Selena M. Blake lived at Queensbridge Houses during the many years when the gunfire of drug dealers crackled through the night and confirmed the public’s view of the projects as a place of mayhem and menace.
Once, right from her mother’s bedroom window, she saw one man fire at another and miss. Another time, while shopping, she had to drop to the ground after she heard the pop-pop of bullets. The gritty setting inspired a legion of rappers.
Yet Ms. Blake, 43, also knew a Queensbridge that never made the news, a place where bus drivers, postal workers and seamstresses kept an eye on one another’s children in the courtyard jungle gyms, and borrowed potatoes to finish off a stew. She felt so secure that she often forgot to lock her door. In the late 1990’s, it was a drug dealer who banged on it to let her know that the police were towing her car. “They look out for you here,” she said.
“Everyone here knows we’re all on the same level,” she said. “You’re not better than I am. I’m not better than you. We’re just trying to raise our kids.”
She had such great affection for Queensbridge, a checkerboard of six-story brick buildings along the East River in Long Island City whose 3,142 apartments and 7,054 tenants make it the nation’s largest public housing project, that she wanted to correct the distorted portraits of life there. So a year and a half ago, with no experience producing films, she set out to make a documentary about Queensbridge.
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She paid a camera crew $1,000 a day to film interviews with residents and former residents like the basketball star Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers — known in the projects as Ron-Ron — until her money ran out. Then she cajoled Gregory O. Larkin, a filmmaker whom she met at a party in TriBeCa, to shoot the remaining film and edit it in her cramped apartment, where a bicycle takes up half the kitchen. She paid him $200 a week, and he taught her to operate a camera.
Ultimately, she and Mr. Larkin conducted 82 interviews and shot 75 hours of film. She estimates that she spent $100,000 — most of it from a half-dozen credit cards she used to the maximum, several thousands of dollars in loans from friends and relatives, and earnings from a patchwork of jobs including cooking for a catering firm, modeling and acting for commercials and appearing as an extra on TV shows.
An incomplete version of the hourlong film, “Queensbridge: The Other Side,” was shown last month to current and former residents in a screening nearby at the American Museum of the Moving Image. The film, while a little rough in spots, does not mince words about its dark side, particularly the 1980’s and 1990’s, when crack, and resulting turf wars, made it, like much of the city, a danger zone. In 1986, there were 4 murders and 151 assaults within Queensbridge’s borders.
The movie suggests that residents treated the problem as they would a spell of bad weather, taking sensible precautions like keeping their children home late at night in the same way that Floridians board up windows for a hurricane. “This is the place where if you don’t have common sense, you learn it very fast,” Ms. Blake likes to say.
And it tries to resolve a paradox about low-income projects: why places that have become a synonym for human misery should boast long waiting lists. Right now, 326 families are waiting to get into Queensbridge.
The film rapidly crosscuts interviews between “thugs,” as it calls the troublemakers, and current and former residents who have made good. The latter include State Supreme Court Justice Carol Edmead; Mr. Artest, who baby-sat for Ms. Blake’s son, Daniel Brown; Todd Craig, an instructor at Queensborough Community College who earned a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education; and such hip-hop luminaries as the rappers Marley Marl and Capone.
“What I liked about Queensbridge was the roar of car wheels going over the bridge — there was a certain hum — and it was very meditative for me,” he said. “I used to go over to the park and write lyrics and dream and look at Manhattan. One day, I was going to take over Manhattan.”
Ms. Blake, who still has the lilt of her native Jamaica, was a young mother when she moved to Queensbridge in 1987 with her mother after living in an apartment in East Elmhurst, Queens. She was put off by knots of street-corner idlers. But meeting neighbors changed her impressions. In an interview, she said that when she had no money, “the Spanish family on the second floor would feed me.” She starts the film by flashing statistics that disprove some popular notions. Only 21.6 percent of Queensbridge’s tenants receive welfare, and, excluding the elderly, almost all the rest are employed, though Queensbridge’s average gross annual income is less than $20,000 and the average rent is a little more than $300 a month The average tenant has been there 16 years.
Queensbridge, one of nation’s earliest projects, was built in 1939 by the administration of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Many early residents were veterans of World War II. The film highlights a group of elderly Italian-American women, who in the 1950’s called themselves the 12th Street Girls, and other early tenants who recalled that friends were envious of amenities there, like elevators and incinerators, and bathtubs that were in the bathroom, not the kitchen. None of the 12th Street Girls live there anymore.
The residents recall the time Sugar Ray Robinson visited Queensbridge to show children at the Jacob Riis Settlement House, the community’s social center, how to box. Riis was also where the actor Mel Johnson Jr. learned to tap-dance 16 shuffles and a time step, a skill he used when he appeared in the Broadway musical “Eubie.”
Justice Edmead, an African-American who lived in the projects from 1951 to 1965, recalled the friendships between black and white families in one of the few city neighborhoods where the races lived together.
“We were all in this pot together, this pot called Queensbridge Houses,” she said. “Everybody looked out for everybody else’s children. If you did something in the street, they would take care of you right there, and it was never a question that the neighbors couldn’t do it.”
Whites, though, began moving out in the late 1950’s. Some moved because they were earning enough to afford moderate-income projects that had opened, like nearby Ravenswood. Others left because they did not feel comfortable when blacks became the majority.
By the mid-70’s, when Mr. Craig, the college instructor, was born, life was harder, though a sense of community still held fast. “When I was growing up, I knew somebody was a crack head, but that was somebody’s mother,” said Mr. Craig, 31. In some frames of the movie, a man known as Uptown Ali, who spent 11 years in prison for selling drugs, is shown returning to Queensbridge to encourage teenagers to stay off them. “I was part of the ones messing the projects up,” he says. “So now I think it’s only right for me to help clean it up now.”
Life in Queensbridge has improved with the overall drop in crime. Residents say drug dealing has plummeted since February, when Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the United States attorney in Brooklyn, announced the arrests of 37 people for selling drugs on “the Hill,” as Queensbridge’s shopping plaza is called. In 2004, there were no murders and just 25 assaults, according to Housing Authority statistics.
Ms. Blake hopes her filmwill help polish Queensbridge’s image.
“If kids today will say ‘I don’t have to feel bad because I’m from the projects,’ it will be worth it,” she said.
Original article can be found here: The New York Times