Crime / Housing

Watching the block: Three women look back – and ahead – on Kelly Street

Ajhani Ayres

Lonnie Brice, Jennifer Foster and Carolyn Waring in the Kelly Street Garden.

Trio of lifelong residents seek to revive Longwood’s neighborly spirit

There were years when they kept their doors unlocked, where neighbors could walk from apartment to apartment, where the place felt like family. There were years when entire blocks burned, just feet from their front stoops. And there were years after that, when parks were built and buildings saved, but drugs and violence also took hold of the sidewalks.

Over a half a century, three women on Kelly Street have seen it all. They came as teenagers, and now, as they enter their 60s, they are trying to reclaim some of that “togetherness” they say they once found there by resurrecting the Kelly Street Block Association. The motto, they say, will reflect the things they value most: Community, Unity, and Togetherness of Spirit.

“We’ve got gold here on Kelly Street and we’re holding on tight,” said Lonnie Brice, 57. “I have security here and I have convenience here, I feel the most safe and comfortable here. I wouldn’t trade that for nothing.”

Brice has known Kelly Street as home since 1965. Back then, she was best friends with the daughter of Frankie Lee and Nannie B. Potts, who owned nine of the buildings on Kelly between Intervale and 163rd. The two later became roommates.  “We had us a good ol’ bachelorette pad,” Brice said with a chuckle. The five-bedroom apartment they shared was about $64 in rent at the time. “Man, times was good— everything was cheap and we’d just all have a good time,” Brice said. And for the less fortunate residents, “rent parties” were thrown in their honor to help them to pay the bills.

“Around here it wasn’t about if one is down then we all are down, it’s more like if one is down we all give a hand or what we can, to help them up,” Brice said.

Carolyn Waring in the Kelly Street Garden.

Carolyn Waring and Jennifer “Hopie” Foster moved to Kelly Street the next year, in 1966. The pair and their brother William Waring were taken in by the Potts couple, after Carolyn at age 15 gave birth to a daughter with the Potts’ son, Frankie Jr. This allowed all three Waring kids to escape a rough existence with their aunt and uncle following their mother’s death. “We were beaten, starved and treated horribly,” said Waring. “I remember in the winter time having to put cardboards in my shoes and getting beat for outgrowing my clothes.”

Frankie and Nannie Potts and their six children were not just family to the Waring siblings; many who grew up in the area referred to them as “Mommy and Pop” as well. “I will forever love them– they are two of the best people in the world,” Waring said.

While Waring and Frankie Jr. never married, it was there, at 924 Kelly, that she raised her two daughters, with the help of their grandparents. Up the street at 928 Kelly St. Foster, would marry Robert Foster Sr. and the couple would raise three children. Between the two women, they have 18 grandchildren.

In a city known for transience—every year, more than 200,000 move in and out – the three women’s permanence would become unique, even on Kelly Street. While these residents dug in, the block weathered the tests of each decade, from the fires of the 1970s to the crack epidemic of the early ‘90s to the drug trade still thriving there now.

When the sisters arrived in the neighborhood, the population of census tract 87 – roughly nine square blocks in the triangle between 163rd, Longwood Avenue and Fox Street – was nearly 15,000. One decade later, in 1980, the population was 3,500. Just one out of every five residents was left, according to census statistics gathered by former Lehman College professor William Bosworth. As Longwood and Hunts Point burned, building after building was abandoned for the suburbs, for Coop City, for places north.

“They weren’t going to stay here for that,” Waring said.

Aerial view of census tract 87 in 1996.

By 1990, the population had crept up to 4,849 (the population today is nearly 5,500), but housing conditions were on the decline. In 1987 the elder Potts moved back to their native Mississippi, leaving their nine buildings in disarray. As management changed, so the times were altered as well. Brice underwent some frightening ordeals but one in particular continually haunts her.

“Rats! They were running across my chest and my legs while I was sleeping,” Brice recalled. “One night it sounded like a thunderstorm — it sounded like the rats were coming through the wall. My Rottweiler and my cat were both afraid of them.”

In that first decade when the three teens first arrived on Kelly Street, nearly 70 percent of the housing stock in Community District 2 – Hunts Point and Longwood – was destroyed by fire. Just at the corner, the entire block that is now Bill Rainey Park was reduced to rubble.

It was this void that local residents wanted to fill, forming the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association in 1978 to reclaim and rebuild the few buildings remaining. Using the motto, “Don’t Move, Improve,” the organization bought and rehabbed buildings, started youth employment programs and organized tenants. But by the early 2000s, Banana Kelly’s buildings too were in disarray – poorly kept and managed, and on the verge of bankruptcy. Still, these women stuck, and eventually joined forces.

“I stayed because I knew no place else—I couldn’t just up and leave,” Brice said. “I wasn’t about to call nowhere else home.”

The turning point came when the block was renovated in 2011-12. Banana Kelly along with WorkForce Housing reconstructed five of the buildings on Kelly Street, including both 940 and 924 Kelly Street. With this spurred a renewal for the entire neighborhood. “The worst has passed,” Brice said.

Banana Kelly, now with a new board and staff, pushed the women to take their community into their own hands and make their dreams of a better Kelly Street come alive. In return, Banana Kelly has also provided Waring and Foster with a platform to advocate for Kelly Street.

“They understand the nuances of their community in a way that we can’t,” said Eric Goldfischer, lead community organizer for Banana Kelly.  “The sisters articulate, but most importantly, they act.”

Though they are striving for the same cause, the sisters differ in approach. “Carol never gives up and that’s why things around here get done; and Hopie knows how to meet people where they’re at,” Goldfischer said.

Even with this recent burst of energy around the revamping of their block, Brice, Foster and Waring still observe a void in community participation and efforts. The idea of a block association was one way, they hoped, to get more people involved.

“Ghettos are not somebody else’s problem, ghettos are our problem,” Waring likes to say.

Started a year ago in June with seven core members, the group now meets once a month and so far has put together workshops on money management, job protocol and fire safety; an annual summer block party; and a summer internship for teenagers to work in the Kelly Street Garden. One challenge, they said, is to cater to the diverse demographic of the neighborhood, and make sure everyone is heard. In 1970, there was a Hispanic majority of 60 percent with the rest of the population largely black; by 2010, that number was 78 percent.

“The block association is the eyes, ears and limbs for the community,” said Faye Bonas, a resident and the data collector for the Kelly Street Block Association.  Bonas analyzes and keeps information gathered at the meetings held by the board, that way, they can assess what is needed or lacking in the neighborhood.

One of the first things the block association did was circulate a survey in April building by building as well as at neighborhood businesses asking residents to identify the areas in which they needed help the most. “This is a place for us to exchange ideas,” Waring said.

Still, the association has not been able to capture the attention of its youth. So last summer the block association brought back an old-time tradition: a block party. “We haven’t had a block party since the 1980s, how sad is that?” Waring said.

Known for its violence and drug activity, the women hit a brick wall when police refused to patrol the event. So the Kelly Street women turned to some local, if questionable, residents for help.

“The drug dealers were our security for the event,” Foster said while chuckling. “They came out and wore white T-shirts and you know what? It was a peaceful and joyous time. For the first time I saw the old Kelly Street — everyone was happy and together.”

Since last year’s block party drew more than 250 Kelly Street residents and others from neighboring streets, the association is currently planning another for August 15. But until then, the sisters are hoping to bridge the gap between the residents and the 41st Precinct, integrate Kelly Street’s older residents with the rest of the block, and, through the planting of fresh fruits and vegetables in the Kelly Street Garden, promote healthier eating. All their efforts are focused on one thing: making sure the neighborhood is the kind of place their children and grandchildren will want to stay as long as they did.

“There’s no other place you can have so much danger and safety at the same time,” Foster said. “We feel hopeful that it can change.”

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