“People’s homes are at stake,” says George Carrano, executive director of US nonprofit, Seeing For Ourselves. “If public housing fails in New York, which is the city where it all began [in America], where would people go?”
In 2010, as a call for action and to counteract negative perceptions around public housing in the city, Carrano set up the Developing Lives programme, along with Jonathan Fisher and Chelsea Davis. This remarkable initiative uses photography to take back the narrative around public housing in New York and, hopefully, beyond.
The New York City Housing Authority, founded in 1934, was once seen as one of the most successful in the country. It currently provides homes for 400,000 low-to-moderate income New Yorkers who live in 2,563 buildings across 334 housing projects in the five boroughs of New York City.
The NYCHA was created as part of the first permanent public housing programme introduced in the US in the 1930s during the Depression. Local housing authorities were made responsible for developing, owning and managing affordable, subsidised homes. Federal government provided the capital funding and regulations.
Since the 1970s however, the NYCHA has seen a crippling loss of funds. With federal backing also in decline, it is estimated that the NYCHA now needs some $18 billion to carry out necessary repairs and refurbishing. Yet that figure is dwarfed by the $70 billion it would cost to replace the housing stock.
The backlog of repairs, from collapsed ceilings to broken elevators, stood at 422,639 in 2013, and many buildings fail to comply with local codes. A vicious cycle of crime and further disrepair ensues.
“There’s a real risk of public housing failing. And if it fails, not only do people lose their homes, but the impact on the city would be huge. Losing 7 or 8% of the population would be a major impact on the city,” Carrano says. “Part of it, I think, stems from the bad public image housing projects have been given, in tabloids and Hollywood films. A congressman from Idaho voting on an appropriation for funding for public housing is going to think twice after coming back from seeing American Gangster with Denzel Washington.”
Carrano devoted his working life to the city of New York. From 1975 until retirement in 1999, he worked for the city’s Transit Authority, ending up as a senior vice president in charge of a department of 3,000 people. “[When] I worked for the New York City Transit Authority I used to pass through housing projects in Harlem,” he says. “I always felt very comfortable there. By the mid 1970s, movies and the tabloid newspapers started to portray the residents in housing projects as violent offenders. Almost every movie that came out that had a setting where housing projects were involved was highly negative.” Carrano accuses TV shows such as Law and Order of helping to affirm these ‘accepted truths’. “What I actually saw on the ground always made me feel that there should be a push back on that popular narrative … we felt that the most effective way would be for the residents in the housing projects themselves to take control of the narrative.”
After setting up Developing Lives, Carrano, Fisher and Davis spent four years in the housing projects of New York City, training and equipping residents with cameras to document their daily lives. Class numbers on the 12-week workshops grew in size from 15 residents at Harlem’s Manhattanville housing project to 200 residents across 15 housing projects across New York City. The majority were pre-teens and older people, with a fair spectrum represented, but fewer participants of other ages due to 2 3 work or school commitments. Each person was given single-use film cameras donated by Kodak, with rolls of film developed and printed weekly. “Residents were limited to taking 25 pictures, so they had to think about them,” Carrano says.
“Participatory photography is really a vehicle for storytelling. It allows those whose public image has been defined by others to take control of their own narrative, and that’s what the project was all about,” Carrano continues. “With cameras in their hands they become the creators, frame by frame, of the pictures and words that tell the story of their lives. Participatory photography is about people, by people.”
The imagemakers involved in what became the book Project Lives (published by Powerhouse in April), aren’t concerned with creating fine art photography or caught up in the sensationalism of tabloid photojournalism. Neither does the work surrender itself to aesthetic obsessions with ruin or fragility. Importantly, and surprisingly, there was little focus on decaying buildings or gritty scenes.
“I think that the most amazing thing to come out of this project is that in spite of all the disrepair … the book, the pictures that we received back had nothing negative about the housing projects. Everything that came back was about their home, how much they loved their homes, pictures inside their homes, pictures around the housing projects,” Carrano says. “People took pictures of what they were proud of. It’s kind of remarkable. If photojournalists were going through, they could document elevators that were broken, people trying to climb up ten flights of stairs, all kinds of garbage…. But the residents themselves wanted to push back on the negative image. They took pictures that talked about their home, and about the projects being their home.”
Candid and intimate
The book reveals a sense of community, family and home, with openness and warmth. They are images from the eyes and hearts of the residents themselves – candid and intimate moments that reveal an alternative to the grimy underbelly or shameful cesspit familiar from many media portrayals of the projects. These people and their homes have, for too long, been devalued by depictions that they have no control over.
For Carrano, his own experience of the housing projects was echoed in the images that the residents produced: “What I experienced was a community, a community you could walk through and smile at someone and they’ll smile back, unlike other neighbourhoods in New York City,” he says. “I felt it was a real neighbourhood, where people watched out for each other, and people called home. That’s what the housing projects are to people – they’re home. And they’re fighting for their homes.”
The very public, very dominant portrayal of the housing projects in New York City is not too dissimilar to representations and beliefs about council housing estates in the UK. The story of the fall of social housing in the US and the UK has divergences and correlations throughout history. For the US, lack of federal funding has meant reduced public subsidies for the (profit-driven) rental companies who own the housing projects. In the UK, the loss of local authority and non-profit housing is often down to sales and transfers, and the current repairs backlog for council housing is estimated at £19 billion.
Throughout the history of social housing in both the US and the UK, emphasis often shifts between demolition and large-scale redevelopment. Debates around these ‘urban renewal schemes’, have focused on right-to-buy schemes and the subsequent loss of council houses; homeownership and economic growth; private sector involvement; and the re-housing of lower-income, inner-city populations – historically known as ‘slum-clearing’.
However, what is too often forgotten in conversations around bad design or construction and the wider economy, is that these buildings are more than just houses to people, and more than just homes. The communities who have built a life here are still too often displaced, stigmatised and marginalised as a result of being priced out of their homes and of the city.
“A studio apartment in Manhattan is over $2000 a month. The residents in housing projects are low-income families and could never afford to live in housing that is in the competitive marketplace,” Carrano says. “They are the ones working in fast food, working in hospitals, they’re low-income workers for the most part. Their homes are their last refuge. So it’s really a struggle or a fight to save the homes of the residents of the housing projects in New York City.”
But do the cheesy grins and family snapshots of Project Lives go too far the other way – will the positive spin prove problematic in terms of their relationship with funding bodies? “What I think comes across to an elected official would be that, the way residents see their homes, they are worth fighting for. They are worth preserving,” Carrano says. “It’s not happy talk, the book isn’t really happy talk at all, it shows life how it is, it shows the importance of that life to people, but it also deals with the fact that that life is in jeopardy because of lack of funding.”
In recent years, the NYCHA has faced reports of fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement of funds. But the mayoral campaign in 2013 finally saw a move towards a corrective response, with almost all candidates vowing to fix the NYCHA. However, despite promises, and even with new administration, concrete developments are yet to surface.
“Like so many other tales, this one involves hope in the face of adversity,” writes co-author Jonathan Fisher in the book. The publication has a weighty mix of visual and textual narratives, with discussion of the defunding and debate throughout. These inseparable and moving narratives are combined with stark stories of devastating violent crimes that have recently occurred due to unfulfilled promises for CCTV; news clippings; and other publicly known, appalling statistics which will hopefully help give strength to the fight for funding.
The next step is to go to Washington. “We are seeking out US Congressional representatives who support affordable housing to convene a hearing in DC to hear testimony from residents about life in the projects and what needs to be done,” Carrano says. “At this moment we don’t have a lineup of US Representatives to announce but we are getting there. We suspect Spring 2016 will be when we can make this happen. The group going to Washington will be participant photographers whose photographs appear in the book. Their testimony will be the counter narrative, in stark contrast to what has appeared in most media, and elected officials will meet and hear first-hand from those living in housing projects. Hopefully opening the door to greater funding and support.”
The failure or success of these housing projects goes beyond New York City itself. Confidence in government efforts is deeply diminished when the public’s basic needs are not met. “New York is really the last stand for public housing. It’s very important that it does not fail in New York. It’s where it began, and it’s important that New York housing succeeds,” says Carrano. “It is our hope that we can succeed in getting social media attention and some traction to draw affordable housing initiatives into the global initiatives for affordable housing. We have work to do.”
Project Lives is published by powerHouse Books and available from projectlivesbook.com