When Nas famously quipped “Straight up shit is real and any day could be your last in the jungle,” he had good reason. The year was 1994, the album was his debut, Illmatic, and where he was coming from—Queensbridge, in Long Island City, Queens—was one of the most dangerous housing projects in New York. But with its low crime rates, banned trans fats and new skyscrapers, New York City is a far from what it was 20 years ago. Given all that’s changed, is Queensbridge still the dungeon of rap?
The housing projects that raised Nas fall in the 114th police precinct, and since the year 2000, major crimes—murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and grand larceny of a motor vehicle—have dropped 39 percent. But crime across all of New York is down, and a closer look at the numbers reveals that in recent years there has been a slight uptick in crime in the QB. Last year, there were 72 major crimes reported, the highest of any housing project in the borough. These certainly aren’t the bad old days of the pre-Giuliani era, but there is still something inherently dangerous about the area.
Other harbingers of change, like real estate, also show that Queensbridge is getting better. Many residents of the housing projects live in apartments subsidized by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and according to the NYCHA, monthly rent is around $445. Yet if you walk a few blocks east of the projects, a two-bedroom condo lists for $799,000, while another is on the market for $1.23 million. Walk north, closer to Astoria, and multi-family homes, while cheaper, are going for about half a million. So if there’s a revival, it’s happening in areas nearby. The average family income for a resident in a New York City housing project still hovers around $23,000 a year. Nobody can afford to live in a gleaming Long Island City condo on that type of money.
Undoubtedly, with crime down overall and the surrounding areas more gentrified, Queensbridge is better than it was. It’s still far from perfect. If a young Nas looked outside his project window these days, he might have a little less to write about, but he certainly wouldn’t be at a loss for material. Late last month, three people got shot. A month earlier, a man was killed in front of a bodega. And QB has new problems, too. According to data released by the NYPD in 2011, the highest number of Queens-related stop and frisks took place in Queensbridge.
For Nas, sittin in da’ park in 2014 may pose a whole slew of different risks. —Paul Cantor
See also: A tour of Nas’ childhood apartment