Willie James “Jimmy” Pelsey, longtime leader of the Robert Fulton Houses tenant association and a voice for Chelsea’s lower-income residents for more than three decades, died on July 9 after an extended stay at St. Vincent’s Hospital. He was 74.
Pelsey became recognized as one of the staunchest advocates for the public housing complex where he lived for more than 30 years with his family, often manning the grill at community cookouts he organized for tenants.
Pelsey proved a vital link between Chelsea’s public housing community and the police in their joint effort to confront drug dealing and other criminal activity, and also created partnerships with local businesses to give back to the neighborhood through employment opportunities and block parties.
Born to Johnnie Pelsey and Catherine Taylor Pelsey on Jan. 13, 1935, in Jacksonville, Fla., Jimmy was well regarded as a chef in his home state before moving to New York City in the 1950s. Once here he began a 38-year career with the Sunray Yarn Company, where he worked as a color coordinator and dealt with some of the city’s top fashion designers before retiring in 1996.
Jimmy first got involved in community outreach through the Hudson Guild, presiding over the organization’s Cottage Club program that provided homeless and less-privileged New Yorkers with free trips to Lake Hopatcong, N.J
“He believed in helping when there was a need,” said his wife of 27 years, Earnestine Pelsey, who also volunteered with the Guild and joined Jimmy on trips to the lake. “If something wasn’t correct as far as he could see, Jimmy would jump.”
After continued work with the Guild and later as vice president of the Chelsea Community Council, Jimmy and fellow public housing advocate Phyllis Gonzalez of the Elliot-Chelsea Houses were elected to serve on Community Board 4 by then-Borough President C. Virginia Fields.
“Before Jimmy and Phyllis were on the board, there was nobody on the board that represented the people from our community that have little,” said Velma Murphy-Hill, a former Board 4 member who founded the neighborhood group Afford Chelsea and also presided over the Chelsea Community Council. She added: “He was a voice for the poor, he was a voice for the elderly, he was a voice for the youth—he was a voice for the people who didn’t have a voice. And I think that’s how he’ll be remembered.”
Gonzalez, who has served as president of the Elliot-Chelsea tenant association for more than 20 years, recalled that whenever the community board dealt with incoming nightclubs, Jimmy made sure to lobby club operators for jobs for local residents.
“Jimmy always had the children in mind,” she said, describing how the pair worked to reconcile the sometimes fractious relationships between residents of the two housing complexes. “He was basically a peacemaker, a blessing to all of us.”
Around the same time Jimmy joined the community board, he was elected president of the Fulton Houses tenant association and helped initiate a series of monthly meetings with the Police Department, elected officials and the New York City Housing Authority to comabt crime in the Fulton and Elliot-Chelsea Houses.
“Anything we needed, he was there for us,” said Deputy Inspector Stephen Hughes, commander of Chelsea’s 10th Precinct. “He put the kids in the neighborhood in a positive light and always wanted to do what was best for the community.”
Hughes explained that Jimmy was particularly instrumental in helping bring surveillance cameras to the two housing complexes last year after a string of violent incidents.
“He was the main reason it was accepted so easily,” Hughes said, noting that Jimmy helped ease residents’ concerns regarding privacy by making sure the cameras were only placed in public areas. He added that the precinct has seen a 30 percent drop in crime at the two complexes since the cameras were introduced.
“He was somebody who really understood that we all depend on each other,” said Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who worked with Jimmy to press for affordable housing in the community as luxury development increased throughout the years. “I don’t think I ever saw him without a big smile on his face, although he always made it clear that under the smile and the bright eyes was a very serious determination.”
Jimmy struck up relationships with local merchants as tenant association president, convincing many to give back to the neighborhood by contributing to holiday and block parties for the public housing community. Through this outreach, he was also able to secure jobs for the local youth at places like the Chelsea Market, which continues to support programs at the Fulton Houses today.
Jimmy was forced to step down from his post as president of the tenant association last year after having a heart defibrillator surgically implanted. However, he still remained active in the community and reprised the role of “chief cook” at 2008’s National Night Out event at the Fulton Houses, which he helped organize in conjunction with the 10th Precinct.
“It’s hard to think about [National Night Out] without Jimmy, because every year he was there,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who worked with him frequently during her decade in office.
Her fondest memory of Jimmy dates back to the citywide blackout in 2003, when Quinn went around visiting various residential buildings in the district to see how people were coping with the situation.
“When I got down to Fulton, Jimmy was outside, had the grill going, apron on,” she said, describing how he got the police to close down the street to put together an impromptu cookout by gathering food from local markets that otherwise would have been thrown out. “There was a problem, and he used his creativity and his wit to keep everyone safe,” Quinn added.
In recognition of his work with tenants, Jimmy received the Hudson Guild’s Dr. Elliot Senior Service Award last year shortly before entering St. Vincent’s. His memorial service was attended by Quinn, Gottfried, and a host of fellow colleagues from Community Board 4 and other organizations that Jimmy had contributed to.
He is survived by his wife, Ernestine Pelsey, and their children Michele Richard-Atkinson, William Richard, Lafette Richard, Joy Richard and Antoinette Stratton. He is also survived by the children of his late first wife, Grace: Catherine Youngblood, Willie James Pelsey Jr., Keith Pelsey, Cheryl Griffin and Terry Pelsey; as well as children Aubrey Aiken, Terrance Pelsey and Timothy Pelsey. Jimmy has 30 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, and is survived by sisters Emma Jean Pelsey, Lenell Smith Washington and brother Johnny Pelsey Jr.