Violence in New York City has declined steadily since 1990, when there were over 2,245 murders citywide. In 2017, there were 286 murders, the lowest number in decades. But in highly segregated Black, Brown, and low-income communities, violence remains a public health issue. Between 2010 and 2014, the average Black New Yorker lived in a neighborhood with an average of 7.1 violent crimes per 1,000 residents each year. For Latino residents, the rate was 5.9 per 1,000. In comparison, the average violence rates for Asian and White New Yorkers were 3.4 and 2.7 crimes per 1,000 residents.
Queensbridge Houses, in Long Island City, is the largest housing project in the U.S. and until recently has struggled with high rates of gun violence. The development, which was opened in 1939, spans six blocks and includes 96 buildings. Of the over 300 public housing developments in New York City, Queensbridge is one of 15 that account for 20% of all violent crime in the system.
In the 1950s, a policy that segregated public housing led to the transferral of most of the White families in Queensbridge to middle-income housing projects. Today, Queensbridge is 60% Black and 30% Latino. 38% of its residents live below the poverty line. But Long Island City, the surrounding neighborhood, is one of NYC’s most rapidly gentrifying areas. LIC is 43% White, and just 18% of its residents live below the poverty line. The median household income at Queensbridge Houses is $15,000. Just across the expressway, in the high-rise apartments in Hunters Point, the median income is $133,000.
696 Build Queensbridge is a community organization that has been working to reduce and prevent violence in Queensbridge Houses since 2016. 696 is a chapter of Cure Violence, a national anti-violence organization whose prevention model is based on the idea that violence is a contagious disease and a threat to public health. Staff members mediate conflict situations to prevent the escalation of violence, work with high-risk youth to direct them away from violence, and try to change community norms around the issue. In 2016, the first year the program was implemented in Queensbridge, there were no shootings for over 359 days.
Cure Violence’s program is designed to be led by community members. Almost all of 696’s staff is from Queensbridge, and most have been incarcerated. They are what 696 calls credible messengers: they are trusted by the community, have experienced the disease of violence in their own lives, and now serve as “antibodies that can fight against it.”