ITHACA, N.Y. — West Village suffers from two very profound problems: violent crime and stigmatization of its residents.
The first problem involves the very real, perilous issues that plague the apartment complex and its residents. The complex is the site of a significant portion of Ithaca’s violent crime. Drug use has long been a major problem. Residents, when they are willing to go on the record, tell of a fear to walk outside their homes at night, and certain parts of the complex they avoid completely.
The second problem is that its residents are stigmatized. West Village has become synonymous with the negative stereotype of an urban ghetto for many Ithacans, to the point where to live there is seen as a badge of shame to some. In the current discussion of affordable housing and the area’s housing crisis, the “It’ll turn out like West Village” comment inevitably comes up. Residents of the apartment complex have said that they have a lack of self-esteem.
What are the results of these problems?
First, the West Hill community recognizes that it needs help. Second, a sense of frustration and isolation, feeling like they and their neighbors are beyond help, and feeling degraded by community members that portray them as being beyond help.
That sense of frustration and isolation is magnified by the setup of West Village itself – the complex is physically isolated from the rest of the city, on the southwest side away from businesses and community resources.
It’s easy to look back now at how the apartments were developed and say that it was always going to be a problem. But hindsight can be misleading.
Let’s go back to Ithaca in the late 1960s. The city is rapidly changing. In downtown, much of the historic but rundown core is being demolished and replaced with parking garages and suburban-style box stores, things that were fashionable in the golden age of the car. Meanwhile, on the West End, much of the city’s lower-income housing is or has already been destroyed to make way for the new flood control inlet. While the reconfiguration of the inlet was a crucial necessity after frequent floods, including a disastrous flood event a generation earlier, this project had the impact of displacing hundreds of lower-income families from their homes. Entire blocks of working-class housing in the way of the flood control project were burned down for fire department training.
Picture being a responsible local official in the mindset of the 1960s. There is a critical lack of lower-income housing. The city of Ithaca, like many others, is worn down, unattractive to modern business and affluent residents, and likely to attract unsavory characters and behaviors. The solution, so it seemed, was to get the lower income residents out of the city, away from society’s ills, and get them out in an environment of fresh air and green fields.
The city went to work formulating a plan. With the assistance of the New York State Urban Development Corporation, the common council and community groups settled on a plan for a 235-unit complex to be located on West Hill. Originally designed under the name “Elm Street Housing”, the project would eventually adopt the moniker “West Village”. The apartments were managed, and later owned by local real estate developer David Abbott, who was active in Downtown’s urban renewal, and was already working with the state and local officials on the low-income Maple Hill Apartments project (now Ithaca East) being built on East Hill.
West Village was seen as something of a showcase when it opened in 1972, as earlier low-income housing projects such as St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe had already become icons of urban decay, feeding the public’s psyche with frightening images of crime and desolation. From its inception, West Village was meant to be different. Instead of high-rise urban blocks, it was meant to be low-rise, bucolic and free from urban woes. In place of drab rectangular blocks, the complex was designed by award-winning architect Werner Seligmann, and heralded in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
An advertisement for the complex not long after it opened extols its unique attributes. “This unusual $8,850,000 development has aroused great interest throughout the world having appeared in many architectural and housing journals as a departure from the ordinary Federally-assisted housing developments.” The ad further notes that 10% of its residents were elderly citizens, 20% low-income families, and 70% middle-income families, although it doesn’t define what constitutes middle-income.
Fast forward to 1988, sixteen years after West Village opened. Local writer Brad Edmondson interviewed West Hill residents as part of a history of Ithaca series for the city’s centennial. The topic of West Village comes up.
“We wanted to keep the neighborhood purely residential and owner-occupied,” says one resident.
“West Hill should never have been built,” complains a second, saying that neighbors moved away in anticipation of it becoming a slum. “But I stayed, and gave it a chance, and I must give Bruce Abbott credit. He runs a tight ship.”
Bruce Abbott, the son of David and manager of the complex, admitted there were difficulties in the early years, but that the environment had improved. “[T]here was a lot of misunderstanding. We were stuck up in the corner of the city, far away from any shopping or services, and it was kind of a benign neglect situation for a while….we took tenants on a first-come, first-served basis, and some people just aren’t suited to live in high-density housing. Those people became apparent very quickly, and it was my obligation as manager to see that they either behaved or left.”
In a more recent opinion piece for the Ithaca Times, Abbott says that after a few years of trying to run their own programs, they brought in Cornell Cooperative Extension’s 4-H Program to provide activities and guidance for children, and a former deputy sheriff to patrol the complex on weekends. “It’s not that potential problems didn’t exist as in any concentrated population; it’s just that our management was proactive.“
The Abbott family maintained control of the property up until 2008, when it was sold to Omni NY LLC, a large real estate firm headquartered downstate. As part of the sale, the subsidy switched from a program that reduced the interest on mortgage payments and was due to expire in a few years, to Section 8, which is based strictly on household income and indefinite. Along with keeping the units affordable, Omni announced plans for an $8 million renovation. But while the buildings were physically spruced up, Abbott notes in his op-ed that “[t]he first thing they did as owners was to slash the budgets for the children and security. Cameras wired to Brooklyn and weak on-site management proved to be a poor substitute for our prior presence and programs.”
The results have unfortunately spoken for themselves. Former Ithaca Voice editor Jeff Stein wrote for the Cornell Sun in 2012 that “residents live in fear”. The Journal was slightly kinder with a 2014 analysis that called West Village “A community in conflict”. In response to concerns from residents and the community, Omni gave the city $12,000 for extra police patrols in 2013 plus another $12,000 in 2015, and earlier this year the Common Council approved an “Officer Next Door” program where two city policemen live at the complex free of charge. However, while there have been improvements, the community has continued to be plagued with drug crime and violence. Improving the quality of life at West Village has been an ongoing challenge.
So why has West Village had so many issues? There is no simple answer, and certainly not a soundbite. But we can cite a few factors, some of which are easier to address than others:
Location and Design
West Village residents are placed at a disadvantage due to its isolated location from the rest of the city. That isolation can keep residents from accessing vital services, employers, resources and support networks because of the difficulty of getting to those services. Some may have mobility issues, others cannot afford the expense of a personal vehicle. Commuting can be a challenge. These issues also plagued inner-city projects in other communities, where services and resources were few or far away. Add in the high population concentration, which increases the likelihood of a few less ethical residents being mixed into the populace, and the vulnerability of residents is increased.
“One thing the sociologists and academics and planners and architects and politicians didn’t realize, until it was too late — the “social ills” of poverty doesn’t necessarily go away with a new apartment or a suburban location,” said Dan Tasman, an urban planner for the town of Ithaca. “In many cases, they just became more concentrated…Site planning that undermines socialization among neighbors, and “eyes on the street” results in an environment that’s ripe for crime. Disconnected complexes with a monoculture of copy-and-paste housing can be dehumanizing, feeling more like a warehouse for people than a neighborhood.”
Going off of Abbott’s opinion piece, it’s clear that management must be vigilant in engaging and assisting the isolated residents of West Village, who benefit from a proactive ownership. If the services are too far for many residents, than management has to be creative and find ways to get residents to community resources, or bring those services and resources to residents. Management also has to proactive in working with residents and responding to their concerns, to ensure safety and a high quality of life.
For the record, West Village management has a policy of not speaking to media.
This one’s actually two-fold. As tenants, West Villagers have to be proactive in creating an internal community network, where neighbors can have respect and faith in neighbors. The creation of a community garden gives residents a positive outlet, and the “Our Children’s Future” program gives kids the chance to explore ambitions by working with local community groups and giving them service opportunities. These may seem like little things, but they help build a sense of community.
On a larger scale, Ithacans on West Hill and elsewhere have an obligation to respect residents, avoid stereotyping them as degenerates and discounting their value as people. As one West Village resident told the Journal in 2014, “They don’t realize that we, just like everybody else, walk on two feet, we want to live, we want our children to have a life that’s good. We want role models for our children … role models to make them want to be something when they grow up.”