Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
At the beginning of 1934, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia founded the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). It was a moment of great need in the city, as its poorer residents struggled with a shortage of affordable homes amidst the pressures of the Great Depression. The state had just amended its housing laws of 1924, allowing the establishment of municipal housing authorities. The federal government was also moving to address issues like living standards and affordability, and the 1930s were a time of change and improvement in the availability of safe, sanitary, and economical residences for the poor and working class.
Queensbridge Houses, located in Long Island City in Queens and named for the nearby Queensboro Bridge, opened to residents in 1939. The rent for a 4 1/2 room apartment was $22.75 per month, which is about $390 in today’s dollars. (Today rent is based on a percentage of the tenant’s income and averages around $445.) In order to cut costs, elevators originally stopped only on every other floor. The Y shape of the buildings, however, was unique and was intended to provide light and fresh air to tenants no matter where their apartment was located. There remains ample outdoor space, which is augmented by Queensbridge Park across Vernon Boulevard. Indoor and outdoor community spaces that were part of the original construction remain active today, offering activities for children and seniors.
In the 1950s, the racially mixed community at Queensbridge was effectively segregated when the NYCHA moved higher income residents out of the complex, leaving mostly African American and Latino families. The complex experienced an epidemic of crime during the 1980s and 1990s, becoming one of the most dangerous housing projects in the city, but at the same time it fostered the talents of young people who went on to distinguished careers in rap and hip hop, including Nas, Havoc of Mobb Deep, and Marley Marl, to name just a few. Athletes such as basketball players Sean Green and Metta World Peace also grew up in Queensbridge. Frederick Brendan, writing about the project’s musical legacy in XXL Magazine, stated, “[T]he Bridge has produced the highest per-capita talent of any ’hood.”
The complex spans 29 six-story buildings and today houses nearly 7,000 people. Queensbridge Houses is the largest public housing project in the United States.
This blog post is presented in conjunction with the City Museum’s exhibition, Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy, on view until February 16, 2016. If you or a family member lives or lived in the Queensbridge Houses, please share your memories in the comments section. We look forward to hearing from you!