In the Vanderveer Projects, Michael K. Williams Was Another Kind of Star

Williams at the Vanderveer Estates, where he grew up. Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The New York Times/Redux

The housing project known as Vanderveer Estates consists of 59 red-brick buildings bound by Nostrand and Foster Avenues in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. One night a few months ago, the actor Michael K. Williams stood in front of one of those buildings and gave a speech. “I love my hood,” he said, hoarse with emotion. “I’m born and raised on these streets.” He was wearing a white hooded sweatshirt and white sweatpants, with a white face mask pulled down under his chin, and in the bright lights of the courtyard, he seemed to glow. Scanning the faces in the crowd, he said he had come back home to Vanderveer (or Flatbush Gardens, as it is now officially called) to deliver a message to the neighborhood’s youth. “We can be together,” he insisted. “We can love on each other. It’s possible.”

Williams gave many speeches in recent years, often on the streets of Brooklyn’s Black neighborhoods. As one of the founders of a nonprofit organization called We Build the Block, he presided over a series of unconventional gatherings throughout the borough — block parties where teenage organizers registered their neighbors to vote. He also backed a candidate for City Council, spent hours engaging groups of young people in private conversations, and traveled around the country showing a film he’d made about the incarceration of teenagers to anyone willing to see it — judges, cops, incarcerated teens themselves. When he spoke, he assumed a sort of fighting stance, his shoulders squared and nostrils flared, conveying the same combination of ferocity and tenderness that had defined his portrayal of Omar Little, one of television’s most indelible roles. Back in Vanderveer, some of his old friends called him “the prophet of the projects,” and it wasn’t hard to see why. With the white beard he sometimes wore, his intense gaze, and his fierce appeals for justice and love, he could put you in mind of the holy men of the Bible.

On Monday, Williams was found dead of a suspected overdose in his Williamsburg apartment. He was 54. This week, as the world mourned the loss of a great actor, people in Flatbush grappled with the loss of something greater. His friends and family remembered him as a rare kind of person, someone from a very hard place with a very soft heart. “Mike believed that it was important to be loved and to feel love,” his nephew Dominic Dupont said. “He showed that through how he treated people.”

Williams lived in Vanderveer until he filmed the second season of The Wire. His building overlooked a courtyard known as the Terrace. “We called ourselves Terrace Massive,” Alvin Washington, a childhood friend, recalled. “It was about 15 of us. A little crew.” Of those 15 or so friends, nearly half have died. According to Washington, only Williams and maybe one other boy avoided doing time. “Mike will tell you in three seconds, he’s not a gangster,” he said, laughing. “He was a free soul. If he felt like dancing, he danced. If he felt like crying, he cried.”

Washington was serving an eight-year sentence for robbery when The Wire came out. He and the other men in his cellblock would crowd into the day room to watch it. “Ain’t no talking when it was on,” he said. When he got out of jail, Williams gave him a box set of the series and a collection of designer clothes that people had sent him. He took him to parties and introduced him to celebrities. “I know mad people who come from where he came from and don’t pick nobody up,” Washington said. “They just brush you off, because you might still be a criminal or something, but Mike looked past that and saw the person.” Recently, Williams started a production company, Freedome, with the goal of producing work by local Black artists. He planned to cast people from the community in minor roles. “Everybody would get to eat off of it,” Washington said, “because that’s how he designed it.”

Dupont, Williams’s nephew, said he believed Williams’s vision for the company would still come to fruition. “We will continue to move forward in a direction that’s consistent with Michael’s vision for the world,” he told me. He was speaking on the phone from Williams’s apartment in Williamsburg, where, two days earlier, he had found his uncle’s body. He said the love that Williams had shown him throughout his life had, in a strange way, enabled him to get through that moment. “He helped prepare me to deal with tough situations,” he said.

Those situations included a 25-year prison sentence. When Dupont was 19, he was convicted of murdering a man who had attacked his brother. “My relationship with Mike before prison was close, and those 40-foot walls did not change that,” he said. Some 20 years into his sentence, in 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo granted him clemency, a decision that prison officials attributed to Dupont’s outstanding work as a youth counselor. Dupont, in turn, credited Williams with helping him become a leader. “Mike fostered those things in me,” he said.

Shortly before Dupont got out, he and Williams made Raised in the System, a documentary for VICE on HBO about America’s mass incarceration of teenagers. In interviews, Williams has said this was a transformative experience, the beginning of a quest to understand and address the root causes of the suffering in his community. It was through this work that he got to know Edwin Raymond, a police lieutenant and activist from East Flatbush. In 2015, Raymond and 11 other Black and brown officers had sued the city, alleging that the NYPD had pressured them to engage in discriminatory practices. Last year, Williams brought Raymond to the Academy Awards. On the red carpet, he declined to speak to any reporter who didn’t interview Raymond first. “He was someone who never forgot the hood,” Raymond said. “He used his influence as much as possible to lift up people beyond him.”

One of those people was Alvin Washington’s son, AJ. Over the past year, AJ, who is 15, has recorded dozens of episodes of a video podcast in his family’s Vanderveer apartment. Called Old2New, it features his conversations with older members of the community — “people who’s been through the street life and in jail, stuff like that,” he told me.

In February, Williams appeared on the show. For a half hour, he answered AJ’s questions with remarkable thoughtfulness and vulnerability. At one point, he observed that people deal with pain and anger in different ways. “For me, I turn my pain inward, and I hurt myself,” he said. Others hurt those around them. “So it’s all about, we gotta love each other no matter what,” he said. “We gotta lift each other up.”

“We should help each other instead of fighting each other,” AJ said, agreeing. “You don’t gotta take each other’s life.”

“You said some valuable words right there, man,” Williams replied. He looked into the distance, gathering his thoughts. “As I get older,” he said, “I start to realize that our inability to communicate with each other as Black men and women — that was on purpose. When they brought us here as slaves, they took away our language, our culture, our spirituality, our religion. They stripped all of that away from us.” He added, “I was made to slit your throat so I could eat.”

As the conversation wound down, AJ told Williams that he looked up to him. “I just want to be like you,” he said with a shy smile. Williams raised his eyebrows and wagged a finger. “Oh no, no, no,” he said. “Do me one favor, nephew. Don’t be like me. Be better than me. Stand on these shoulders and take it higher.” He assured AJ that he was already on his way. “Be great,” he said. “Greater than me. Please. You hear me?”

Michael K. Williams Never Left the Vanderveer Estates Behind