By Christie Zelling and Lyda Ely (CNN) — Musician LL Cool J has seen southeast Queens, the New York City, New York, neighborhood of his childhood, transformed. What was once an area rife with drugs and urban decay has become a thriving middle-class community with some homes valued at more than $500,000. Education is strong. Even a new cathedral has been built.
Musician LL Cool J’s hero, the Rev. Floyd Flake, left, helped transform the neighborhood of LL’s youth. LL says the Rev. Floyd Flake, a man he calls his “hero,” has been instrumental in those many changes. “He’s helping to rebuild my community,” says LL, “and encouraging other communities across the country to do the same.” Flake first came to this part of New York 30 years ago when many residents thought the community was “going to the dogs,” as he puts it.
“There were serious problems of young people getting good education,” Flake says. “There [were] problems of home ownership … People didn’t want to stay. People were moving back to the South, making decisions to move to the suburbs.” To turn the tide of public opinion, Flake invested in the things he believed people needed most — education and home ownership. He wanted to empower every member of the community from youngest to oldest, so first he built a senior complex, and then founded a school in its basement. That school now educates more than 700 kids in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Flake says most of those students continue on to high school and college.
According to Flake’s organization, since 1980, he and his church have built nearly 700 housing units and 166 two-family homes in southeast Queens. Most of those homes were sold to first-time home buyers. Flake and his church have also helped bring in more than 3,000 jobs.
“What I’ve tried to do is empower the community,” says Flake. “And once my church, through its leadership, started doing that, people who would’ve left the community made a decision to stay and invest here, and it has made it a better and stronger community.”
Flake now often travels the country, bringing together community groups and church leaders, in an effort to try and spread the formula that worked for his own neighborhood. LL, who has seen the results of Flake’s efforts firsthand, says Flake has a transformative “ripple effect” on those around him. “This is a situation where someone is showing a community, a predominantly African-American community, how not to be victims,” says LL. “We have a lot more people interested in doing a lot of things because of the way he lives his life and because of the example that he has set.”