At nation's largest housing project, slow news is good news
Holiday decorating tips have replaced drug-related shootings as headlines at New York's Queensbridge Houses.
At the same time as Ray Normandeau and his wife, Rita Frazier, began publishing news of Queensbridge Houses, this housing project was seized by a crack epidemic. Stories then chronicled gunshots, murder, and rape.
Twenty years later, articles in the "Queensbridge Enquirer" tell of more-mundane days. Recent news, now disseminated mainly online, reminded readers that parking fees were being raised to $75 a year and showcased cookie jars that double as Christmas décor.
As publishers, Mr. Normandeau and Ms. Frazier may struggle to write attention-grabbing headlines these days. But as residents, their free paper's thematic evolution is a welcome sign of renaissance.
"There is much less shooting now," says Ms. Frazier. "Now there is more news about these things going on here."
In an era when urban planners are rethinking - and in some cases razing and rebuilding - the public housing behemoths built during the last century, locals say a sense of hope is permeating the nation's largest housing complex here in Queens.
Much work still remains for this property that sits adjacent to the hulking Queensboro Bridge, across from Manhattan: on the same page as the cookie jar story, the Enquirer reported on a crime wave in the area. The average salary of Queensbridge residents is just $18,700 a year, and community leaders say 95 percent of them don't have bachelor's degrees.
But morale is rising, says the Rev. Mitchell Taylor, pastor of the Center of Hope International Church, located across the street from Queensbridge Houses.
Reverend Taylor helped found the East River Development Alliance, a nonprofit organization that seeks to build wealth for area residents through literacy programs, job training, and home ownership. This year it ran a tax preparation course, focusing on the earned income tax credit, which brought residents a quarter million dollars. "People see that [the alliance] really wants to make changes in the neighborhood," says Mr. Taylor.
As the crack wars have died down nationwide in recent years, life has calmed down here, too.
But a turning point came when Eric Gioia was elected to the City Council in 2001, Taylor and others say. Mr. Gioia, a Democrat who says he visits Queensbridge every week, immediately started a baseball league for youths.
Most important, residents say, he helped secure funding for hundreds of crime-fighting surveillance cameras that will be installed this spring throughout a complex that spans more than 3,000 apartments.
Gioia's office says quality-of-life crimes like graffiti and nuisance have dropped by 23 percent since 2002. "Before, you couldn't sit outside on a bench, you were scared.... People are working hard bringing it together,"says Nina Adams, president of the Queensbridge Tenants Association.
As activists continue to seek change, perhaps no one has taken a more public role than Frazier and Normandeau. The Queensbridge Enquirer embodies their zeal.
They started the paper after a neighbor on crutches was having trouble with an elevator's missing handle. Normandeau helped her complain, but to no avail. So they started denouncing what they saw as mismanagement and corruption, a battle that continues.
Today, celebrating the paper's 20th anniversary, they see their job as no less relevant. Tips e-mailed to them go directly to their cellphones so they can address any issue immediately. "Our newsletter was a wake-up call," Frazier says. "Things are better now, but you still got to beat the drum so they know you aren't asleep."