Friday, June 15, 2012

Problems in Peekskill, NY

Margaret Rubick
 There have been several egregious events in the small towns and cities of Westchester county, some notorious such as the murder of Kenneth Chamberlain last November.  None has been more persistent than the ongoing disregard for the health, safety and rights of Peekskill public housing tenants.  Joining Urban Ecology this week is my friend and colleague, Margaret Rubick to describe the current campaign to bring attention to these problems.  Margaret is a writer, anti-racist activist and health advocate living and working in Westchester County, NY.

Problems in Peekskill, NY

“Gentrification: the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of  middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” – Merriam-Webster

I wonder if Habitat for Humanity does renovations. I have this fantasy that the organization might partner with the residents of public housing in Peekskill, NY, to clean, paint, fix broken water pipes, and rid the premises of mice and bugs. Although Bohlman Towers purportedly exists for the benefit of the poor and disabled, it does more to keep them down than lift them up. Some tenants are paying $1200 a month for a one-room apartment, have to ride in dirty elevators and put up with stains and odors of unknown origin.

And that is just one small part of the mess—the disrepair and the rodents are just symptoms of the systemic problems of human rights violations, illegal dealings and malfeasance in Peekskill public housing. The acting Housing Director is working without a contract, which is against HUD regulations. Harold Phipps, whose contract expired mid-2011, now stands accused of sexual harassment, of entering women’s apartments without notice, of locking young children out of dance rehearsals in the building, and of trying to bully the board into signing a new contract. Rents are being raised in an effort to evict tenants. The harassment is blatantly obvious.

No one can get copies of the by-laws for the local Housing Authority. The mayor, Mary Foster, disavows all knowledge of all activities, repeating at Common Council meetings for a long time that she has no authority over the board, although until just a few months ago, she appointed five of the members. Two are supposed to be tenant-elected representatives but I witnessed firsthand how one eligible candidate was tricked into having her application declared invalid.  At the Common Council meetings, no one seems to know anything.

Enter Darrell Davis, a Peekskill-raised activist who lives in Westchester and is leading the fight against the betrayal by the Democrats in power. Davis helped get the mayor elected the first time she ran, hoping the change in leadership would make a difference. It didn’t. Davis, leading the Committee for Justice, along with residents of public housing, were polite and deferential in asking for change, believing for many, many months that change was coming.  Now, after more than two years of voicing concerns, the meetings are not as peaceful. The mayor sits stony-faced (you can see her on YouTube) when African-Americans are at the podium. The racism IS that blatant.

This past Monday, I attended the Common Council meeting. As speakers lined up for their five minutes of “Citizens wishing to be heard,” I wondered what the evening would bring. I heard some of the familiar items: repairs are not being done, no one on the council knows anything…then I heard Davis speak about the Freedom of Information documents that he has obtained, proving that there have been exchanges of funds in return for lucrative contracts. Davis will be issuing a report on the corruption. Just before Davis approached the microphone,  the city’s Corporation Counsel started to speak. The mayor “shushed” her, and Bernis Nelson left the room. I found out later that she resigned. Davis refers to the mayor’s entourage as the City “Clowncil.” It’s not difficult to see why.

Karen Watson, who was a mayoral-appointed Commissioner on the Housing Board, recently resigned in protest. I have heard her speak twice in the Common Council meetings. She looked Mayor Foster in the eye while she told her of the abuses, and called her on lies. Yes, lies. Because again, the injustice IS that blatant

Curious about this? Sherry Hinkson, AKA MsEqualRights, records these sessions and posts them on YouTube, aided by her daughter, Zakiya. To view them, click on:

Would you like to do a little more? Sign this petition, calling for a HUD investigation into the operation of the Peekskill Housing Authority and asking Governor Cuomo to look at human rights violations under Mayor Foster’s management. To sign, click on the link below or cut-and-paste it into your browser:

Removing two bad leaders will not eliminate the problems but it may open up space to attract better leaders. Then the work will begin its next phase, to improve conditions for the poor and marginalized and the people of color who are dismissed or abused. I am grateful that the individuals and groups fighting for change are in it for the long term. 


  1. Great summary and indictment of a distressingly unjust group of "leaders" and a series of processess that reinforce the fact that racism and inhumane treatment flourish, even in the year 2012 when so many myths of progress dull our perceptions.
    Thank you for a great blog contribution and links to an unbelievable relity in Peekskill, NY. As you so accurately state, the work is just begun!

  2. I am sure that Bolwman Towers and the other public housing buildings are the home to many hard working good people that may just need a little help, but the fact is these places are the home to many people who just don’t care about making a place better taking pride in their community. When I walk through Peekskill I see the potential that this city has but unfortunately it will never be what it should be until you get rid of the people that are living in the community who are bringing it down by committing crimes such as drug dealing, prostitution etc… I am quite sure that a lot of the people that are living in these buildings may have some sort of criminal record and that may not be entirely their fault it may very well be that, that is all they know due to the element of where they were brought up, it may very well be that these are the only ways that they can survive at the time. Now this may sound racist but the fact is if you would like to see Peekskill at its best you have to raise rents and push these lower class people out then tear down these eyesore of building and put up new luxury 1,2 & 3 bedroom apartment building, open restaurant, bars and stores that appeal to more off the 25 – 35 year old population that may work in the city and are looking for a trendy place to live with much to do. As the saying goes you got to crack a few eggs to make a omelet. It may be unfortunate for the people who get pushed out and rolled over during this process, but when you look at the big picture it would make Peekskill a more desirable place for people to want live shop and visit.

  3. It seems to me that you identify the problem with gentrification: "It may be unfortunate for the people who get pushed out and rolled over during this process..."

    This housing was built for the poor and unfortunate. They are human beings. What do you propose that they do? Where do they go? Why isn't there a solution that includes them?

  4. please visit FOPHVIC We are fighting to stop the privatisation of public housing in Vic Australia. We would like some allies from around the world,; precious few here as many orgs have been co-opted into supporting this course of action.And the public are confused by all the spin. also Thanks. Fiona

  5. Darrell Davis is a LIAR...

  6. I don't think so. I knew Darrell Davis for two years before we had a real conversation. He was always courteous and appreciative of support. Now that I have gotten to know him, my respect has grown enormously. Darrell has been everything from homeless to employed by executives. He goes where he is asked to go--Peekskill, Newburgh, Mt. Vernon, etc. He is not paid for the work he does OR for his radio shows. I see him as a truth-teller.


I welcome comments on any topic covered in Urban Ecology. I may not respond immediately but I do read them all.