The View From the Pink Houses

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Residents are saddened, but not entirely shocked, by the shooting of Akai Gurley. They have been complaining about conditions for years.

They are called the Pink Houses, but apart from the pink equipment on the abandoned playgrounds, pink signs from the New York City Housing Authority, and, recently, a broken pink umbrella on the ground out front, they are colorless.

The public housing project,  where a 28-year-old unarmed black man was shot to death by a rookie police officer last month, is in East New York, which has one of the highest crime rates in the city. In person and online, Pink Houses residents described a neighborhood where people expect the worst, and have done so for years.

“This is a dangerous neighborhood, still,” said David Walker, a 19-year-old who lives in the Pink Houses with his foster care family. “The neighborhood has had a reputation for a long time, and things haven’t been getting better.”

Walker lives in the same building where Akai Gurley, the 28-year-old who was shot by the police on November 20, lived. Gurley encountered two police officers who were doing what is called a “vertical patrol” of the narrow, unlit stairwell at the top of the building. Gurley had entered the pitch-black stairwell on the seventh floor with his girlfriend after a long wait for the elevator, and was shot in the chest by the officer Peter Liang, who had been in the job for less than 18 months.

The Pink Houses were actually named after a former chairman of the New York State Housing Authority, a man dedicated to eradicating slums. Residents at the Houses made a memorial for Gurley on the ground floor of the building after he was killed, but it was removed after “a week or so” by the management, a resident said. A few posters remain pasted on the wall next to the waste shaft, calling for justice for Gurley and “all victims of police violence.” “How does a cop shoot a man in a stairway, in a housing project, while doing a vertical check, and call it an accident? This is a D.I.S.G.R.A.C.E. D.I.S.G.R.A.C.E.,” one of the posters read.

Another poster—linking the incident to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the chokehold that killed Eric Garner on Staten Island—calls for the community to “fight back” and join recent protests.

According to Walker, the community has been energized because of the shooting. “People are coming together, they stand around and talk more outside the building, they don’t seem as distant from one another as they used to,” he says.

One of the residents, an older man who did not wish to be named, said he has lived in on the eighth floor of the building, where the shooting happened, for three years. “We’re very upset. This is a straight out murder,” he said. “This ain’t no mistake or accident. The guy didn’t even get a warning.”

The man said he did not understand why the police have young and inexperienced police officers patrolling a neighborhood that has a reputation for crime and violence. “Why send rookie police officers to control a neighborhood like this?” he asks.

According to a statement released by William Bratton, the New York police chief, the housing project has seen two murders in the past year, and four robberies and two assaults in the last month. The fatal shooting of Gurley is thus the latest in a series of tragic events at the public housing project. People posting on different websites, such as Topix and Facebook, talk about how the public housing project in East New York is a rough place to live.

Five years before the shooting of Gurley, an online forum on a website Topix raised the question about conditions at the Pink Houses.“This forum is about the Louis H. Pink Houses on Linden Blvd in East NY. Is this the worst housing project in Brooklyn? Possibly US?” a user calling himself bclocksmith asked on May 25, 2009, before listing a number of incidents: a man called Foxy Brown getting beaten up, a “former thug in a wheelchair getting shot in the head,” a man “thrown off the top of the building with his arms duck taped,” a “homeless man set on fire” in one of the buildings, and a young man who had returned from completing college who then got killed.

In the replies below the post—measuring a total of 16 pages—other users chimed in with their stories of living in the Pink Houses, almost all of them painting a grim picture of life and death in the public housing project. “Born and raised in ENY, I have to go with the Pink Houses as being the worst. Living in ENY is like living in a cave!” a user called squalla347 writes.

“Another drive-by went down at the Pink Houses this weekend. This never stops…” a user calling himself enyhunter contributed. Another user, calling himself 123abc, complained that the doors are left open to anyone: “When I moved in I received an entry door key and have not used it once. The reason is because you don’t need a key because all of the entry door locks are broken and the doors are kept widely opened for violators and trespassers to do as they please.” The writer 123abc added that “the ground and property is dirty and not kept clean.” Such descriptions continue through 16 pages of comments. The writers’ identities and the claims they made in their comments could not immediately be verified.

“Pink Houses is horrible shootings, murder, drivebys, people set on fire, drug dealing, prostitution, and everything else, I know first hand, don’t tell me nothing. I remember so many crack vials on the side of the buildings looking like somebody dropped a bag of skittles, I know murderers that walk alongside Jehovah witnesses,” an unknown user wrote.

Though most commenters agreed that the Pink Houses face substantial problems and a high level of crime, some who say they are residents argue that the housing project isn’t all bad.

“My family and I grew up in the Pink Houses and we turned out alright. We live throughout the country now but the Pink Houses taught us a lot about life. It is all what you make of it!” a user calling herself ‘Yvette Building 9’ writes.

After the fatal shooting of Akai Gurley, the debate about the state of the housing project has spread to various Facebook pages for the Pink Houses. “This shit never happened when I lived here,” Ann Grimes said in a post including a link to an article about the fatal shooting, adding that “my mom was jumped walking from Crescent Street, but all I’m saying is that the shit that goes on there now is crazy.”

Under her posting, Facebook users affiliated with the housing project described how they or their relatives had been robbed and nearly raped when they lived there.

Last week, Brooklyn’s District Attorney, Ken Thompson, announced that a grand jury is to investigate the fatal shooting. “I expect to present evidence regarding the November 20, 2014 shooting of Akai Gurley to a grand jury because it is important to get to the bottom of what happened,” he said in a statement issued on the day before Gurley’s funeral.

Recently,  about 50 protesters gathered in front of Pink Houses, protesting against the shooting and calling for justice in the case.

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