We the People: The Citizens of NYCHA in Photos + Words
Brooklyn Historical Society
Through March 8
In late August 1952, readers of LIFE magazine encountered what must’ve seemed a rather odd set of photos: a disembodied eye floating in water, an ominous skull gleaming in a blurred church window and, most prominently, a forlorn Black man preparing to submerge himself under a city street. These images come from Gordon Parks’s “Invisible Man” series, in which Parks — by then already an accomplished documentary and fashion photographer — combined staged scenes with Harlem street shots as a way of showing the struggle and sadness at the core of Ralph Ellison’s eponymous novel. Both the book Invisible Man and the photo series named after it are about the painful alienation of Black Americans — a vision especially at odds with the smiling, almost all white faces in that issue of LIFE.
Parks, social documentarian Jacob Riis and photographer Ruiko Yoshida are cited as touchstones for “We the People: The Citizens of NYCHA in Photos + Words,” currently on view at the Brooklyn Historical Society. It’s an exhibition by journalist Rico Washington and photographer Shino Yanagawa — both of whom have lived in public housing — on the experiences of Black and Latino residents living in New York City Housing Authority communities. New York City’s public housing program is the largest in the country — according to NYC.gov, if NYCHA developments were their own city, it would be the 27th-biggest in the nation.
Yanagawa’s and Washington’s reporting has an impressive scope to it, with subjects ranging from 9-year-old twins Jameel and Jaleel Faussett to Susie Mushatt Jones, who at 115 years old is the fourth-oldest person on Earth (“If I said anything bad about living in housing, I wouldn’t be telling the truth,” Jones says). Despite this, the work here feels unfortunately thin: the straightforward portraits lack the acuity and inventiveness of Parks and Yoshida, and the relatively small show seems fragmentary, like a handful of pages torn from a much larger book. But the exhibition is being presented as more of an educational work than anything — after all, it’s at a history museum, not an art museum — and when it comes to life in public housing, there are important things to be learned.
For example, acclaimed soul singer Sharon Jones theorizes that families in public housing must still contend with a legacy of dehumanization and separation that comes straight from slavery. Though the projects are known in the contemporary imagination as more or less Black neighborhoods, Felipe Luciano — a journalist and former member of the deeply influential proto-hip-hop group the Last Poets — tells us that he grew up around astounding diversity (“you can easily become an international diplomat, if you’re raised in the projects the way I was raised”). Hip-hop itself is a fuzzy, half-omitted presence in this show, perhaps because that’s the thing that most people already know about (in a January 12 NPR report, Yanagawa said that before she moved to the United States, Western hip-hop had her thinking that the projects were “very cool”). The show includes a portrait of Olu Dara, an avant-garde jazz musician and father of hip-hop icon Nas, who said that the projects have been home to “some of the most talented people I’ve ever met in my life.” Nas and Jay-Z are mentioned, albeit briefly.
Asked what would happen if he complained to the NYPD about the ways police harass people in his neighborhood, current NYCHA resident Mark Medina said: “They would listen. But they won’t take me seriously. They would just laugh, take the papers and throw it out.” Medina’s remarks, and this show overall are, of course, very timely. The wave of protest that began with the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, and the non-indictments of the police officers that killed them, has coalesced around the message “#BlackLivesMatter.” Among those mourned is Akai Gurley, a young Black man recently killed by police in the unlit stairwell of a NYCHA building. One of the most powerful images to emerge from recent protests is that of the large, multi-panel sign composed of nothing but Eric Garner’s eyes — a simple affirmation of his humanity. In a New York Times interview this month, Judith Butler noted that, “One reason the chant ‘Black Lives Matter’ is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized.” More than 60 years since the publication of Invisible Man, so many Americans struggle to really be seen.
The work in this exhibition feels less like the muckraking exposés of urban poverty made by its cited influences. Instead, it embraces a more elemental aim of socially minded photojournalism: finding the human face beneath sociopolitical abstractions. Perhaps the key message of “We the People” is, well, just what its title implies: public housing is where Americans live; public housing is home.