'Hip-Hop, It Started Out in the Park': How Unity Park Created John Creasy
"Urban renewal means negro removal."
- James Baldwin
'My area? Niagara? Everybody wanted to be a rapper,' the emcee notes during an interview in August, 'everybody wanted to be a star and to come back and give back to their community where they grew up.' As an emcee, John Creasy has made quite the splash in recent years. With more projects than I can count with my hands, Creasy has contributed his fair share to the onslaught that this renaissance has created.
Within the Western New York rap scene that has dominated modern underground waves, Niagara has received little attention. However, artists such as G4 Jag of Lord Mobb, TRUST's Jynx 716, Jamal Gasol and Creasy are just a few examples to indicate the significance of Niagara's contribution.
This story follows that of John Creasy and Unity Park; a housing project near Highland Avenue in Niagara Falls, New York and subsequently, John Creasy's childhood residence. Creasy has publicly represented his roots before. Last year, the emcee recorded and dropped the song, aptly titled 'Unity Park' which illustrated the influence that the area had in shaping his identity. Exploring the history of Unity Park revealed patterns of government neglect, systemic racism and struggle; a story that finds itself woven into Creasy's lyrics throughout his catalog. My aim is to communicate the meaning of those threads.
'N****s slight me. That's why I give them extra bars.
They didn't think a n**** could do it out of Niagara Falls'
- John Creasy, Bomb First.
James Baldwin had once stated that urban renewal was equivalent to Black removal. A read through The Color of Law or The Origin of the Urban Crisis will prove just that. The story of Unity Park exists as one of a handful of anecdotes the city of Niagara has contributed to this failure of Americanism.
The project, originally developed under the name 'the Lehigh Project' in the early 1970s, was a response to what Michael Boston describes as a demand for housing among Black Niagarans. In the late 1940s, America, under the Truman administration, developed the 'Housing Act of 1949,' an effort to fund urban renewal projects, highlighting a need to eliminate 'blight' and clear slums. This 'slum clearance,' as it is referred to in the act, allowed many municipal governments to secure funding that they hoped would better their community. As Niagara Falls began to enter a period of decline in the early 1960s, efforts were put in place to request federal funding for a series of urban renewal projects in the city. These projects, as Boston notes, predominantly affected the regions Black community. Areas that housed the Black community were often deemed 'slums,' which allowed for the government to clear the land and construct new units to house the now dispersed population. By 1971, after a series of these projects had taken place, the city of Niagara felt necessary to construct additional housing units to house many of the dispersed (often Black) members of the community.
The topic of race was not ignored during the creation of Unity Park. Unlike the past urban renewal projects that the city had undergone, Unity Park was designed as an integrated housing complex, meaning it would house a mixture of low income and moderate-income residents. The aim was to diversify the demographics of the project, in hopes to prevent decay in future decades and appease much of White Niagara's racially motivated concerns with concentrated African-American neighbourhoods. In a meeting that took place in March of 1971, a resident of the neighbouring McKoon Avenue, stressed to the planning board, asking if 'Unity Park would be totally black?' The response from those in charge was clear; 'no one can guarantee one way or the other, but considering the rent structure the danger is that it will be all white.' Additional comments during this meeting proved, with hindsight, to be of note. Anne Myers of DeVeaux St. noted that she had 'never seen a public project that didn't fall to pieces in 10 to 15 years.' In this, she was asking who would be responsible for the upkeep. Charles Baker, who held the office of the president at Wright and Kremers, the developing corporation selected to construct the units, claimed that the units would be maintained by Wright and Kremer, and that rent money would be sufficient for any maintenance. Speaking directly to Mrs. Myers, Baker claimed, 'you're visualizing something that's never going to happen.'
Two decades later, both of the objecting citizens’ concerns had been validated. Unity Park, had went from a mixed demography to a nearly all Black housing complex. Additionally, the units had begun to fall apart. By the late 1990s, the city was already beginning touch-up jobs and band-aid operations to help with the deterioration of the Highland Avenue project. This is the Unity Park where Creasy was raised.
When I was younger, I would play basketball a lot. So, I had to go to different neighbourhoods and different community centers around, so I seen it all. The first time I ever held a gun in my hand I was seven years old. I was riding my bike, going across the street to Ms. Doominsting's house. That was our candy lady in the neighbourhood. She sold penny candy back in the day. I was riding my ten speed to her house to go get some candy, and thought it was a rock but I hit something and fell off my bike. I picked it up, and it was a big ass [gun.] I'm seven years old, right? it was an all-black joint, had the leather handle on it. So I wasn't sheltered at all. I seen everything. I seen crackheads overdose in front of me. All types of shit. So, I wasn't really sheltered at all. Just being around it, you become accustom and used to it. But yeah, me just seeing a gun and holding it in my hand at seven, I could have almost killed myself. But my cousin seen me - I had it in my hand - he like ran over to me. It was loaded and everything. It was a glock too. He ran over to me, grabbed it from me. So, I wasn't sheltered. I had seen needles; we'd be playing around the playground. There was used needles in the playground, empty weed bags, empty crack bags, empty crack pipes everywhere. So, I seen everything.
Creasy was raised in 14 E Peace Walk in Unity Park I - an area of the units that was labelled 'Last Court.' South Gate, Center Court, Last Court, and the neighboring Jordan Gardens were all distinct sections of the Highland Avenue neighbourhood. These sections, consequently helped define the territorial borders for local gangs. A fact that the Niagara Police repeatedly emphasized when reporting to the press. As Creasy notes:
You had people beef with different territories even though we all lived in the same apartment complexes. You could walk across a little pavement and you're in a whole different apartment complex. I mean, it was your average neighbourhood. It was gritty grimy, people selling drugs out there, doing what they gotta do to make a living. But [gangs] were prominent as you had older people out there showing you the rope. Younger kids trying to do what they see the older dudes do. [...] You had your top people. You had your captains; you had your bosses under them, you had your workers under them. Unity Park in Niagara Falls was on the west side. We had a different apartment complex over which was called Jordan Gardens. And Center Court was like down the street from Unity Park. So, you had these three different sections. Within Unity Park [you had] everybody beefin' with each other.
By 2002, conditions had continued to worsen. From 1995 to 1999, the vacancy rate for Unity Park had increased by sixteen percent, with nearly forty-five percent of all units vacant by the turn of the century. The vacancy had become a means to nest further crime. Vacant buildings represented opportunity. 'You're giving people an opportunity to come to the buildings and do their thing in the vacant building,' Creasy spoke, 'when I was growing up, everything was coasting. I was a little kid, having fun. But by the time I got up out of there, it was definitely time to go. There was more drugs being sold out of there, there was fiends being hanging around out there.' Crime in Niagara had escalated. From issues of petty theft to gun violence, citizens stressed feeling unsafe with where they lived. Even larger displays of violence seemingly had the ability to fade in and out of the weekly news cycle. Perhaps the most grotesque example occurred on New Years Day 1997 at 3M's bar on the corner of College and Highland Avenue when a gunman entered the facility and 'opened fire' causing hundreds to flee the premises and six injured. The 1997 New Years mass shooting disappeared out of the media in a week, it simply wasn't shocking enough to the city of Niagara Falls for a permanent scar to be felt.
As predicted in the 1971 meeting, Unity Park had come full circle. Within three decades, decisions were made to demolish the units and build anew. The process of urban renewal had failed - and the circumstances the process had intended to fix had returned. It's important to stress the feeling the city had in 2002 regarding Niagara's blight. Though the Niagara Beautification Commission was fighting the problem, community members were vocally fierce, frequently addressing their concerns in local papers. One citizen described Niagara Avenue and 18th Street (outside of Unity Park) as sprinkled with 'graffiti-stained eyesores, overgrown yards and blighted buildings.' To those in Niagara, Unity had become the worst of the worst.
On August 24 of 2002, the residents of Unity Park wrote a formal complaint of their conditions and published it in the Niagara Gazette, the cities most widely distributed paper. The headlines read 'Neglected at Unity Park,' 'Residents complain apartments owned by state are falling apart,' and 'Unity Park II in disrepair.' The call for action was bold and powerful. 'Welcome to Unity Park II, the 35-year-old apartment complex where boarded-up windows, broken glass and peeled siding are the rule, not the exception' the statement read. The article raised several complaints with the maintenance of the properties. Residents had reported the neglect from management for issues ranging from broken screen doors and leaking roofs to pipes freezing and falling down cupboards. In one instance, residents received notice that the fuel company was soon to be turning off their power, a utility that was the responsibility of the landlord. For one house alone, the government was in arrears for nearly four thousand dollars in today's currency. A 1999 letter sent to commissioner Joseph Lynch from the State Comptroller revealed that Unity Park had been in mortgage arrears for an excess of two million dollars and that foreclosures were imminent. At this point, over sixty percent of the units were vacant. For those forty present that remained, they wrote 'something needs to be done out here. It's terrible.'
The response should read as familiar. In light of the public outcry, just one month after the August write-up, headlines were made again as the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency and the Niagara Falls International Airport had agreed to 'renovate' the housing projects. In assessment, they determined that eighty-six of the apartments were unable to be repaired and had planned to demolish them. The remaining one-hundred-and-twelve would be renovated. Forty-three percent of all units were destroyed.
The demolition and renovations began in 2006. The neighbours presently occupying Unity Park II experience improved living conditions, however a decline has already begun to be felt. Interviews in the community revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic was felt particularly hard in the neighbourhood - as jobs diminished and the appeal of illegal money became increasingly enticing. The cyclical nature of urban renewal does not appear to be over.
Raised alongside three brothers, Creasy was born in Niagara Falls and raised within Unity Park. His mother was a nurse from North Avenue and his father, a factory worker from Jerauld Avenue near Hyde Park. As a child, Creasy was into sports and idolized the great basketball legends of the 90s like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Rap, would come later. 'I wanted to be a basketball player growing up.' Creasy reflects.
As basketball became more serious, music was beginning to resonate. As a middle child to twin older brothers, Creasy's musical influences were readily accessible in his home environment. Youth in the Highland Avenue region identified with street rap in New York City, primarily that which was coming out of Queensbridge. Havoc and Prodigy's apocalyptic vision of New York street life was powerful and intimate and reflected the circumstances Unity Park residents seen at home.
QB area. I would say that's how Niagara Falls is set up. So, Nas, Mobb Deep, all those people from the Queensbridge, so I definitely related to that. The first song I ever heard was 'Trife Life' from Mobb Deep on The Infamous joint. I fell in love with that song. Everything they was going through, we was going through too. It may not be New York City, or Queens New York, but it's still Niagara Falls New York. It's still part of New York. We upstate, but the same thing that they was writing about, I was living the same thing too.
As Creasy grew, priorities in basketball began to decline in substitute for rap music, weed, video games and having fun. Once again, Mobb Deep played a critical role, as Creasy claims it was Prodigy that ultimately made the choice clear in his identity; John Creasy wished to be a rapper.
Prodigy man, he made me want to be a rapper. When I first heard P, he reminded me of myself. I'm a short dude in stature but I got a commanding voice. When I first heard Prodigy on 'Trife Life' I'm like; 'who is this?' My brother rewinds it back, I got to hear joints like 'Right Back At You', 'Survival of the Fittest', all of them joints. That's what made me want to be a rapper. Around that time, I should have played basketball, but I kept listening to music more. I'd say Mobb Deep had a heavy influence on my area, my hometown. That's all anybody was playing in Unity Park.
Rap music was popular in Niagara Falls. As Creasy notes, everyone he knew in Niagara either wanted to be a sports player or a rap star - however it proved difficult for Niagara talent to be recognized on a world stage. As a result, Creasy and his friends began a rap crew called, 'Wild Squad.' While still in high school, this was an opportunity for friends to better their craft and take a plunge into hip-hop culture. As a unit, Wild Squad went through various iterations and names. 'Homicide Crew' was the active namesake for some time, then ultimately to H.O or 'Helluva Outcome.' Creasy's first performances were with H.O. and helped him come more comfortable with the idea of being an artist.
Like most local rap groups, individual growth and life circumstances prevented the group from reaching their aspirations. Although some members had become disinterested, the brand was still loosely used in 2015 when Creasy decided to step away to focus on an alternative path for his artistry. Creasy remembers:
We're still all cool, but we all kind of stopped. I personally, stopped repping the Helluva Outcome brand probably around 2015. That's when I thought I'd go off on my own and let my name speak for itself. A lot of people had their own vision and went and did their own thing. I figured I might as well do the same thing. But we all still talk. We're all family. That's one thing I can say. We may not all still do music together, but a lot of people I was doing music with before, that's my first cousin, or I grew up with this dude, so we're all still cool. They still check out my music. They still rooting for me. But as far as us being a group, and us being known as that - I would say around 2015-2016. That's when I decided to go my own way and do my own thing.
In 2018, outside of Niagara Falls, emcees Pro Dillinger and Snotty were tossing strategies back and forth over the phone. How to make it in the underground rap space? The Umbrella came about from a necessity for resources, and the belief in an almost artistic socialism. The Umbrella was envisioned as a space for artists of a similar discipline and ethos to share resources and develop, grow and prosper as a unit. As a super group, the Umbrella has been responsible for some of the most exciting music to be coming out of the underground hip-hop landscape. When Snotty and Pro Dillinger were considering who to grab, John Creasy was in the initial roster. Dillinger recalls:
I got cool with John Creasy. But Creasy was with Jamal Gasol and Piff and all that so I didn't think he would go with it, but he came with us. And that was like our first immediate roster.
As Dillinger described to me, Creasy was 'an OG member made from the first cut.' The affiliation with The Umbrella had proven successful for Creasy. From rapping at talent shows over Mobb Deep instrumentals, Creasy reached a point where selling out vinyl units was the norm - built off name alone.
From 2018 to present, John Creasy has dropped a barrage of releases and has written guest verses at an even more impressive rate, all of which had been under the Umbrella brand. In the past four years he has released over a dozen projects; a mixture of both LPs and EPs; ranging from works with Jamal Gasol, Wavy Da Ghawd, Ol' Man 80ozz, to the Unity Park producer Prxspect. A rapid fire release schedule that is only appropriate for this brand of underground rap. His latest vinyl drop; a deluxe edition to his 2018 project Power with producer Enrichment, is out through I Had An Accident Records, a label which has consistently released vinyl for artists within this new wave. The album, with bold and hardened artwork by C Dyer will undoubtably sell out as his other releases on the label have. Creasy has, at this point, solidified himself as a significant contribution to the rap renaissance. To Creasy however, his work is not over. Recently, John Creasy announced that he would be departing with the Umbrella brand but made it clear he wished to continue to push forward and further his own name within the industry. For Creasy, there's a more important mission at stake. Recognizing that his artistic output has had impact, there's a sense of urgency to 'put on' for his hood and do bigger and greater things.
It's a big weight on my shoulders. I think of that every day. I want my hood to be a legendary spot in my city. Where one day I can go back and they may have a mural put up of me out there. So, I feel a big pressure and I want people to understand when I do my music, where it comes from, where I grew up and all the lessons I learned and everything. So, it's definitely a big weight on my shoulders. I think about that shit all the time when I do music. I feel like I've been a good representative. But there's still more work to do. I'm definitely not done yet. But as a representative of where I'm from, and where I grew up at? I feel like I'm doing a hell of a job of that right now. There's nobody that grew up with me, or grew up in my area, ever been on Shade45 before, just building relationships off of this music. Unity Park is my heart. I believe in that shit with every pump of my heart. Every breathe I take is always Unity Park. For me to be able to put on for my city, that's a major accomplishment for me. Once it does happen.
Last year, the emcee wrote the Prxspect produced 'Unity Park' for much of these reasons. Creasy remarks that "when I do music, I don't want people to get it confused. I like to let people know where I'm from. Where my upbringing is from.' To Creasy, he figured the song would let himself 'paint a picture' of his childhood residence, to give fans a vantage point, some context, for the lyrics he raps. 'When I got that beat from Prxspect, to me, it talked. The horns on there, the loud rock joint, the drums, everything talked. It was Unity Park.' The song features video shot and directed by Nova Vision and was released on March 27 2021 on the Paka the Plug YouTube channel.
Much like the story of Unity Park itself, John Creasy's story has come full circle. Today, he's able to return to Unity Park with love, support and a feeling of youthful nostalgia. 'It's a good feeling. Even though it don't look the same, it's still that same feeling. I get a warmth in my heart. I feel comfortable there,' he reflects. Through every lyric and every action, John Creasy is a product of Unity Park and the failures of the Americanized process of urban renewal. The struggles reflected on by Baldwin, or scholars like Sugrue and Rothstein, have renewed themselves in the twenty-first century and will be remembered in time through the stories of those that endured and the art that they create. John Creasy, is that art.
It effects it a lot. How I grew up. The lessons I was taught. The shit that I've seen. The shit that I've done. The people that I've been around. The lessons that got talked to me. Looking up to my older brothers, my older cousins, I got taught a lot of game living there. If I didn't grow up there, I'm not saying I wouldn't have been a rapper, but my presence, my cadence on a track? Everything comes from me growing up in Unity Park.
I'm very much thankful to Cecilia, Kevin and Richard at the Niagara Falls Public Library, Jeff at the Book Corner, John Creasy, as well as Ashley and Mike of Niagara who agreed to be interviewed for the article.
The Origins Of Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue - https://press.princeton.edu/books/paperback/9780691162553/the-origins-of-the-urban-crisis
The Color Of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein - https://www.epi.org/publication/the-color-of-law-a-forgotten-history-of-how-our-government-segregated-america/ Housing Act of 1949 - https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/COMPS-10349/pdf/COMPS-10349.pdf
Blacks in Niagara Falls: Leaders and Community Development, 1850-1985 by Michael B. Boston - https://sunypress.edu/Books/B/Blacks-in-Niagara-Falls2
"Falls Planning Board Approves Unity Park After Public Hearing [March 23, 1971]" by Laura Winchester for Niagara Falls Gazette via Niagara Public Library.
"Unity Park II: Complex Problems" by Rick Pfeiffer via Niagara Gazette - https://www.niagara-gazette.com/news/local_news/unity-park-ii-complex-problem/article_9f4d704d-776c-5300-9bf9-18351454778a.html John Creasy Photo by 1000words - https://www.instagram.com/p/CeG3i8VL9or/?hl=en
Power (Deluxe) by John Creasy x - https://ihadanaccidentrecords.com/album/power-deluxe-edition
C Dyer Artwork - https://www.facebook.com/CDyerArtDesign