By Bill Parry
There was a time, not long ago, when the nation’s largest public housing development was also one of the most violent, but last week, community members, elected officials and members of the NYPD came together to celebrate 365 days without gun violence at the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City.
In the 1980s and ‘90s Queensbridge was a major site for drug dealing and crime and in 1986 it had more murders than any NYCHA complex in the city. Still today Queensbridge is one of 15 developments that account for 20 percent of all violent crime in public housing, according to the NYPD’s crime statistics.
To combat that trend, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety in June, 2014. As part of that initiative, the Jacob Riis Settlement House was invited to implement a Cure Violence program, funded by City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), aimed specifically at decreasing incidences of gun violence among young people ages 16 to 24.
“It took concerted efforts from many people and organizations to reach this victory,” Van Bramer said. “Today’s Queensbridge is a far cry from years past, when residents complained of regular shootings and violence. I look forward to working with all of our community partners to extend the 365 days of peace for days, months, and years to come.”
In December 2015, Riss Settlement launched 696 Build Queensbridge as part of the Cure Violence program named for the six blocks of the Queens Houses complex with its 96 buildings.
The program’s manager, Kristofer Bain, led a similar effort in South Jamaica, which also logged 365 days without a shooting in 2015. Bain was honored at the Jacob Riis Settlement House last week along with six other key individuals in the non-violence effort.
“On almost a daily basis we are engaging with high-risk youth and have interrupted hundreds of potentially violent activities,” Bain said. “Ninety-nine percent of the staff has been formerly incarcerated.”
The team has organized several events such as an anti-violence walk through the neighborhood, a public screening of a documentary on the effects of violence, and a community cookout with the Queensbridge Tenants Association and Fathers Alive in the Hood, also known as FAITH. Many more plans are in the works for year two, such as offering child care to participants, opening a juice bar, starting an employment program and creating an extensive referral network for those in need of legal aid, mental health, counseling and employment.
Van Bramer noted other approaches that helped lead to the year of peace at Queensbridge, including greater investments in arts and after-school programs at the Jacob Riis Center and nearby schools, better security features like15 light towers and 360 cameras, and improved community engagement from PSA 9 patrol unit and the 114th Precinct.
State Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan (D-Long Island City), whose grandmother’s family moved into Queensbridge shortly after it opened in 1939, thanked April Simpson, the president of the Queensbridge Tenants Association, Chris Hanaway, the executive director of the Riis Settlement House and Bishop Mitchell Taylor, the founder of Urban Upbound.
“It has been an honor to participate in this wonderful ceremony to commemorate a one-year anniversary of peace in Queensbridge Houses,” Nolan said. “I look forward to continue working with everyone to ensure that Queensbridge remains a safe place to live for all its wonderful residents.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr