The name Eleanor Bumpurs entered the sad pantheon of New York City tragedies on Oct. 29, 1984.
Bumpurs was a 66-year-old Black public housing tenant facing eviction for withholding rent over what she said was NYCHA’s failure to address her repair requests. Confronted by cops who broke into her apartment in the Sedgwick Houses in The Bronx, she allegedly swung a kitchen knife at them and they killed her with a shotgun.
A wave of outrage erupted. How could the cops — and NYCHA — have bungled the situation so badly?
All governmental participants were well aware that Bumpurs had been experiencing a mental health crisis in the days leading up to the shooting, and yet she wound up dead.
More than 36 years later, the Bumpurs family again confronts the failures of the city’s public housing authority.
This time, it is Eleanor Bumpurs’ great-granddaughter — named Eleanore Bumpurs, with an extra “e” — who wasn’t even born when her kin was killed. But some of the similarities of their problems with NYCHA are striking.
Eleanore Bumpurs, 32, also lives in public housing in The Bronx and has been fighting with NYCHA for years to address a litany of requests to remedy squalid conditions she says threaten the health and safety of her and her two children.
Her now 7-year-old son was lead-poisoned while living in the Forest Houses in Morrisania.
The family’s bathroom floor is collapsing, the paint on the hallway wall is peeling off in huge chunks and until recently Bumpurs had to use a wrench to turn her shower on and off. She is furious that she finds herself fighting some of the same battles her great-grandmother did so many years ago.
And that is because 36 years after Eleanor Bumpurs was killed inside her public housing apartment, the same sad pattern of deterioration and unanswered repair requests remains endemic at NYCHA.
In fact, over the last year, the number of those open requests has risen to an all-time high of more than 475,000 that have yet to be remedied.
“It’s ridiculous,” Bumpurs told THE CITY in an interview last week.
“Housing and my family is like bittersweet,” she added, using the shorthand “Housing” many tenants employ when discussing NYCHA. “I feel like Housing had something to do with the death of my great-grandmother.”
‘Bizarre Bureaucratic Logic’
The chain of events preceding the killing of Eleanor Bumpurs began with her requests for NYCHA’s help.
In September 1982, 64-year-old Eleanor Bumpurs moved into the Sedgwick Houses, a 1950s public housing development that sits next to the George Washington Bridge in Morris Heights. At first, Bumpurs regularly paid her $98.65 monthly rent on time
But in April 1984, she stopped sending rent checks.
Three months later, when a NYCHA manager knocked on her door to warn her she faced eviction, she refused to let him in and declared she was withholding rent until housing workers made needed repairs in her apartment. That included a broken stove, a busted hallway light and a broken pipe in her bathroom, she said.
NYCHA officials contended they tried to address her concerns but that she refused to allow employees into her apartment and began to display signs of mental illness.
In a September 1984 phone call with a NYCHA manager, Bumpurs said she still couldn’t use her stove or bathroom — but now she was blaming unnamed “people” who had “come through the windows, the walls and the floors” and had “ripped her off.”
NYCHA said that maintenance staff eventually gained entrance to the apartment, but found the stove and lights worked. In the bathroom, they say they discovered cans filled with human waste in the tub and were unable to determine the state of the pipe.
Shortly after, a psychiatrist working for the city Department of Social Services was sent to interview Bumpurs.
During an Oct. 25, 1984 visit, the psychiatrist noted that when he arrived, Bumpurs gripped a kitchen knife, but put it down when they began talking. He later testified that he believed she held the knife as a kind of “security blanket,” and that he didn’t feel threatened.
He did, however, file a report stating that he believed she had suffered a psychotic break and couldn’t discern reality from fantasy. He recommended that she be hospitalized.
In a 1988 memoir, Mario Merola, the Bronx district attorney at the time of Bumpurs’ killing, wrote about the case: “In a bizarre illustration of bureaucratic logic, the Social Services supervisor decided that the best way to help Mrs. Bumpurs was first to evict her, then to hospitalize her.”
Giuliani Declined to Prosecute
Four days later a warrant for eviction was issued, and on Oct. 29, 1984, NYCHA staff, a Social Services caseworker and members of what was then the Housing Police prepared to enter the apartment.
When Bumpurs refused to open the door, the Housing cops summoned members of the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit, who were supposed to be trained to deal with individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, to assist in the eviction.
That, however, did not help in the moments that followed.
Cops removed the lock and entered the apartment. All told, four ESU cops and a sergeant in full battle regalia with shields and gas masks squeezed into the small space.
They found her sitting in a corner holding a 10-inch kitchen knife. As they approached with shields and a Y-shaped device meant to hold back resisting individuals, they say she rushed at them with the knife.
She repeatedly struck the shield of one ESU cop, who fell back, knocking over another officer. A third fired a shotgun blast at her, striking her hand, then squeezed off a second blast to her torso that ultimately killed her.
The cop who fired the bullets was initially charged with manslaughter but later acquitted by a Bronx judge in a non-jury trial. Then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani declined to bring federal charges, saying the prosecution of the case at the state level had been fair.
The death of Eleanor Bumpurs shook the city and exposed the NYPD’s inability to deal with the mentally ill — a challenge that still plagues the department.
For a brief time, the killing spurred talk of reform and prompted more training for more cops. But 36 years later, the city is still having the same conversations about fatal police interactions with those in crisis.
A Family’s Anger
One of Bumpurs’ daughters, Mary, filed a $10 million lawsuit against NYCHA that was quietly settled in 1990 for $200,000. At the time, Eleanor Bumpurs’ namesake great-grandchild was just 2 years old.
Speaking last week with THE CITY, Eleanore Bumpurs recounted how an event that happened before she was born has shaped her life. Her father, James Bumpurs, gave Eleanore the name of her great-grandmother “to honor her name because the whole aspect of the situation, it wasn’t the way” it’s portrayed.
And ever since she was old enough to learn about the incident, she’s been trying to find out more from relatives.
“The death of my great-grandmother really messed up my whole family,” Bumpurs said. “It’s still a sore soul-touching subject for the family. They still get angry about it.”
She has read the newspaper articles and seen the headlines about her namesake’s mental illness, along with the brutal details of her death.
The historic and legal record portrays her great-grandmother as “the disabled woman, she was crazy,” Bumpurs said.
“What I’m getting from my family is something completely different then the newspapers,” she added. “I’m still trying to find out something more about my great-grandmother.”
Her sister, Quinntae Bumpurs, 30, wrote a report while in high school about the death of their great-grandmother and the fallout that ensued.
“I went to the library and looked it up. I asked my father” about her, Quinntae Bumpurs said. “I got an ‘A’.”
‘The Same Sad Picture’
Quinntae Bumpurs has been on NYCHA’s infamous waiting list for years seeking placement in a public housing apartment. Bumpurs’ namesake great-grandchild has been living in NYCHA’s Forest Houses for 11 years.
While residing in one Forest Houses apartment on Tinton Avenue, she says, her son, at age 4, registered a blood-lead level of seven micrograms per deciliter. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) advises health care intervention for any young child with an elevated level of five or above.
Bumpurs said when NYCHA was notified of this in 2015 by the city Health Department, officials simply relocated her to another Forest Houses apartment. She said NYCHA, to her knowledge, has never tested for lead in either apartment.
In her current unit, a two-bedroom flat on Trinity Avenue, she said she has struggled with a host of problems that NYCHA either took weeks to remedy or has yet to address.
A year ago, she said, the knob in her shower broke, forcing her to use a wrench to turn on the water. Following months of waiting for NYCHA to respond to her repair request, she said, she called 311 and filed a complaint. Shortly after, NYCHA workers showed up to do the job she’d requested months before.
More recently, the floor of her bathroom began to collapse. The gray-and-white tiles are falling apart, and she and her children have to work their way around the weak spot to get into the tub.
She put in a repair request Jan. 4, but as of Friday, NYCHA had not yet responded. Last week, the beige paint in her front hallway began to curl off the wall in huge sheets.
On the wall of her living room hang about a dozen family photos, but there are none depicting her great-grandmother.
Eleanor Bumpurs’ namesake says she has found only two pictures, though she believes neither reflects the person her great-grandmother was so many years ago.
“She looks so sad and it makes me so angry,” she said. “When you pull up her name all you see is the same sad picture.”