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E4: A Crown Heights Brooklyn Story of Caribbean Immigrants, Poor Housing Conditions, and Eviction


The infamous Nostrand Ave.


Peering through my car window as I pass Medgar Evers High School, I can hear the echoes of Tony Rebel and Beres Hammond playing in my ear as a young girl in the 90’s. Oh the memories.


Love you like a fresh vegetable

So tell me if you love Tony Rebel

Me love you like a fresh vegetable

So tell me if you love Tony Rebel


The 90’s were the peak of Caribbean culture in Crown Heights Brooklyn, and I was lucky enough to live in the front row seat to witness it all. Through my bedroom window facing Associated Supermarket on Nostrand Ave, there wasn’t a time of day that you couldn't hear the sounds and smells of the West Indies. Our beloved “home” as West Indians would lovingly call it, transported to these Brooklyn streets.


Whoa what a night

What a night, what a night

Oh gosh, what a night

I feel good

When you're wrapped up in my arms

Dancing to a reggae song

Feel good, feel good


“Close that window. Too much noise outside. All day all night the music is going.”


My aunt said to my 5-year-old self. Obsessed with a culture I was only second-handedly introduced to as an American-Caribbean, I

closed it down halfway but just enough that I’d still hear the waist gyrating upbeat of “I Feel Good” mixed with the smell of the Jerk Chicken smoker on the corner and fresh hardo bread from Allan’s Bakery.


She took out her crisp all-white nursing uniform that air dried over the shower rod in the bathroom. As she ironed, the bleach she used to hand wash her uniform filled the room each time the iron steam was released. The cleanness of her pure white outfit made her look so regal. So important.


“Bye Tante Felecia.” I yelled after her as she headed out to work at The Jewish Home & Hospital with her subway tokens in hand.

“I wanna be like her,” I said to myself.


 

Two Different Realities

It’s almost as if COVID19 was the straw that broke the camel’s back for 11225. Or maybe it was the perfect storm to uncover the housing and poverty undercurrents brewing for decades.


South Crown Heights, the southern side of Eastern Parkway, is a low-income neighborhood where 22% of residents live in poverty compared to 20% of all NYC residents (Ref: Community Health Profile 2018), is my home. And it’s home to the largest foreign-born Caribbean population in NYC.


“Hmph, these people haven’t fixed the water. And the heat doesn’t work like it should. They haven’t repaired this apartment in 10 years”, my aunt declared annoyingly as she sat homebound disabled on her bed. “My walls are cracked. I called the Super and he said he’d come.”

But he never came.


What’s unique about Crown Heights is that the Caribbean population has resided side by side the Jewish community for decades.

Living within the same zip code but experiencing two vastly different realities. The Jews the owners, the Caribbeans the renters.


According to the 2018 South Crown Heights and Lefferts Garden’s Community Health Profile, 38% of renter-occupied homes are adequately maintained by landlords and are free of heating breakdowns, cracks, holes, peeling paint, and other defects – compared to the city-wide average of 44%.


As a Public Health Research Scientist, I wonder if that 38% is truly reflective of the Caribbean population's housing conditions. Or is it more reflective of the housing conditions the Jews experience? I wondered if I were to divide that 38% by the Caribbean housing experience vs. Jews if the statistics would tell the same story. It is a constant thought of mine as I still reside in my beloved “home” of Crown Heights in my family’s rent-stabilized apartment where fire extinguishers were only installed for the first time in April 2022. In my years of professional experience at the New York State (NYS) and New York City (NYC) Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, I’ve come to realize that the data we publish doesn’t always match the true experience of residents living in low-income neighborhoods. It’s an uneven match.


It was a constant occurrence for my aunt to complain about the lack of adequate heating, increase in rodents/pets, cracked ceilings and flooring, and brown water. As she was Black and a single woman in a rent-stabilized apartment, she was often overlooked for housing repairs on numerous occasions.


As was I.

 

The Immigrant Journey

My aunt Felecia Connor arrived in New York in the early 70’s. She completed her Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) at the Long Island University Brooklyn Campus as a single woman with her family left back in the French Island of Saint Martin. Post-graduation, she made her way to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn and settled into a 1-bedroom apartment named Viober Court in 1976. And so, it became her home. Then my home. Our family “home”.


My parents and 2 siblings moved into her 1-bedroom apartment when I was around 1 year old. Yes, 6 of us in a 1-bedroom apartment. My aunt in her bedroom. And in the living room? My parents on a couch pull-out bed and my two siblings on the floor. As for me, some nights I snuggled with my aunt and other nights with my parents. This was our life. And the life of many immigrant families trying to make it in America. Overcrowded in a small space with 3 young kids and 3 adults, we supported each other and did what we could.



 

Poor Housing Quality and Preventable Death

Our rent-stabilized apartment would stay within our family for decades and become a pit stop on the underground railroad of our family success. At around 9 years old, prayers for a better life and educational opportunities for their children were answered and my parents were able to move us out of Brooklyn and temporarily set roots in Long Island. However, Crown Heights would remain our home base.


As a mother figure, my aunt housed me throughout my entire 4 years of my undergraduate degree at CUNY Brooklyn College while I looked after her health and financial affairs. She was my bestie.


I burst through her bedroom door in the fall of 2007 screaming, “Ahhhh! I got the second highest grade on my Analytical Chemistry midterm!” She watched me study all night with just a faint lamp at the kitchen table as there was a need to conserve current. And of course, high ConEdison bills.


Looking up from her bed at me, she sarcastically said, “Hmph… I thought you said you weren’t as smart as your brother and sister.”

I laughed and waived the exam paper in my hand and did a little whine for her. She always knew what to say to build my academic confidence. The next morning, it was back to the grind. While I went to school, she stayed at home. She was forced into early retirement as a nurse due to rheumatoid arthritis.


“Tante Felecia, I’ve run the water for 15 minutes and it’s still cold. I can’t take a shower and I have an 8 am class.”


“Put some water in a large pot and heat it on the stove. Use that to take a bath. Heat the oven and leave the door open so the apartment can get warm too.” She advised.


She somehow always knew how to maneuver through the poor housing conditions. I guess you become a pro after living under less than ideal housing circumstances for 30+ years. She was the passion and motivation behind me completing my Bachelor’s in Science with a major in Biology and a minor in Women’s Studies, even while sleeping on the floor with NYC mice, roaches, and bed bugs. I endured.

By the time I graduated, her health rapidly declined. Unable to walk and homebound for ~8 years due to rheumatoid arthritis, she passed away in her bed in April 2015 at the young age of 64.


As I look back, I wonder if the stiffening of her bones and joints could have been prevented if she had the heat she needed during those cold winter months. After all, extremely cold temperatures have been found to be associated with mortality, especially amongst the elderly (Ref: How Does Housing Affect Health?). Or if the water from the kitchen faucet ran clear with nourishment instead of brown with chemical toxicity. I wondered if her rent payments would prove her deserving of the ceiling and cracked paint wall repairs. I wondered if 30+ years of lead paint exposure was a contributing factor to her joint pain and rheumatoid arthritis. According to the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, joint pain is a manifestation of clinical lead poisoning (Ref: Lead Poisoning in a Historical Perspective). However, NYC law only recognizes and requires lead abatement if a child resides in the apartment.


But what about the effects on the older adults who are homebound, disabled, with comorbidities?


As I read a letter from the NYC Healthy Homes Program/Lead Poisoning Prevention dated 7/11/2022 informing me of lead based paint violation in E4, I wonder if the discovery was made in 2015 prior to her passing that maybe, just maybe her life could have been prolonged and her death prevented... I wonder.

 

Reparations & Succession Rights

“Your honor, my name is Tabitha Julien and I am the niece of Felecia Connor. This Supreme Court eviction case placed against me is in retaliation to the request of equitable housing conditions and evidence of lead-based paint found in E4.”

I began a Housing Court case against my landlord that would require him to remove the lead paint that was found using standard EPA protocols and finally fix the 10+ years of repairs that my aunt requested on her dying bed. Within 2 weeks of starting the housing court case, I somehow found myself served Supreme Court papers for eviction by the landlord.


“Eviction? Because I need repairs?” And so the battle ensued. Over the next 8 months (December -July 2022), I found myself

in a heated legal battle that included Housing Court and Supreme Court appearances, harassment in the form of mail tampering and removal, and tense interactions with the building Superintendent.


“Tante Felecia, I’m so sorry. If I’d known in 2015 how much this apartment was deteriorating your health, I wouldn’t have left you here.” I cried out on the floor of the bedroom she passed away in one morning.


The stress of the court cases began to deteriorate my own health. Clumps of hair fell out daily and I was forced to cut my locs off.

“God, I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this. My hair is falling out and I can’t keep up with my doctoral program.”


As an Epidemiology doctoral student within the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, public health kept breaking my heart. It seemed that my pledge as a public servant and an advocate for the underprivileged and underserved was a curse. As a former employee at the NYS Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, I was more than confident that I’d receive equitable housing repairs. But instead of being assisted, I was being punished and at risk for removal from my community. From my “home”.

School was my only means of income as NYU paid for my tuition and provided a monthly stipend. However, with multiple court dates, housing inspections, and repair dates, I was unable to keep up with my research. I decided to take a leave from my doctoral program in March 2022 on the eve of my 33’rd birthday.


“What’s next God? I no longer have income and I’m at risk of being homeless. I can’t lose my family legacy apartment. If I do, my aunt’s life and death would have been for nothing. Her memory vanished. All of her life’s work gone. What about her legacy?”


I didn’t know what else to do but pray. And pray I did. I became a fervent prayer warrior. Each morning I’d watch the sunrise over the empty lot that used to be the Associated Supermarket with thankfulness and requests for wisdom on my lips.

 

Housing Advocacy

“Ms. Julien, are you representing yourself?”

“Yes, your honor,” I responded to the Supreme Court Judge.


Unable to afford a lawyer as a student and unemployed, I was rejected for pro-bono legal representation because the case was in Supreme Court. I reached out to my local Senator Zellnor Myrie’s office and District Member Crystal Hudson’s office for legal support and while both offices sympathized with me and provided resources, I was unable to receive the legal representation I so desperately needed.


It was just me and God as my defense. And God came through. The judge saw it fit to remove the eviction case from Supreme Court and advised my landlord's attorney to place the case in housing court.

"The Connor Apartments. That’s what I’m going to rename the building after it’s all said and done. I’m going to make sure that all of the residents of the building have quality apartments – clearwater, adequate heating, and we’ll finally get rid of the roaches and rats. You know they only put up fire extinguishers in the hallways in 2022!? I know God put me back here in this building to make a change in the housing conditions for us residents. It's so bad here.”

My mother listened. “You know Mommy, I want the 5th floor to be named after your sister, Felecia Connor. You’ll also have a floor. Which one do you want? It’s our family birthright.”


She laughed and said, “You are so crazy, girl.” But she knows I mean it. After all, it’s God’s plan.


 

The Battle Won, But The War Still Goes On...


As I sit back and look out of my bedroom window overlooking Nostrand Ave, I can't help but smile through the tears of the grief of the loss of my aunt still present 7 years after her passing. The pain used as an energizer battery strapped to my back to continue to fight to


preserve my aunt's legacy and memory.


Who knew that the image of her in her crisp white nurses uniform at the young age of 5 would be the catalyst for my career in public health? If she could only see how much her life inspired me to not only advocate for myself, but for all of the tenants of the building. And her friends, the older adults who still reside in the building. Housing matters. Especially for older adults.


As of August 2022, I am still at risk of eviction as my landlord threatens a housing eviction case against me. Public support is needed as I continue to fight for equitable housing for the entire building. Kind words, legal representation, and anything else in between would be greatly appreciated.



Esther 4:14

"If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”


 

This piece is dedicated to my Tante Felecia Connor. She was the first woman to immigrate to America from the Connor family from the Island of St. Martin with hopes and dreams for herself and her family.


Your life and legacy live on through me. You will always be my greatest inspiration, motivation, and best friend. I hope to continue to make you proud. The world will know your name. Our family members for generations to come will know your name and legacy.


You are missed, deeply.


Love,

Tabitha Esther

The Queen from Crown Heights 👑







 


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