Brooklyn public housing leader wins $200K prize, plans to support Red Hook neighbors

Everyone in Red Hook seems to know Karen Blondel. Now the public housing leader is getting more formal citywide recognition for her work organizing her neighbors.

Blondel, who is president of the Red Hook West Houses Residents Association and a longtime climate activist, earned one of five annual “David Prize” awards on Wednesday in recognition of her advocacy on behalf of residents in New York City Housing Authority apartments. She said she is putting the $200,000 in prize money toward boosting a nonprofit she founded to give her neighbors a louder voice in policy and planning.

The David Prizes, a local version of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grants,” were created by developer David Walentas and are awarded each year by the Walentas Family Foundation to honor New Yorkers working on behalf of their communities.

The money comes with “no strings attached,” according to the David Prize website, but Blondel said she plans to invest the funds back into the Public Housing Civic Association, which she started, and to create fellowships for young residents who want to pursue careers in law, public health, real estate and other fields — with the expectation that they give a percentage of their time back to public housing down the road.

“Red Hook has 3,000 apartments. I think I can find 20 people who are interested in being a lawyer, who are interested in being a pilot, who are interested in being an urban planner,” she said. “I think that we need to really offer these things and offer pathways that encourage them to not only become the best you, but also to give back to your community.”

The sprawling public housing complex is split into two sections: Red Hook West, with about 3,100 residents and 1,480 apartments, and neighboring Red Hook East, with another 3,000 residents in roughly 1,400 units.

Blondel said the award doesn’t just recognize her work, it reflects the resilience of Red Hook Houses residents, who have contended with disinvestment, weathered Superstorm Sandy without hot water or electricity, and now live amid a major construction project meant to shore up the complex against future flooding.

Blondel said residents have long come together in the face of systemic problems and structural racism, illustrated by the elevated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that severs the Red Hooks Houses and surrounding blocks from the rest of the borough.

“That actually incubated us into what we are now,” she said. “We are a really powerful community that is organized. And so out of something bad, came something good.”

One of her proteges agrees with the assessment.

Quincy Phillips, a recent college graduate who returned home to work at the nonprofit Red Hook Initiative, said Blondel’s award represents her hard work, and the community she calls home.

“I like to think of Red Hook as a huge family,” Phillips said, “We’ve got each other’s backs. Whatever problems that happen here, we all come together, we all fight, we rally, we protest, we stay outside and we do what we have to do.”

Eleven years after Hurricane Sandy, large-scale resiliency projects continue to take shape on the campuses, with construction crews replacing roofs and installing new flood-resistant “utility pods” across the complexes. During a visit late last month, workers atop scaffolding hammered away at bricks outside tenants’ apartments, while others dug into the earth to install underground utility lines. Absorbent cement plazas sat behind mesh fencing.

Erika Boll, the David Prize’s executive director, said Blondel was selected because of her various roles advocating for residents of public housing, and her commitment to sustainability.

“She is on the ground daily. She is really clearly improving the daily lives of New Yorkers, and in particular of public housing residents, which we see as a really critical part of the fabric of New York City,” Boll said.

Blondel, 60, moved to the Red Hook Houses in 1982 after the birth of her first child changed her plans to join the Navy. Blondel said she was living in a homeless shelter when she was selected for an apartment. She has worked on Sandy recovery efforts and various infrastructure projects as an engineering assistant, led activism to include local NYCHA residents in Gowanus neighborhood rezoning plans and served as an environmental organizer for public housing residents.

She started her professional career as a commercial cook and caterer, inspired by the “stuff from buckets” she said she was served during a short stint in the Job Corps program as a teen.

“Food is fuel, and if you’re constantly putting chemicals in your body, then you’re not really getting the nutrition that you need to function properly,” Blondel said.

A tour of the Red Hook Houses and surrounding blocks last month demonstrated that concept, starting with the first-floor office of Blondel’s tenant association, where she and her staff distributed about three dozen meals to residents by noon.

Volunteers at the Wolcott Farms community garden, located in the shadow of the Red Hook Houses’ high-rise apartment buildings, grow fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and an array of greens for residents. At nearby Coffey Park, the group Pioneer Works prepared to hand out free food.

And a few blocks away, Blondel met with neighbors, staff and other community members at the office of the Red Hook Initiative, where a local chef was serving homemade tacos to all comers. That focus on local business highlights another one of Blondel’s concerns.

“It’s really important that we start raising up peoples’ skill sets,” she said. “We have to find a way to start bringing in our young people by turning them into entrepreneurs.”

Her citywide organization focuses on infrastructure and the impact of the climate crisis and sustainability efforts on NYCHA residents, while also educating tenants about basic rules and rights, such as what tasks they can expect maintenance workers to perform.

She said the group also gives residents a voice when it comes to crafting policies that affect them.

“We can figure out where the priority should be for this development,” she said.

One of those policies is the newly created Preservation Trust model for building management, which will switch the source of funding for NYCHA apartments but maintain public control of the complexes.

Tenants at some complexes will soon have the opportunity to vote on whether to enter the program, which supporters, including Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul, say will unlock billions in new funding. Blondel sits on the newly formed board of the Preservation Trust and said many residents remain in the dark, or opposed to the concept.

“I still feel like public housing residents are disorientated as to what’s going on,” she said. “I want to know what’s going on from the inside so we can be prepared.”

Read More: Brooklyn public housing leader wins $200K prize, plans to support Red Hook neighbors

2023-09-07 00:34:00

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