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Nina Adams: Queensbridge crusader

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Queensbridge Tenant Association President Nina Adams knows what it means to fight an uphill battle.

Adams, 55, has been facing down one of the largest bureaucracies in the city on behalf of nearly 15,000 Queensbridge Houses public housing development residents since 1997. Their problems - poor security, lack of services, broken elevators - become her own.

"It's a tough struggle, but I just won't sit back," she said in an interview at her sixth-floor home on 12th Street, at the southern end of Queensbridge Houses.

The walls of her Long Island City apartment are covered with plaques recognizing her work in the community, and the shelves are crowded with pictures of her 10 grandchildren and one newborn great grandson. Although her children have moved to other parts of Queens, Adams said she has no intention of leaving.

"They say that nothing good comes out of public housing, but we've got a lot of good people in public housing," she said. "They don't realize that."

As president of the Tenant Association, the official body representing the 12,000 Queensbridge residents, Adams fields complaints about the 3,100 apartments in the complex and lobbies city, state and federal officials for programs to benefit residents. Like so many civic leaders in other parts of Queens, Adams' involvement began with concern about her own family's welfare.

She was born in Pennsylvania and raised in the Bronx, attending elementary school there and high school in Manhattan. She left school to marry and moved to Jamaica with her husband and young family. After about five years there, she moved in 1978 to Queensbridge Houses, where she raised two daughters and a son.

"Back then you weren't worried about them being outside or things like that," she said.

But by the late 1980s, a crack-fueled epidemic of gun violence made shootings an almost daily occurrence. Adams said she tried to keep her children close to home, having them invite their friends over rather than wandering in the streets.

"My house always stayed full, and I did a lot of cooking," she said. "Now that's the way my children are with their kids."

Eventually, the violence abated - "thank God we don't have that complaint anymore," she said - and Adams became more involved with the Queensbridge community.

Once she had grandchildren, Adams began looking for activities for them. The day she took them to sign up for the Boy Scouts, she left as a newly minted Cub Scout den mother. But seeing few other educational opportunities for them, Adams decided to take action.

"I had grandchildren, and I knew that if it wasn't there for my grands, it wasn't there for anybody," she said.

She started the Queensbridge Outreach program, which organizes after-school activities and field trips to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore for kids from Queensbridge Houses.

"We don't want them to stay closed in and think this is as far as you can go," she said. "We have to let them know you can have a good time doing positive things."

She noted that several successful athletes and rap artists came up through Queensbridge Houses. Ron Artest, the St. John's University basketball star who plays for the Chicago Bulls, began his career playing hoops with Queensbridge Outreach. And rap stars Nas, Mob-Deep and Havoc grew up within shouting distance of Adams' home.

Adams' involvement eventually led her to the Tenants Association in 1993. The late Janet Cole, a former president of the association, became Adams' mentor, teaching her the in's and out's of dealing with the Housing Authority and lobbying everyone from City Hall to the halls of Congress.

"She would call me at 3 or 4 in the morning with an idea," Adams said. "She pulled me in. She taught me that hard work pays off, and never take no for an answer."

While Adams admits to some frustration in dealing with the Housing Authority bureaucracy - "it's their way or it's no way" - Cole's example and the expectations of her fellow residents keep her going.

"I want to bring success back to them," she said.

This year Adams plans a voter registration drive and hopes to find funding to expand Queensbridge's Jacob Riis Community Center. For tenants in other public housing developments, Adams has this advice:

"Get involved with your neighborhood," she said. "There's strength in numbers."

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