 1973 and now runs its community blog, is greeted by several passersby.
The Queensbridge Houses, in Long Island City, Queens, is the largest public housing development in the United States, with more than 3,100 apartments and nearly 7,000 people. Over the past several years, as Long Island City has become a hotspot for development of hotels, restaurants and luxury condominiums, many of the project’s residents feel left out, their hopes of new jobs dashed.
“Some of the people here have been hired, but not as many as when this was a real industrial area,” said Normandeau. “Certain companies had factories running 24 hours a day, and a bus used to run 24 hours a day, running up and down Vernon Boulevard because of all the factories. Now the bus is no longer 24 hours a day, the factories, almost all of the have shut down. And Swingline, which used to be Swingline Staples, moved to Mexico.”
Normandeau pointed to several trailers and the tall fence that separates them from the Queensbridge Houses. The newly built fence blocks what used to be a path out of the housing project, Normandeau said, lamenting having to walk around it.
Yet he noted some positive changes, too. “Well, the development south has vast changes and landscaping,” he said, and “they’ve renovated sidewalks and entrances to the buildings,” describing some improvements made by the New York City Housing Authority.
At the Howard Johson hotel, the front desk manager, who would identify herself only as Kira, said she didnd’t know if any hotel employees lived in the Queeensbridge Houses. She declined to provide access to other hotel executives. At Howard Johnson’s parent company, Wyndham Worldwise, requests for comment were not answered.
Nearby, at the Holiday Inn, Ramada and Best Western hotels, employees declined to say whether individuals from the Queensbridge Houses were on staff. At the Z Hotel, a front desk manager, Renita Guyananb, said the hotel had hired three Queensbridge residents in the past, but that two of them had left and the third was fired for not showing up regularly. No current employees are from the Queensbridge Houses, she said.
At the Ravel Hotel, Klestor Pellumbi, the general manager, said several people from the Queensbridge Houses had been hired to work on the hotel’s construction and that at least two people from the Houses were currently employed. “I’m sure the locals are happy,” Pellumbi said of the hotel. “We’ve added jobs to the area and we beautify it.”
In a small, old building at the center of the development, residents often gather to discuss their troubles and organize events. Outside the building, a portrait of children, now torn and slashed, is plastered onto the front walls. Within the building the floors are scuffed, dust collects within the corners and a foul odor lingers in the air.
One recent morning, the Queensbridge Residents Association held its monthly meeting, and several attendees expressed dissatisfaction with a local drugstore because it closes at 7 p.m.
“Stores aren’t supporting the community; why do we support them?” said one person in the audience. Another suggested a boycott of the drugstore. Finally, the crowd resolved to create a petition.
Another person complained of health and sanitation problems from the surrounding construction, which residents complain has attracted rodents, polluted the air and caused other health problems.
Toward the end of the meeting, Nick Djorio, a young man who does not live in the project, announced plans to run for Congress. Alluding to religion for the majority of his speech, he kept looking at Bishop Mitchell Taylor, who was in the audience, but Taylor hardly acknowledged him.
Taylor, a leader in the community, represents residents in certain situations, meets with others to help them secure jobs and develops educational and financial programs. On certain occasions, he has called on the residents to act. In August 2014, Taylor met with the owner of the Howard Johnson hotel, which opened the next month, asking about hiring residents of the Queensbridge Houses. The meeting, he told the audience, ended in a brawl when he was attacked by several construction workers employed by the hotel.
The incident is still under investigation by the Police Department, he said. “No one working at Howard Johnson looks like us,” Taylor said, looking out at the nearly entirely black audience. “Too many people need a job.”