It was first known as New York Boulevard. But 28 years ago, the street in South Jamaica that is now a bustling strip of auto repair shops, laundromats and York College, was renamed in honor of witty, no nonsense Assemblyman Guy R. Brewer.
Brewer served the community from 1968 to 1974. During those years he was a champion of the black community. He was credited with helping to develop York College when the City University of New York wanted to expand within the Jamaica area. He also helped ensure that the St. Alban’s Naval Hospital, which was set to be shut down, was turned into something beneficial to the community.
But long before that, it was Brewer’s way with words and unabashed ability to stand up for himself at a time when blacks had just begun to fight for their rights that led him to Queens and into the public eye.
In 1941, Brewer, a realtor, moved to Jamaica from Harlem in hopes of establishing a black suburban community.
He was a district leader in Washington Heights, but soon left Manhattan’s political arena after speaking out against a choice by then Tammany Hall boss, Clarence Neal, to withhold money from Brewer’s district by sending it to another district leader because the people there were white. After speaking out against the unfairness, Brewer told one reporter that for the rest of his term, he was a pariah. That led him to Queens.
The South Bronx and central Brooklyn, along with Harlem, had already elected black leaders. But Queens, being predominantly white, had yet to do so.
Activists in southeast Queens soon began to set their sights on the New York Assembly seat for the 29th District. After defeats in 1949 and 1954, in 1964, Queens became the fourth borough to elect an African American to the Assembly. His name was Kenneth Brown.
But in 1967, he ran for a judgeship and Guy Brewer replaced him.
In Jamaica, Brewer never stopped fighting to improve his community, which was predominantly black and 50 percent middle class. He denounced a proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use some of the St. Albans site as a quarantine holding station for imported animals.
“It is a crying shame and an indication of the low esteem in which these officials hold a black community … I know that neither man nor beast are quarantined when they are healthy,” he said, laying out a proposal to turn the site into either senior citizen housing, a community hospital or a veterans hospital.
Brewer — a Georgia native — was re-elected in 1970 and 1972. He favored capital punishment, was pro-choice and believed that all high school graduates should have equal opportunity to enter college through open admissions.
Brewer died of prostate cancer in 1978 at the age of 74.
On Sept. 11, 1982, New York Boulevard was renamed for him. The location was chosen because it was where Brewer purchased a building to house the United Democratic Club, an organization he founded when there were no black elected officials in Queens. It is now called the Guy R. Brewer United Democratic Club.
At the time, the stretch was the longest street in the city to be named in honor of an African American. It extends 3.7 miles from Rockaway Boulevard near JFK Airport to the Jamaica business district and transportation hub.
In Queens, Brewer became a local legend for his quick wit, sarcasm and eloquence when debating. He was also the first black person elected to serve as majority whip in the state Legislature.
“He was a fighter for negro rights all his life,” said his wife, Marie Brown Brewer, after he died. “When people told him it was impossible, he insisted it was inevitable. And he was right.”