Mr. And Mrs. Cunningham haven’t been able to attend church for several weeks in a row, because the elevator in their building is broken.
They are an elderly couple; Mr. Cunningham has trouble walking; and they live on the 6th floor of Fulton Park Houses, a Section 8 apartment complex on Malcolm X Boulevard between Fulton and Chauncey Streets in Bed-Stuy.
The building also is infested with mice, although that’s not the Cunninghams’ biggest complaint. Nor is it the trash compactor that regularly overflows, the smell of urine or marijuana in the hallway, or the high crime activity that upsets them most.
They would just like to know that on Sundays, they can leave the building and attend church.
The deterioration of Fulton Park Houses is making life miserable, not only for some of its tenants, but also, the people who have to walk by them every day. Increasingly, pedestrians on their way to and from work who use the Utica street station are reporting incidents of robbery, as the swelling criminal activity has begun to spill out onto the street.
Bedford-Stuyvesant’s local elected officials also see it as a huge problem and decided today to finally address it.
Congressman Ed Towns, Councilmember Al Vann, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Assemblywoman Annette Robinson, and other leaders in the community together made a surprise visit to Fulton Park Houses to see the conditions for themselves.
“I live around the corner. There’s been a lot of criminal elements here. So we’re concerned about the safety and security, not only of the people that live in the building, but also, the people that live in the surrounding neighborhood,” said Assemblywoman Annette Robinson, who’s lived in the community for more than 60 years and whose children attended Boys & Girls High School right across the street from Fulton Park.
“So that’s why I’m here. We’re invested in this community, not only as elected officials, but also as community members who have lived here all of our lives. I hope today will give some ray of hope to the tenants that live here,” Robinson said.
Detective Williams Jenkins, community affairs officer of the 81st Precinct, gave the group a guided tour. Jenkins knew the complex like the back of his hand, it seemed, as he pointed to every place of entry in the building where criminals can evade the hands of police.
“That gate right there leads directly from the subway,” he said pointing. “Anyone can jump right over that fence and into this tunnel area at night, and from there, make their way underground.”
The president of the tenant association joined the group ten minutes into the tour. She guided the group onto certain floors where tenants had the most complaints, mostly about trash and sanitation cleanup.
She led them to the manager’s office, but he miraculously was not in. In fact, the secretary said he left for a meeting in the city and could not be reached. Also curious was the fact that all of the hallways were freshly painted. And the places normally overflowing with trash, suddenly were swept clean.
There’s normally furniture, tv’s, garbage when you step out the elevator on the fourth floor,” she said. “You gotta step all over it. It’s not clean. The compacter rooms are filthy, that’s why the rodents be so bad.”
“We have maintenance bodies, but maintenance people that do the work is a different thing. This building is so large, there’s no coverage through the building.”
Building doors were unlocked or ajar. Every few yards, Jenkins pointed to another stairwell, another hallway, another escape route into the building for anyone trying to hide off the street. The complex was completely porous.
To the foreign eye, each courtyard was the same as the former, and the hallways connecting one building to the next were distinguishable only by a change in color.
But for all the building’s reported crime and disrepair, very few tenants wanted to talk about about it. In fact, most who were willing to talk at all, said they had few complaints, perhaps, believing there was no point. Or maybe they feared a backlash.
“I don’t have any complaints in the building,” said Walter Hill, 67, who’s been living at Fulton Park for 7 years. “As far as the crime, it happens. I’m just lucky that nobody has messed with my house.”
The building is not a bad building; it’s just not maintained well, said the tenant association president. “They’ve got really big four-bedroom apartments in here, and some of them are really nice.”
Betty Newman, 65, a tenant who has lived at Fulton Park for a little over a year also said she liked the building.
“The only complaint I have is the mices. There’s plenty of mices. They live here rent-free,” she laughed.
But according to Detective Jenkins, the tenants are slow to open up to outsiders and will protect each other, even from those who want to help:
“They’ve got security in the building. But they don’t help. If the police are looking for someone, the security sees them running into the building, but they don’t report them,” said Jenkins.
“We know they see it because we review the security cameras and the cameras show who’s coming and going. They don’t report them because they’re in cahoots. They’re friends with a lot of them.”
One tenant, 54-year-old Barbara Harris, was standing outside of the recreation room. Although she didn’t recognize anyone in the group or know where they were from, she sensed they were there to inspect, and she was ready to talk.
“We need a fence,” she started saying. “We need a fence, so that people can’t just come in and out off the street.
“Some of the exits need to be locked up. I don’t know who did the architecture on this building, there’s just too many ways for people to get in. There’s one elevator to a building. But it always breaks down. Why? Because they call the same ole’ person to come fix it. So of course it’s gonna keep breaking down, because that’s how he’s making his money.”
The lack of enough voices willing to speak up against the activities and conditions at Fulton Park likely is the reason why change has been slow to the complex.
But to the community leaders, it didn't matter. What concerned them most was the safety and welfare of the community as a whole. And that’s where their influence could play its greatest role.
“We’re going to start by making sure that this is a building that people can feel proud to live in, hot cold running water, clean, free of rodents and then we’ll move to Plan –B,” said Councilmember Al Vann.
“We also want to make sure that government’s money is being used properly. We want to solve problems that are here,” added Congressman Ed Towns. “If we can put a man or woman on the moon, we should be able to make sure that people can live in peace on earth.”