New York City’s public-housing developments such as the Thomas Jefferson Houses and George Washington Houses in East Harlem shouldn’t bear the names of slave owners or slave traders, several members of city council say.
At least eight public-housing developments bear the names of slaveholders or others who participated in the slave trade — people whose “historical contributions are far outweighed by their evil deeds,” said the letter from City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus.
“Why should any of those New Yorkers have their homes named after slave owners who sustained the most savage institution the United States has ever known?” the letter says.
Rather than putting the issue up for a City Council vote, the members have asked the New York City Housing Authority to consider renaming the buildings.
But the housing authority’s current rules state that “a property cannot be renamed if the property is currently named after a person; or the property or property name has historical significance to New York City, [the housing authority], or public housing.”
There’s some precedent, though. In 2010, the housing authority changed the name of the Bronxdale Houses to the “Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses and Community Center,” a nod to the Supreme Court Justice, who had lived in the housing development as a child.
A spokesman for the New York City Housing Authority tells Heat Street that the city council members’ good intentions are appreciated and that the agency will review the possibility of changing the names.
“Any effort to rename a NYCHA development would begin and end with our residents, who, in many cases, feel attachment to the names that have represented these communities for many years and would have to reach consensus before a change is made,” the spokesman said.
Raymond Rodriguez, a spokesman for letter signator Ritchie Torres, says constituents’ concerns prompted the Bronx councilman to co-author the letter asking for the name changes. But Rodriguez added that feedback from housing development residents “really runs the gamut.”
While Torres and his co-signatories proposed renaming the Bronx Andrew Jackson Houses as the Harriet Tubman houses, the councilman believes that all final decisions should rest with the residents, Rodriguez says.
The renaming of the Bronxdale Houses showed just how contentious such a decision could be. After months of door-to-door surveys conducted by housing authority employees and resident volunteers, the city concluded that 75 percent of residents supported the change.
But many who opposed it did so passionately. “Bronxdale should stay,” one resident told the New York Daily News. “We had that name from the beginning. Why are they acting like [Sotomayor] is a princess? … She doesn’t come from around here. I don’t know her face.”
Others complained that the name change was a quick PR move that ignored the real problems.
A Housing and Urban Development inspection put the Bronxdale Houses just six points away from a failing grade the year before the name change, noting the buildings’ general decay and even missing smoke alarms. And between 2005 and 2010, the housing development saw four murders, twice that many rapes, and dozens of other violent crimes.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.