LeFrak City at 50

Prodigy was sitting in a first-class airplane cabin somewhere over the Pacific Ocean when he first put a face to the name of the New York real estate dynasty that shaped his childhood.

The rapper, one half of hip-hop group Mobb Deep, was en route to a show in Brisbane when he met a fellow passenger with likely a different travel itinerary.

“This older white lady was sitting next to me,” Prodigy said by telephone. “We started talking and, surprisingly, she was Mrs. LeFrak.  Seriously. You know how you make small talk when you’re sitting next to someone on a plane. She started telling me her story. I started telling her mine.”

A critical episode of Prodigy’s story took place in LeFrak City, the 20-building, 40-acre housing complex in Corona, Queens, that the rapper moved into in 1985. He was 11 years old and still best known as Albert Johnson. LeFrak City, on land purchased from the Astor family estate for $6 million by LeFrak Organization chief Samuel LeFrak, partially opened in 1962 with aspirations of providing a self-sufficient city within a city for middle-class New Yorkers who were taken with the development’s elevators and air conditioning—amenities rarely seen in nonluxury apartment buildings of the time. (Mr. LeFrak emphasized safety, and those elevators featured television surveillance.)

“I gave the people what they wanted at a price they could afford to pay,’’ Mr. LeFrak once said. “I took them out of public housing, out of the ghettos. I was the only one who put my name to it. I wasn’t hiding behind a ‘realty.’”

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Befitting what was often described as an urban response to Nassau County’s Levittown, there were also swimming pools and tennis courts. A 1960 New York Times article blithely noted the presence of bomb shelters to assuage Cold War-era jitters.

The bomb never dropped. But by the time Prodigy arrived at LeFrak, the bottom had fallen out. The 1980s crack epidemic accelerated the city-wide crime surge of the previous decade, in particular ravaging communities like LeFrak City that were already faltering post-white flight (the LeFrak Organization had been at the center of a discrimination suit in which the government accused it of bias against blacks). Frightened residents told the Times that LeFrak City might “suddenly decline into a slum.”

Yet despite the decay that defined LeFrak City’s first quarter-century, the complex, which is not public housing, produced a generation of stars. Former residents include NBA standouts Kenny Anderson and Kenny Smith, Sony Corporation President and Chief Executive Officer Kazuo Hirai, and musical talents spanning the unfathomably wide gulf between gangsta rap (Prodigy and Noreaga aka N.O.R.E.) and the Spin Doctors, whose bass player Mark White lived in LeFrak City.

Prodigy quickly cited LeFrak City as an influence on his career, even if it mostly served as a crucible with obstacles including gunfire and undercover cops. The crack epidemic is past. And on the heels of LeFrak’s 50th anniversary last year, broad swaths of the development are under scaffolding as renovations continue—the latest instance in which the vicissitudes of this signature apartment development mirror the ups and downs of its tenants.

“The most shocking thing [about LeFrak] was seeing a bunch of little kids my age making money off of selling crack,” Prodigy said of his first impression as a newcomer.  “All my friends were dealing drugs”

Four years before Prodigy arrived at the complex from Hempstead, on Long Island, the City Planning Commission dispatched seven housing experts to address what then-Vice Chairman Martin Gallent described as “confusion” of “crisis proportions” at LeFrak City. LeFrak Organization Director of Marketing Alvin Moskowitz referenced the development’s “ethnic problem,” citing “too many contesting tenant groups.’’

Yet what at the time seemed to be intractable fiscal, social and narcotic woes at LeFrak City and beyond had barely dissipated by the middle of the decade. The complex’s self-contained isolation from the surrounding neighborhood—it rubs up against the Long Island Expressway—likely compounded the issues.

And Prodigy was not immune to the criminal vise grip.

“I got caught up because all my friends were caught up,” he said. “And they were making money. I wanted to have that stuff too, so I started selling. And after the first couple of times, I got locked up. So I knew right away that wasn’t for me [laughs] and stopped doing it. Really as I soon as I stepped outside to do my thing, the police, the undercover cops, would run up on me.”

Despite a pervasive, graffiti-caked climate of fear at LeFrak City, Prodigy did enjoy certain freedoms thanks to his coming of age, however bleak. He “was a young kid, just at the age of being able to hang out outside at night. I started going to house parties, drinking, hanging with my friends, listening to hip-hop. And on one of my birthdays, my mother put me up with a turntable and some DJ equipment—a couple of pieces—and I started doing my thing, doing mix tapes.”

While Prodigy cut his hip-hop teeth, other LeFrak City youths succumbed to a cycle of despair. In 1986, Rogean Williams, 15, was shot in the right temple in his family’s apartment. He was declared brain-dead as police mounted a search for two teenage girls suspected of the crime.

When asked if a sense of fraternity bound the development’s nascent M.C.s together and maybe kept them out of harm’s way, Prodigy said that mixing for him was a largely solitary pursuit and that his incompetence when it came to dealing was what probably spared him a harsher fate.

“I didn’t really know too many people who rapped,” he said, adding that he wasn’t aware of of Akinyele, a slightly older hip-hopper (of dubious “Put It in Your Mouth” fame) also associated with LeFrak City. Besides, Prodigy’s turntable didn’t totally distract him from the darker corners of the complex.

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“I started high school in 1990, and that first year is when I got caught selling crack,” he said. “My mother was, like, ‘We’re out of here.’ I was getting into too much trouble. She moved to Jersey City. I ended up leaving my crib, dropping out of school and moving to [Long Island City’s] Queensbridge,” the largest public housing project in North America.

The Johnsons left a dangerous environment, but one that had already recovered from its nadir during the ’70s fiscal crisis and proceeding crack era. (During this time, in 1975, Richard LeFrak had taken over the company presidency from his father, who remained as chairman.) In 1989, LeFrak City was reported to be 99 percent rented, with a 427-person, up-to-two-year waiting list. Meanwhile, LeFrak proceeded with the $10 billion Newport mixed-use project in Jersey City, which Samuel had announced in 1985.

Both LeFrak City and Mobb Deep entered the 1990s poised for a reversal of fortune. Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet bloc and African Muslim immigrants simultaneously flooded LeFrak City throughout the first half of the decade. By 1996, these groups constituted about one-fifth of LeFrak City s 25,000 residents. This lent the complex stability and moved it further away from any early suburban aspirations toward a microcosm of the borough it had helped develop, which came to symbolize New York’s diversity as Manhattan and Brooklyn quickly gentrified.

Meanwhile, in Queensbridge, Prodigy met Kejuan Muchita (alias Havoc) and (along with Nas, who was from the same neighborhood, and Brooklyn’s Notorious B.I.G.) planted the East Coast seeds of gangsta rap, the hard-core genre already flourishing in California. In 1993, the noted 4th & B’way imprint, a hip-hop subsidiary of Island Records, released the duo’s Juvenile Hell. That album underwhelmed but set the framework for 1995’s The Infamous, which won critical acclaim, featured guests Nas, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah and went gold.

As the economies of New York and major label rap flourished in the mid-to-late ’90s, it seemed as though LeFrak City and Prodigy were delivering on what the rapper described as the development’s abiding ethos. “LeFrak wasn’t really about having beef with other ’hoods. It was about money,” he said. “Everyone was out there getting bread. That was really the reputation of Lefrak—getting money, selling drugs. That’s what I know it for.”

To outsiders, though, the development continued to be known for its improbably harmonious religious diversity. One Times article from 1996 begins like a walk-into-a-bar joke by describing “a rabbi from Tashkent, two Uzbeki Jews, a Catholic businessman, a black American who converted to Islam, a Guinean Muslim and two Argentines” talking in the complex. Still, shootings and robberies made for less utopian headlines.

Violence remained the byword in popular hip-hop as Mobb Deep followed up The Infamous with Hell on Earth (1996)—noteworthy for its 2Pac “diss track” “Drop a Gem on ’Em”—and Murda Muzik (1999), which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts and went platinum with more than 1 million in sales. Murda Muzik represented a commercial and critical high watermark for the duo, despite subsequent rap battles with Jay Z and others.

Mobb Deep continued to record as gangsta rap’s heyday clearly receded. In its place came the ostentatious bling era, followed by the genre’s near-total assimilation into the Top 40 mainstream. It was a musical rags-to-riches tale that made multimillionaires of the hip-hoppers most comfortable with selling out.

Yet Prodigy’s problems persisted, just as they did at the rejuvenated LeFrak City. In 2003—the year Samuel LeFrak died at 85—he and eight members of his entourage were arrested after police officers found marijuana, crack cocaine and an illegal handgun in two vans they’d parked near an upstate concert venue. Three years later, he and producer The Alchemist were pulled over after making an illegal U-turn. Cops found a handgun in a compartment of the car. Prodigy began a three-year jail term in early 2008.

Since his release, Prodigy has released two solo LPs, H.N.I.C. 3 and The Bumpy Johnson Album. He and Havoc say they’re wrapping up production on Mobb Deep’s eponymous eighth studio album.

I asked Prodigy if, especially in light of his time served, which coincided with the banking system collapse, he had any resentment toward the masters of the universe who emerged from that crisis scot-free. He had no ill will toward the plutocracy, including members of the LeFrak family. He had even exchanged numbers with Karen LeFrak, Richard’s wife, during that long flight to Australia. (Representatives from LeFrak, as the company is now known, declined to comment on this story.)

“It’s not her fault what’s going on in Lefrak City,” he said. “I remember people back in the day used to be talking about ‘Mr. LeFrak,’ ‘Oh, Mr. LeFrak’ and all this shit like he was some dude that owned the ’hood. But I never really paid much attention to it.”

Besides, “it was a pretty decent place to live. There were a whole lot of shady characters. But they were so preoccupied with money. It really wasn’t a problem until you got involved in that world. That’s when you might be near gunfire.”

Following a visit to LeFrak City on an inordinately pleasant mid-August day, I shared Prodigy’s impression that it was decent—and improving. Department of Buildings permits papered entrance vestibules in the midst of touch-ups. The current capital improvement campaign extends to common areas, garages, elevators and building infrastructure. An 11,000-square-foot playground and new lap pool are also in the pipeline.

LeFrak City’s buildings are named after preeminent world capitals and grouped by those cities’ geographies. London and Paris, for example, stand next to Copenhagen and Rome. Kyoto, Bali, Singapore and Mandalay rise above the Happy Dragon Children’s Learning Center. With liquor and 99 cent stores dominating its retail ring, the complex will never be mistaken for Epcot. But if you squint, the motley residents who stroll between the Masjid Nur-Allah Sunni mosque (in the Mexico building) and the United Trinity Baptist Church next door recall David Dinkins’s idealized “gorgeous mosaic.”

I spoke with one proud resident of LeFrak City who had moved into the complex shortly after it opened. “It’s not the same as it was 50 years ago,” he said. “The whole climate has changed. But they’re working on it now to improve the quality of the complex.”

Improvements and seeming tranquility aside, Prodigy doesn’t often find himself by his old Corona stomping grounds.

“I stay away from places where I really don’t have to be,” he said. “I have no business there. I’m not the type of person who goes back to the hood to drink some beers. It invites a lot of trouble. There’s a lot of jealousy and shit like that. I’m not playing games with it. It might turn out bad.”

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