Marcy Houses, the 28-acre public housing project in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, is best known as a mainstay of rapper and mogul Jay-Z’s New York personality. Built in 1949 as part of an effort by the New York City Housing Authority to house the city’s low-income residents, Marcy fell into a state of dangerous disrepair in the 1970s when Jay-Z, real name Shawn Carter, it was growing up there.
“Where I’m from, son of Marcy, it’s not cool,” he sings on “Where I’m From.” “Marcy me, the way I will always be,” he declares in 2017’s Marcy Me.
But while hip-hop’s first confirmed billionaire remains intent on not abandoning his roots, residents of the Marcy Houses have expressed annoyance and skepticism at Carter’s latest venture, The Bitcoin Academy — a series of free “financial literacy” courses. offered exclusively to Marcy tenants this summer.
As of Wednesday afternoon, as bitcoin markets hit two-year lows, few residents were aware of cryptocurrency classes set to begin next week as a project sponsored by Carter and his friend and fellow cryptocurrency promoter Jack Dorsey, Twitter founder. (At least some of the pamphlets advertising the course appear to have been simply thrown on the floor of buildings.)
“It’s kind of late to do that when people are trying to hold on to their dollars and everything is so expensive,” said 58-year-old retiree Myra Raspberry. “People don’t want to invest money knowing they might have a chance of losing it.
Raspberry said he had seen news about the bitcoin crash and had no interest in taking the course.
“Every penny I get has to go to rent, phone, TV and internet. I don’t have money like that to lose. If I had, I’d try to invest in something more reliable, like last night’s basketball game. You know I will gain something from this.”
She hasn’t heard anyone talking about bitcoin in her community, she said. “People who want to make money, not lose it.” The median household income for public housing residents in New York City is $24,454, according to the New York City Housing Authority.
The 12-week Bitcoin Academy course will be taught by Lamar Wilson, who runs the Black Bitcoin Billionaire website, and Najah J Roberts, founder and CEO of a physical cryptography school in California called the Crypto Blockchain Plug.
“The simple goal is to provide people with tools to build independence for themselves and the communities around them.” Carter tweetedcalling Marcy’s course “I hope it’s the first of many”.
A Bitcoin Academy spokesperson said that participants will receive a free mobile hotspot device and a smartphone with a data plan, while attending lectures on topics such as “What is money”, “What is blockchain” and “How don’t get scaly.”
The academy also plans to grant students a small amount of bitcoin worth about $20 to $25 after they learn how to set up their own digital wallets.
The spokesperson said an open house event in Marcy over the weekend drew a large and eager crowd, mostly old and young.
But the younger tenants of Marcy Houses who spoke to the Guardian weren’t thrilled. Nyashia Figueroa, a 24-year-old resident who plans to work as a caretaker for people with intellectual disabilities, said that Bitcoin Academy seemed useless to residents.
“Half the people who go to that class probably only go to class for the $25 you make. The other half of people will probably take what they learn and forget about it in the future.”
Figueroa said the bitcoin class signified how out of touch the rapper was with his old home.
“If you want to do something, fix this place up,” she said. “We have a basketball court without hoops. Our parks are divided here. He should be doing more for his community, not Bitcoin Academy.
“The only thing I could say he really did for us was the Christmas stuff. Every Christmas he would show up and give out free toys to the kids or like wallets, perfumes and small mp3 players. That was good; bitcoin is not.”
Figueora added that the holiday giveaways haven’t been around for a while. “He stopped showing up, and then it was just his mom that was showing up for a long period of time. And now I don’t even know if they do that anymore.
“This is where he represents who he is and all that, but he doesn’t do anything for us.”
Carter directed some of his philanthropy, including scholarships and toy giveaways, to Marcy’s more than 4,000 predominantly black and Latino residents. The Shawn Carter Foundation’s last toy donation was in 2017, according to Carter’s wife Beyoncé’s website, and cost $8,452. The Shawn Carter Foundation did not immediately return a request for comment.
One Marcy resident, Luis Rivas, expressed enthusiasm for the class, saying, “I would like to learn how they become millionaires and learn what to trade and what not to trade.”
Rivas, who is unemployed, said he met Jay-Z when they were both teenagers. “Now he’s a billionaire and I’m still living in the fucking ghetto.”
Since it was announced last week, Bitcoin Academy has faced criticism from tech commentators, who accused the project of preying on financially vulnerable people. Some have compared cryptocurrency marketing to the way predatory lenders targeted people of color with subprime loans in the run-up to the 2008 housing crisis.
Cryptocurrency advocates have long championed the technology as a way to build a new financial system for low-income people.
A 2021 research paper commissioned by a major New York-based cryptocurrency exchange Gemini argued that cryptocurrency could benefit unbanked populations in Mexico, India and Indonesia.
Citing centuries-old Latin American informal financial traditions, the paper argued that cryptocurrency companies can “build and digitize” practices that “assist in the creation of wealth for poor communities and allow them to thrive in places deemed unprofitable by traditional banking standards.”
But recent cryptocurrency disasters cast doubt on that view. Last month, Earth, a so-called “stablecoin” that used an algorithm to maintain a peg to the US dollar, suddenly crashed, rendering billions of dollars worth of digital tokens worthless – and taking with it the fortunes of countless investors.
Since May, the price of bitcoin – the first cryptocurrency – has also nearly halved as more investors flee digital assets. Cryptocurrency companies are laying off hundreds of employees.
The Bitcoin Academy spokesperson acknowledged the broader uncertainty in the cryptocurrency market, but said it would not detract from the course at Marcy Houses, which would be focused on financial education. The instructors, Wilson and Roberts, did not respond to requests for comment.
Even some local cryptocurrency fans remain skeptical.
Gerald, a Brooklyn resident with friends and family living in Marcy who declined to give his last name, runs a small charity that gives people bitcoin. But even he said that “financial literacy” would not solve Marcy’s “biggest problem, which is lack of capital, lack of resources and lack of funding for our communities.”
“Teaching someone about bitcoin who doesn’t even have $100 in their savings account doesn’t help,” he told the Guardian via social media. “So of all the places to do this in Marcy Projects?! These people are just trying to survive and see the next day.”
For Gerald, the image of Bitcoin Academy flyers strewn across the floor spoke volumes.
“The fact of being on the ground like this. It honestly symbolizes how people feel about the poor in general. On the surface, it looks like people want to help, but when you start peeling back the layers, you realize that no one really cares.”