The mood at the tenant association meeting was turning ugly. The October 19 meeting had been called to kick off the process of finding and electing a new tenant association executive board at Forest Houses in Bronx.
However, in a development with over 3,000 residents, only 13 of them had shown up. New York City Housing Authority regulations require a quorum of 15 residents before the election process can advance.
Realizing they would have to postpone, those residents who had shown up started arguing over who to blame for the poor attendance. Much of their frustration was directed at current tenant association president Crystal Bunch, who they said had not done enough to publicize the meeting. This accusation dominated the discussion until Forest resident Erik Farmer spoke up to stress the importance of moving on.
“There’s going to be mistakes,” Farmer, 42, said. What the tenants needed to do, he continued, was figure out a new time to meet.
The mood calmed down almost instantly, and the meeting was quickly rescheduled for October 25. At that meeting, more than enough people showed up to form the nomination committee, which will recruit Forest residents to run for the open positions.
Farmer was the first person to volunteer for the committee, and he plans to run for tenant association president as well. His motivation is simple.
“My roots are in Forest,” he said. “This is my home. That’s why I love it so much.”
Farmer’s ability to move the discussion forward at the meeting reflects his strength as a leader. He is constantly searching for ways to improve the future of Forest Houses, regardless of the struggles his development has gone through in the past. This past April, for instance, he helped set up Forest Houses Alumni, an organization that has put on events for the community, such as an Old Timers Day party and a “Shutting Down The ‘Hood” cookout in Katonah, N.Y.
“He’s very civic-minded, always concerned about safety in the neighborhood,” said Clyde Thompson, the Youth Services Director at Forest.
Farmer’s goal as tenant association president would be to rebuild the sense of community he felt there as a child. Born in the Bronx in 1969, Farmer moved to Forest as a 1-year-old. Asking him to talk about his youth almost always elicits a smile. He was particularly fond of the weekends when different disc jockeys from the neighborhood would play music at Forest’s outdoor basketball court. Farmer described the atmosphere at these performances as peaceful and fun.
“Never any arguments, no fights, none of that stuff,” he said. “Everyone…look[ed] out for each other.”
Darrell Smalls, who grew up in Forest with Farmer, shares his idyllic recollections of their youth—to the point where he can’t think of any particular events that stand out.
“There’s so many,” he said. “So many memories.”
Driven by his love of basketball, Farmer eventually decided to leave the security of Forest Houses to attend college.
“If I wanted to play basketball,” Farmer said, “I knew I had to go that route.”
His twin cousins, who were attending Wesleyan University and the University of Virginia, also inspired him to continue his education.
“Every weekend, I would go visit them,” he said. “It kind of gave me the feel for and pushed me to go to college.”
Farmer enrolled at Allen County Community College in Burlingame, Kansas in 1987 after receiving a basketball scholarship from the school. Two years later, he transferred to Keystone College in La Plume, Pennsylvania and then to the University at Buffalo. He continued playing basketball at Buffalo and made plans with his coach to play in Puerto Rico after graduation, an arrangement Farmer described as “pretty much set up.” An unfortunate car ride, however, derailed those plans.
Farmer was driving to Buffalo from New York City with three classmates in the summer of 1990 when a bus ran their car off the road. Two of his classmates emerged unscathed, and the other only hurt his ankle. Farmer was not so lucky—the accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Instead of returning to Buffalo for another basketball season, he went to the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine for a year and then home to Forest in a wheelchair.
“It was extremely hard to deal with,” said Farmer. “But that’s one of the things I was saying about Forest: It makes you strong. Everything you had to deal with just living in the ghetto…It makes you stronger mentally, so you can pretty much deal with anything else.”
His friends helped, too, especially Smalls and Joe Jenkins, who both still live at Forest. Farmer credits them with helping him make such a difficult transition.
“They let me know it wasn’t over,” he said. “They told me not to give up.”
Farmer decided not to return to Buffalo to finish his undergraduate degree after the accident.
“After I got hurt, mentally I couldn’t do it,” said Farmer. “What pushed me so hard to keep my grades right was ball.”
Farmer spent much of the next few years in Forest trying to adapt to his new life in a wheelchair. “I know in the back of his mind, he’s disappointed about that,”“But he has accepted his disability and just moves forward.” said Jenkins, referring to Farmer’s injury.
In 1997, Farmer decided he was ready for a break from the cold New York weather and moved to Florida for 10 years, where he worked as the night auditor at a Radisson hotel. He couldn’t stay away from his home forever, though, and returned to Forest in 2007.
Farmer is currently unemployed, but his efforts to improve Forest Houses keep him busy.
And now, he hopes to be the development’s next tenant association president.
Farmer is quick to rattle off a list of things he would like to do as president: organize dances, Bingo and Broadway plays for the seniors; ice skating, bowling and basketball tournaments for the kids; and a community newspaper for everyone.
His main concern is getting people to believe in the tenant association’s ability to get things done. Farmer acknowledges that it has been “really inactive” for the past few years but maintains that once it starts holding events again its credibility will return.
“Erik is coming into an Obama situation where everything has flatlined,” said Jenkins. “So we need to build it up.”
Several Forest residents are hopeful about the prospect of Farmer as tenant association president.
“Everyone knows him, and the kids really look up to him, too. He’ll make a difference,” said Forest resident Sasha Vargas.
“Erik is the best candidate for the job,” echoed Forest resident David Boobang. “He’s a great motivator. He’s a stand-up person.”
Barbara Jenkins, a resident of Forest and a member of the nomination committee, believes one of Farmer’s key strengths will be his friends.
“Erik has a lot of people that like him, and they’ll do things to help him out,” she said.
Farmer agreed, adding that it would be a mistake to try running everything at Forest Houses by himself.
“I believe, with the help of my friends, I can make things better for the kids and seniors,” Farmer said. “At the end of the day, I’m just trying to do something good for the neighborhood.”