The first episode of Project Heat opens with an argument between a couple in an apartment in the Pink Houses, a public housing project in East New York, Brooklyn. The woman complains that they never do anything, so her boyfriend says they'll head to a Nets game—his friend has tickets. They get dressed up, head out into the hallway, and briefly wait for the elevator before deciding to take the stairs.
When they step into the stairwell, the boyfriend turns to look upwards, and is quickly shot from the landing above by a New York City police officer.
Then the action rewinds, and this time we see it from the NYPD perspective. Outside in the stairwell, a rookie police officer explains to his partner why he keeps his gun out while they patrol the projects. "You know why I have my weapon drawn. I want to be ready at all times. You know the shit that happens in these places," the officer explains. They continue their patrol. They turn a corner, and the rookie shoots the boyfriend from moments earlier. The theme music plays.
If this sounds familiar, that's because it should. In 2014, an NYPD officer shot and killed 28-year-old Akai Gurley in the stairwell of the Pink Houses while on a vertical patrol. The officer, Peter Liang, a rookie, had only patrolled the Pink Houses once before the night he killed Gurley in the darkened stairwell.
"I don't know how, but we're not dead. And we're trying to channel it into something positive." —Tiffon "Pop" Dunn
Project Heat is a web series that takes its cues from the headlines, with East New York, one of New York's toughest neighborhoods, serving as backdrop and muse. Like most web series on YouTube, the production can be a bit shaky sometimes. The actors are recruited by the creators from among the people they grew up with in the Pink Houses, and the series is shot in the hallways, lobbies, and public spaces of a housing project deemed one of New York City's "most dangerous" by at least some members of the NYPD.
"We wanted to start the show off with the Gurley shooting because we wanted to let the community know we were feeling for them," says Tiffon "Pop" Dunn, creator and star of Project Heat. "That we were all dealing with what happened to that kid."
Tiffon "Pop" Dunn. All photos by Jonah Bliss
Dunn moved to the Pink Houses when he was a teenager in 1988. So it only makes sense that Project Heat follows a family as they move from suburban Queens to the Pink Houses and get tied up in the rivalry between gangs from two sides of the development. "When I moved from Queens to the Pink Houses, the first time I moved to Pink Houses, the very first day, I saw someone get murdered," Dunn tells VICE.
In Project Heat, a family watches a man get killed over debts as they move a couch into their apartment.
But even Dunn admits that was from a different time period. "Right now, Pink Houses slowed down a lot," he says. When we talk, he's celebrating the release of the first episode of the show's second season at a Red Lobster in Gateway Center, a massive retail complex that exemplifies the changes in East New York, a neighborhood once seemingly forgotten by the NYC political establishment.
"We used to just take our bikes and ride all over the vacant lots that were here. Just go crazy back in the day," offers Dionico "Dee" Chambers, the co-star of Project Heat and a lifelong friend to Dunn.
Over the past decade, multiple official efforts have been made to help the low-income neighborhood on the edge of Brooklyn. Retail complexes like Gateway Center have popped up alongside sweeping new affordable housing developments. Some of the projects have proved controversial. A rezoning proposal by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio aims to have developers build a new mix of affordable and market rate housing, just as East New York finds itself on the new front lines of gentrification .
"It's way more expensive out here than it used to be, and we know they're coming for us," Chambers explains.
In one of the subplots of the show, a developer targets the Pink Houses for replacement with luxury housing, dispatching a henchman to turn the gangs on each other until the houses are too violent for the city to handle. Project Heat spends most of its time on that kind of violence—a source of criticism that was levied against the show after a cast member got shot during a party this summer. The next episode of Project Heat opened with an actual news report about the shooting, with the two actors who portray the leaders of the rival gangs explaining that they're not celebrating violence on the show, but giving it an outlet. "Cause at the end, when the lights and cameras go off everyone lives!" a title card reads before the episode begins.
"Listen, we're not saying it's not rough out here. Other people will test you, the police will harass you with no hesitation," argues Dunn. "But we went through that all. I don't know how, but we're not dead. And we're trying to channel it into something positive."
While the YouTube views might not be massive, Dunn and Chambers have received a level of fame within their community, with people stopping both of them on the street and asking for parts in the show. As we walk around the Pink Houses a few hours after the new season premiered, the two friends soak up congratulations, with someone yelling "Project Heat!" as they pass.
Dionico "Dee" Chambers
"Even the cops like the show," Chambers insists. "They're asking if we can give them walk-on roles, stuff like that."
While the rest of the city is focused on the criminal trial of Peter Liang—the officer who shot Akai Gurley—which could conclude as soon as Tuesday, some residents of the Pink Houses don't seem to be following it too closely. For Dunn and Chambers, they're more focused on offering their own narrative of what's going on in the projects, taking current events and wrapping them into a larger arc of life in the Pink Houses and New York.
As Dunn puts it, "This season, we're taking it to other parts of the city, and then next season, worldwide."
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