General Grant Houses Dispatch, Early April 2020

Signs of the Times: An array of signs for COVID-19, trash disposal, and paying the rent can be found in the common areas of the New York City Housing Authority’s General Ulysses S. Grant Houses, a development in West Harlem that consists of 10 buildings with more than 4,400 apartment units.

I’m crouching down and leaning sideways to have a clear view outside my living room window. If I kneel down, and scrunch down, I can catch a refreshing breeze. Next, I try to catch a glimpse of the wide view of 125th Street that is clearly visible from the window. I take comfort in knowing I’ve spent a significant amount of time in my life witnessing this view. The refreshing flickers of air circulating around my face and neck take me back to the earliest time I distinctly remember this pleasurable feeling of being uplifted.

The view from my apartment.

Back in time I’m riding on my grandmother’s hip. The window pane twisted open horizontally. There was a medium khaki brown paint with a tarnished pink fade that gave way to a green patina when its paint became crumbly on the metal underlayer of the winding sash handles. Never any window guards in those earliest memories. Yet there still was comfort and the clearest sense of protection.

Today when I catch the familiar view, it is reminiscent of a Christmas Day with no joy on the horizon. It’s long past the time I could gain any advantage of comfort on a hip. Now I must get low to avoid the obscured view of cloudy remnants of dusty, weeping window panes. If I stand up and look through the window, there is just enough distortion created to confuse my vision. In waking moments, sometimes I’ve forgotten this distortion exists and caught myself attempting to rub my vision clear.

Right now, I imagine the perfect postcard scene. It projects hope, possibility, and positivity forward in my mind. Freedom at the thought of travel. We’ve all been forced to scatter for cover for our very survival. We have to make ourselves scarce on the outside, shelter in place, and protect our families, our cities, and our world. And like me, we are all forced to reflect. There’s no use in avoiding this, our clearest assignment as a species to date.

There is time now. Lots and lots of time. Time to identify. Time to reflect on all the distortions that filter through our field of vision and burden our ability to act upon them. Ever notice how the future becomes burdened with probabilities when time is scarce. It’s like a mouse running their paces on a wheel or in more edgy times, a rat race. Seeing clearly despite the obscurities in our field of vision is like attempting to live well despite the costly burden of health. We know what is possible, but there is always some impediment in the way. It makes us cut losses to better manage our time. Now we’re being gifted with time to explore, to create, to Act. Time is finally on our side. Because we are stuck in our apartments, we are blessed with it in abundance. Even with three children, one increasingly weak Wi-Fi signal, and a Chromebook that’s loading slower and slower with the increasing burden.

Yes. These are all blessings.

Another view from my apartment.

My youngest son has decided to slide straight toward his dreams of becoming a professional video game player in the first week. My oldest son has just been straight tripped up. All his best plans seem to be on indefinite hold for the near future, but he is still working to handle the changes and find the opportunities. All of us are stuck with both the memory of what was, and the burden of uncertainty moving forward.

I, myself, feel stuck on the couch. Seated most of the day beneath my laptop. Meetings run back and forth from my laptop to my cell phone to handle the overflow. The matrix sustains us all. Everyone’s prospects have suddenly converged onto my shoulders with Sisyphean girth, and the world in turn with infinite boulders to go around.

Sunday morning my oldest exclaimed: “Mom. I didn’t know you worked seven days a week now!”

“Funny”…I smile, thinking, “of course”. “I’m not ready to give up, when time is all I have.”

I am a low-income, lifelong public housing resident. A Black woman “of a certain age” that stays up at night thinking about how I can ever retire, hope to live independently, not to be burdened by society, and to not be a burden. I have survival on my mind. I need to be present seven days of the week, just to remain relevant because I’m too big to fail.

So here is my take from the inside. NYCHA, the New York City Housing Authority, is too big to fail. Even with no public hand sanitizer dispensers, no additional help for the porters, no adequate PPE for porters, no safety kits for seniors or those with preexisting health risks. No calls from the authority to reach out and check. No building security to speak of. We rely on the buddy system in elevators. They can get packed, and so can the lobby. With Eleven apartments on each floor with up to 21 flights in nine buildings. You do the math. Lots of seniors, “essential workers”, people with preexisting health conditions, and large extended families living by their wits – trying their best to survive. Our futures are inextricably linked with too much riding on the outcome. As long as I have time, I will never give up. Because we are all too big to fail.

Peace, health, and blessings to those in need.


Tina Johnson is the NYCHA Healthy Homes Community Organizer at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, as well as a life-long resident of West Harlem and NYCHA’s General Grant Houses.

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