Queensbridge couple serves community through citizen journalism

Note: This article is one of the stories I’ve written for NYC In Focus: a website dedicated to public housing issues in New York City. The original article is available here.

Nov. 22 — Ray Normandeau and Rita Frazier live in a fully functioning newsroom. Instead of a couch or television, the couple has packed mismatched desks, computer equipment and boxes of files into every square inch of the living room of their apartment at the Queensbridge public housing development in Long Island City.  Photographs—framed, in stacks and tacked on the walls—are scattered throughout the apartment, and yellowed back issues of the Queensbridge Enquirer, which they have published for 25 years, are filed neatly in a cabinet next to the kitchen entrance.

Normandeau and Frazier thrive on news. Every fifteen minutes or so, they stop whatever they are doing—even if a favorite neighbor is visiting—and listen intently to the broadcast coming from a police scanner they bought a few years ago from Radio Shack.

“It’s a great source for leads,” said Normandeau, 67.

Normandeau and Frazier started practicing citizen journalism long before that phrase began to take root in the public discourse. They founded the Enquirer in 1986 and moved the publication online in 2008. A typical two-to-four-page print issue included reports on neglected repairs, crime in the neighborhood, tenant association activities and many criticisms of the New York City Housing Authority and city governance. It included headlines like “NYCHA Plans Motel Pajama Party,” which was about a weekend of employee bonding in 1999.

They update the web site, Queensbridge.us, daily. It includes news, videos, links to aggregated content, “Tweets of Interest” and photos of neglected repairs and unsafe conditions at Queensbridge. While most of the news bulletins are very short—much shorter than the articles they published in the print edition—the range of posts offers an informative sampling of the issues that affect NYCHA residents mixed with distinctive commentary.

For example, this caption accompanied a photo of a cluster of taxis spilling onto the sidewalk on November 19: “How about NYPD taking care of this problem at 23 Street and 41 Avenue? Too busy gassing and beating up people at OWS?”

They write their snappy reports and retorts in their apartment in Queensbridge Houses, where they have lived for the past 38 years. They met in 1968. Frazier was a 22-year-old business student living in Brooklyn when she first heard Normandeau’s booming voice inside a department store where he was working as a product demonstrator.

“He had this announcer’s voice, and I was thinking, what’s going on?” Frazier recalled. “So I walked over and I saw him and it wasn’t like love at first sight, but it was something—I just stood there.”

“I found her very attractive,” said Normandeau. “She stuck around and after the crowd went away we went for coffee.”

The couple married in 1969 and moved into Queensbridge in 1973 because of rising rental costs in the city. They’ve worked together in various jobs ever since: as ambulance technicians, as product demonstrators, as “magic show illusionists” and as actors and extras for movies and television shows. Normandeau also emceed the Coney Island Bare Breasted Mermaid Parade from 1993 to 2008.

Acting, even in background roles, was their most lucrative vocation, because they collected union wages as part of the Screen Actors Guild.

“It was never really hard to find work—we had our niches,” said Normandeau, who is originally from Winnipeg. “I played the nerd, and she played the fat black woman.”

Since their retirement four years ago, journalism has been Normandeau and Frazier’s main occupation—a means to further their lifelong involvement in community activism.

They created the Enquirer to inform fellow residents about neighborhood news and to pressure NYCHA officials and city leaders to listen to their “justified complaints,” said Frazier, 65.

Or, as Normandeau put it, “We started the Enquirer because the Housing Authority was really pissing us off.”

A 2004 article in the Queens Tribune  described Normandeau as someone who has “garnered a reputation for lampooning the Housing Authority and demanding them to fix every streetlight, broken window, unhinged door and obsolete radiator.”

Ten years ago, in what they describe as one of their greatest achievements as citizen journalists, the couple helped pressure NYCHA to change its policy of keeping lobby doors unlocked. Normandeau and Frazier ran an ad from a lawyer threatening to sue NYCHA, and interviewed residents about why unlocked doors denied them of a basic safety precaution.

“I’d like to think we were instrumental in changing NYCHA’s policy,” said Normandeau. “We wrote letters, went to NYCHA board meetings and community board meetings and didn’t stop until they made the changes.”

Normandeau and Frazier have funded all the expenses of their journalism efforts, and have rarely made money from their work except for the occasional sale of a photograph or an advertising space. With the help of a local printer, who they said only charged them $40 to print each issue, they distributed 4,000 copies of the Enquirer for free each month.

To learn about breaking news, they rely on police scanner reports, Google Alerts and tips from fellow residents.

“They work extremely hard,” said a woman who lives upstairs at Queensbridge. “And they’re great neighbors.”

Last January, Frazier took office as the tenant association president at Queensbridge. She was hoping to rally more residents to pressure NYCHA to make improvements to living conditions at Queensbridge, but she quit in June in frustration at the lack of interest from her fellow members.  In September, Normandeau also quit as tenant association secretary.

“They were more interested in planning bus trips to Atlantic City,” Frazier said, arguing that putting on social events should not be the primary function of a tenant association.

While they wish they had more support from community leaders at Queensbridge, they do not mind having more time to spend together doing their advocacy work.

“We’ve had a ball,” said Normandeau. “We’ve had some really great times together.”

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