Lynne Patton, the regional director of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, is planning to actually live, for a few weeks, in some of the buildings in her charge. This is newsworthy enough to be worth a blog post on its own, and I tip my hat to the seemingly rare American administrator who wants to really know her domain. The people running the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings that are her target are now scrambling to put a spit-shine on the properties ahead of her stays.

That the news treats the story as if she were going off to an exotic war zone is another tacit indictment, albeit too subtle for many. One of the news clips I saw was of her being shown a gaping hole in a tenant’s wall, unfixed by the NYCHA for months, and being used as an off-ramp for the cockroach superhighway running through the building. It brought genuine tears to her eyes.

Compounding the mind-boggles aspect is when New York City’s mayor decrees that he should manage all of the private property in the city, that it’s “all in the wrong hands,” while at the same time shaking off responsibility for his own administration’s NYCHA dysfunction like a dog shaking off water from its bath.

Ms Patton needn’t have bothered. She could have called me. Or anyone who lives in a NYCHA building. We would have told her that if blindfolded, driven around the city, and plopped down in a random building, we could identify NYCHA locations on sight and smell alone. It has been that way for all of the decades I’ve been in and out of NYCHA buildings; another indictment, by way of the fact that the routine is not newsworthy often enough. The contrast between NYCHA buildings and “normal” ones are stark, even for buildings on the same block.

Ask my regular partners, and they’d roll their eyes at my longtime trope: I go into a NYCHA elevator, sniff around and declare “no piss?! This building is out of zoning compliance!” Or: “the elevator window is unburnt! Out of compliance!” Imagine the mentality of someone who gets into a metal box with no way out, suspends it 6 stories, and lights the Plexiglass ablaze. No exaggeration, this is just what I see, all too often:

Magician and libertarian Penn Gillette has quipped ” I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero.” Just so. My neighbors and I pee in the elevator in our building, and light it afire, as much as we want, which is never. No law is needed, and when it is needed, the fight is already lost (for whatever “it” is).

This goes to the importance (and ephemeralness) of culture. Let’s examine the decline of the American secret-sauce (IMHO): a culture of responsibility and civility, through this microcosm of pissing and burning up an elevator. And, a look at the tools we once had to cope with the issue vs the tools we use now, along with an argument that the modern ones are backfiring.

Everyone I’ve ever talked to who lives in NYCHA buildings is as disgusted by the urine and burning as you and I. I get lots of poor little old ladies as patients, and no wrath we can muster for the matter can top theirs. My disgust is in the abstract, though, as I go home to my urine-free, un-burnt elevator. Theirs is day-to-day, as they have to stay. Just what can they do about it, though?

Years before, the matter would be handled family to family, friend to friend, pastor to pastor. Incremental tools of pressure.

Now it’s all-or-nothing. Now, it’s a call to NYCHA. Or to the police. What then? Actor-out gets a fine. For poor people, fines can be three days take-home pay, the equivalent of $600 to the upper class, which is really NYC’s middle class. Some NYCHA residents pay less than that in monthly rent.

The malefactor then becomes eligible for homelessness, if he offends again, or doesn’t pay. It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to see that an ease with peeing in an elevator doesn’t much go with the type of person with an ease for attending to his citations. It goes to functionality, even more than criminality, and it’s not hard to see such a pee-er as fundamentally dysfunctional. Inability to realize and process consequences is a symptom of many psychiatric disorders.

Jailing and homelessness will not make this person functional. American jails were once called penitentiaries because they were to instill penance, penance precedes redemption and forgiveness. None of that now. (Your soul maybe, but your ass stays in stir).

Plus, For several days pay I’d not put it past too many of my peers to say “three days pay! Fuck that!” Plus, how many times? My attitude would certainly change regarding my duty to the body-civic if I was at risk of getting this “rinsing” (cop slang) several times a year. So, corrections to bring a dysfunctional outlier to norms of cultural requirements further estranges them from normalcy.

NYCHA also has an understandable conflict of interest, as their main role is as bastion against homelessness. I’ve written on the hidden (and enormous) societal costs of homelessness many times before.

Consider, as well, the great divide that is opening in trust between the NYPD, and the people who live in the “projects” over entrepreneurial ticketing (Even the name “projects” says almost all you need know of the city’s attitude). People in the projects know perfectly well that they are being harvested and [the cops do it as part of their performance matrixes. That three days fine then becomes: “fuck that, why should I pay the cops’ pensions?” More broad-based cultural estrangement ensues from correction attempts (now with bad incentives added in), cycling more cultural estrangement.

Our project lady nowadays has only nuclear options in dealing with violators of her “right” to a clean and pleasant place to live. “Right,” as defined by basic rules of civility. What are basic rules of civility? Whatever culture says they are. All cultures I know of say that arson and public urination are not OK. Again, what then? America has a million miles of rules and regulations on the books that takes a Juris Doctor to decipher, and there is considerable evidence (as I’ve noted in the past), that the rule-makers themselves, the political class, equally disregards them.

Nowadays, our culture has only tools that are destructive to the offender’s future for dealing with cultural offenses. It’s in the prospects of jailbirds and homeless of ever making a contribution to our society again that makes this as destructive and counter-productive for us as it is for them: jailbirds and homeless grow old, grow sick, and also need retirement and healthcare. Cut off from most job markets by all these marks on their permanent record (thank you computerized records), they will never contribute. The more people not contributing, the more poverty, the more homelessness, the more NYCHA, the more dysfunction that attends the whole syndrome.

It also doesn’t take a PhD to know someone ruined so, by jail or homelessness, will not simply disappear. They might become poltergeists, rattling doors (or pissing up elevators) to let we the living know they are still here. But among us they will remain.

Modern tools for dealing with dysfunction and cultural degradation puts us up against the central paradox of the authoritarian/paternalistic state: having to destroy people for their own good. After all, if I pay for them, I get a say on them. If they drink their liver away, I have to pay. But I have no way to keep them from drinking without expensively ruining them, in the way I punish them to avoid. It’s the same for dealing with drug abuse. It’s same paradox the cCommunists ran into in their driving their people to death in pursuit of the new and improved man. Granted, many important degrees different, and degrees matter. But so do principles.

Our tools for dealing with NYCHA’s institutional failures are no less impotent, no less poorly evolved and calibrated for success. We can hardly hold NYCHA responsible for their behavior either. This is the system we made, so blaming project residents should see rich.

This is the environment “they” live in (I took the pictures in an utterly run-of-the-mill NYCHA building this past week)

It’s almost as if the project design were to prep them for a life of institutional dysfunction, if not incarceration. And we ask them for high civility? Almost everyone living in this environment actually is still very civil, it bears re-emphasizing. My hat is off to them even more, and it’s been my honor to take care of them (us).

Of course, people should not pee-up their elevators, of course they should mind their neighbors, of course they should pay their fines. Of course, they should not light their elevator ablaze. Of course, government should govern wisely (lookin’ at you, DeBlasio). What happens when they don’t, what we can do about it, is the thing.

Knitting a social safety net that strains out the culture of civility, and rends it for those same poor people’s equal right to live in a civil environment, will be the last paradox I bring up today.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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