Ethnographic Study of Young Men in NYC Public Housing

Veronica Quiroga, a senior at Fordham University, is an African American Studies major who also works as a research assistant for the Bronx African American History Project. Quiroga is currently working on her senior thesis: an ethnographic study of a group of young men who live in the Wagner Houses of East Harlem. Since attending Fordham University she has moved closer to campus, but Quiroga herself also grew up in Wagner Houses public housing. She was inspired to start this study after a screening of another public housing story at an event hosted by the BAAHP (Bronx African American History Project). In a documentary about Paterson Housing in the Bronx, she was shocked to learn that the conditions of public housing had not always been as stigmatized and deficient as she had experienced.

Quiroga decided to conduct a study that analyzes just how damaging the current conditions of New York City public housing are by focusing on Wagner Houses and the young men she knew from her time living there. Because of her connection to the place and the people, she is offered a unique participant-observer lens, which she explained to be the major benefit to the research she is conducting. “I’m not worried about honesty,” she stated. “I’m not an outsider, so they trust me, but I am concerned about some of the barriers that keep them from articulating what it is they want to say.” Quiroga discussed some of the characterizing experiences of this group of young men from Wagner, all ages 16 to 23, and all identifying as either Black or Latinx, that might prevent them from being able to analyze their situations and articulate their opinions the way Veronica can as a soon-to-be college grad. While a good portion of the women she knew from Wagner did go on to attend college, most of these men did not pursue education past high school. Their choice of “hustle”– a term she uses to describe the way in which people choose to get by, what their path to income and success is — was rarely higher education. 

Quiroga stated her hypothesis as: “the living conditions of New York public housing contain these young men both physically and mentally and force them to operate within a limited mentality.” However, she is still early in her research process. As of now, Quiroga has conducted a few of the one-on-one interviews and one group interview with around ten participants but hopes to meet with each of these men a handful more times, both individually and again in a group setting. She is also gathering research by spending time with these young men, many of whom she calls friends, to observe and understand what their life is like in the Wagner Houses, and what it means for each of them to “hustle”. For example, she will sit in and watch as they play dice in the hallway, and later ask participants questions like, why is it that they participate in this, and what are they hoping to get out of it? 

The concept of hustling is the main cornerstone of her research as it details the ways in which the men in this community fight for their own version of the American dream within the systems they have been born into. As mentioned earlier, this doesn’t necessarily always mean illegal activity. For some, like one man who was recently arrested and charged for gun possession and attempted murder after a random racial profiling, it’s salary jobs like the one he worked at Starbucks. Before his recent arrest, he had spoken to Quiroga about how proud he was to have a job that supported him and allowed him to save for his future. He said he hoped he would eventually be able to provide for his extended family who also lived in the Wagner Houses. He had even been able to secure a job position for a friend at another Starbucks location: his way of sharing the wealth and opportunity. But it’s barriers like his arrest that prevent men in this community from ever reaching that personal success, even in traditional ways. For example, Quiroga explains the recent spike in police presence around Wagner Housing. “There police stationed on every corner, and this is a big project with eighteen buildings so there are a lot of corners.” This heavy over-policing creates a hostile environment for the individuals living there, most of whom do not feel safe around the police.

There are many forces impacting these men on a daily basis that Quiroga hopes to address in her interviews and her secondary research, such as the over-policing and racial profiling that occurs in and around the Wagner Houses, as well as displacement as a result of incoming gentrification to the Harlem area. These forces work to “push these people to the margins of society,” and as Quiroga argues, it makes it all the more imperative that their stories are told. These individuals, “who are systematically deprived of benefits and advantages in society” have stories that need to be heard by those in society not faced with the same realities. Quiroga recognizes that she has the privilege to be able to tell those stories, and it is why she plans to continue her education by applying for Ph.D. programs in Africana, Sociology, and Cultural Anthropology Studies across the country in cities like Los Angeles where residents of public housing face very similar oppressive circumstances. She notes that merely having conversations about these issues will not enact structural change, but that her basic hope for this thesis is that it benefits the participants. She hopes that it shows them “there is a life beyond the projects, that it’s okay to live a life beyond here, beyond these metaphorical walls.” She wants them to have access to the world outside of what at times can feel like a ‘prison-house’ to its residents, and she does not want them to be limited by the lack of equity the world has offered them.

By Caroline Martin, FCRH ‘20

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