Joanna Chisolm

Interview by Charlene Nimmons

Marble Hill Houses – Resident Workshop for Paired Interviews – August 6, 2017

Charlene: Hi, can you please tell me your name, age, and where you live?

Joanna: My name is Joanna, I am 31, I will be 32 in two weeks and I live in Marble Hill housing in the Bronx.

Charlene: Nice. What is missing in your community?

Joanna: Well, I have lived here for 16 years and about, less than a year ago, I moved to Park Chester, which is still in the Bronx but it’s like literally in the middle of it, for about a year. I noticed that the neighborhood was the same, it was a collection of buildings so it had that sense of community but it wasn’t the community I grew up in but what I noticed is that they had like a security, like a police department just for that community and it helped to enforce the rules and I feel like in my community, 95% of the people that live here are hard working, they go to work, they come home, they raise their kids and they don’t cause any trouble. But there is that 5% that really needs to have the rules enforced, and since we don’t have that system in place enforcing any of the rules I feel it is almost like that psychological broken window situation where it’s like it’s one thing and then they feel like that’s okay so then somebody else does it and now you have people coming out of the building and they just throw their trash there because one person started it and they never stopped it. So I guess if I would have my choice I would have New York City housing police come back.

Charlene: So you believe that the merge with the NYPD and the New York City housing authority police was not a great idea?

Joanna: No, because the NYPD is actually moving back towards community policing, because it’s never good to just have the police come in just when there are problems. Because they lack that sense of connection to the communities that they work in. I mean you wouldn’t want to work in a store, like that was the whole thing of a Mom and Pop’s store right, is that you have these people you see everyday, they know you, they know exactly what you like, or you know your moods and they can ask you questions like hey what’s wrong today, and I feel like without that connection with the police department it’s created this divide where it’s like, we are the police you’re the community and we only need to mix when something is going wrong. And that shouldn’t be the case because you know, cops are people too, and you know just like they want to get home safe we want to feel home safe to.

Charlene: Do you think that bringing back community policing would bring more of a respect component to the major concerns happening around policing? Do you think that bringing the community policing would help give a better understanding of what the concerns are from the perspective of the police and the resident?

Joanna: Actually I do, because right now, it is that sense of other, for the cops, when they come into the community they are seen as an other. And because they don’t have to really patrol or get to know the community they think of us as “other”. And if you think about a cop’s job, 80% of their job is dealing with criminals so if everytime they see you it’s for a problem, in their head you’re almost a criminal automatically. If they are not just patrolling a neighborhood and walking around just to make sure it’s safe, then that sense of separation is what causes the disconnect. Because, when you see cops on a regular basis, if you see the same cops everyday, there is that sense of respect. He respects you, he knows you are a good citizen, and you respect him because he is just doing his job. And if we had that connection back and forth again I think it would create a lot of safety for everybody. 

Charlene: What has changed where you live and why?

Joanna: Well, I haven’t lived here nearly as long as a lot of the residents that I know. So for me when I first moved here, so now there’s a target, there’s a sneaker store, there is a cell-phone store, there is a restaurant, there’s a gym, there’s two gyms but all the Mom And Pops shops are gone. All the people that I kind of grew up with and you know, slide me a jolly rancher every now and then just for coming in to say hey. All these people are gone, and with that leaving, there is this sense of strangeness as soon as you walk outside your door. I am not saying I want this community to be insular but to a certain degree that’s kind of how it was created so now it feels like a highway, like all these people are kind of travelling through our streets, they are all strangers, they don’t care about our neighborhood so they are free to litter and you know ride their bike on the sidewalk, knock over people because they don’t live here and they are passing through because they are going shopping, because they are going to eat, or they are going out with their friends but they don’t live here and so for me that was a large part of what changed and even though in some ways it feels safer because of that because you know before it was just abandoned buildings on the side but I kind of almost miss that quiet street feel when I got home you know you leave the hustle and bustle of Manhattan and you get to come home to the Bronx where it’s kind of country. And so now I feel like Manhattan has kind of encroached on that and for me, it feels strange. 

Charlene: Why do you think public housing gets a bad rep? Why do you think people place a negative connotation on public housing?

Joanna: I think a lot of the times it’s because they don’t live here. My mom moved me around a lot when we were younger so between the age of being born and turning 8 we had lived in two places and then from 8 to 12 we lived in Georgia in two places and then we came back to New York when I was twelve and then we lived in like three places so this has been the first time where I live somewhere the longest but what living in so many places told me is that what you first initially see at a place is an illusion to a certain degree. It’s your perception of it but people are always people no matter where you go, it’s just a matter of leaving yourself kind of open and being friendly because my favorite thing to do in the train station is to meet somebody or meet the eyes of somebody that is frowning at me and smile at them and say good morning and then they smile and say good morning. And it’s like you know sometimes people just got to be brought out of themselves to really make that human connection. So for me, I understand that there is like a small percentage of troublemakers but the problem isn’t necessarily the troublemakers it’s the fact that we can’t quite ouste them. So, they are somebody’s family, so they are not going to say the person who is shooting in the corner he is right here, and there is also the fact that we don’t feel comfortable crossing that line to really make, to give that tip to the cop because you get to see the devastation of what happens when you actually speak up. So, yeah. 

Charlene: Why do you think they isolate public housing and the community at large when the same type of issues happen in public housing as well as the community large? Why do you think it appears that public housing “is the worst place to live” versus the community at large when they have the same or similar issues going on?

Joanna: Well, I worked, I graduated in 2008, you know that great time when everything fell to pieces, so I graduated with my degree just knowing I was going to jump out of my nest and fly and soar high and everything was going to be great. So when life smacked me right in my face and told me to sit down, it took me a few years to really humble myself and go after a job where I would just be able to make a living and be kind of useful again. So I got a job as a custodian, and now I am a custodian at a college right. And you would think that educated people, they’d be better right, that’s not the case. What I learned working there is that they have somebody there 24/7 a day to clean up after them, the difference isn’t really the people, the difference is the resources that’s available to these people. They have a full staff working for them every minute of the day whether it’s to clean the bathroom, and the hallways, or taking the trash out, somebody is always there to make sure it looks good. We have one person maybe for two buildings, depending on where you live and what your resources are. So you have this one poor soul who has to clean fifteen floors, do the trash, clean the outside of the building, and they want it done everyday like it’s not going to happen. And, so yeah, if somebody makes a mess in the middle of the night, it’s got to stay there until they get there in the morning or maybe the next day. So I don’t really think that the negative connotation comes from who lives there but what we have to work with and that’s one of the biggest problems with NYCHA, our loss of funding.

Charlene: What would help your community come together?

Joanna: I think my community is unique in the sense that we are between Inwood and Riverdale, so we are kinda this mismatch of people here. And even though some would disagree, I think that the lack of representation on our board for the Latinos that live here really causes a disconnect between how they feel connected. There’s no, for them there’s less of an ownership and less of a connection to their neighborhood outside of their cultural connections to each other. So as far as like, going above and beyond and kind of connecting and making a unified community, it is sort of like, we are trying to pull these like a bag of bricks along. And only a few are jumping out to help and, I think if, I think if we can get them some recognition, or an advocate, or just somebody who is comfortable kind of coming in and talking with us the way we kind of do with each other, then I think we can probably affect more change because right now it’s like, we post a flyer and it’s said bilingual, but not necessarily when they show up, the only faces they see are brown faces, there’s nobody up there who speaks my language. So if I show up and I speak spanish, who is going to answer me. So I think that would be a big thing to really help this community come together. 

Charlene: Do you have anything else that you would like to share?

Joanna: I kind of, I have been looking because I am transient right now so I am bouncing around between my mother’s house and my grandmother’s house because after I moved out of Park Chester I decided rent is too high to just rent for the rest of my life so I have been interested in owning something but kind of going through this interview process and the workshop in this past day, it made me realize how much I am going to miss my community if I do that. Like even if I move into a small tenement building, it will be like six families and they won’t know me. They might have lived there all their lives so I’ll be the stranger so I guess if I move out, I’ll miss that. There is a kid I live next too, and his grandmother moved away, but he’s still there and I knew him when he was four and he has twins now. So for me that kind of string through history would be missing for me.

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