When it comes to the rich and historic community of Howard Beach, the axiom “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” still holds true.
To hear local residents, community leaders and even elected officials describe Howard Beach today is remarkably reminiscent to what might have been said a decade or even 20 years ago.
And, although the majority of Howard Beach residents enjoy the community’s close-knit ties and small-town vibe, there are nevertheless some abiding concerns.
For example, the din of airplane noise from nearby Kennedy International Airport—although not nearly as bothersome today as when F-15’s and Supersonic jets roared above — is still a concern that gives residents something to talk about.
Airplanes, flight paths and noise from planes remain issues related to living in Howard Beach. But local elected officials say that the noise has indeed improved. “We’ve gotten rid of the F-15 and the Concorde. Planes are now fitted with ‘Hush Kits’ that quiet plane engines,” said state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach).
But, the altitudes of certain planes and flight paths continue to cause concern among longtime and newer residents alike.
Some residents also complain that transportation in the area has long been “inadequate,” and limited to the A train subway service and buses that are too few and far between. However, the AirTrain’s Howard Beach stop provides quick and efficient service to Kennedy International Airport.
By its very nature as a tidal wetland, Howard Beach has always suffered from unwelcome and sometimes severe flooding that can partially submerge parked cars and wreak havoc on homes.
But, as testament to its overall attractiveness, people continue to move into the community citing its family-friendly nature, stability, proximity to Jamaica Bay and even the quaint Hawtree Creek that gave rise to a community of hastily constructed, shanty-like shacks that dot present-day Ramblersville.
Fortunately for the area’s healthy business community, people continue to shop on Crossbay Boulevard, the area’s main commercial strip that divides Old Howard Beach to the east and New Howard Beach to the west.
“Howard Beach’s economic base has remained solid,” Addabbo said. “There are many family-owned businesses in the community that have been very stable, despite these challenging economic times.”
Among those mainstay businesses are numerous landmarks such as the elegant catering hall Russo’s on the Bay, New Park Pizza, Gino’s Pizzeria; lauded by pizza fans as “excellent” and the “best pizza in New York,” and the legendary Lenny’s Clam Bar with its gallery of notable diners from politicians and athletes to actors and musicians.
Some former high-profile residents of Howard Beach include both the famous as well as the infamous. Folk-music legend Woody Guthrie, who wrote the classic song, “This Land is Your Land,” and the late tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis had homes there, as did notorious Mafia bosses John Gotti and Joe Massino.
Aside from the Rockaways and Broad Channel, Howard Beach is the borough’s most southernmost community bordered in the north by the Belt Parkway and Conduit Avenue, the south by Jamaica Bay, the east by 102nd to 104th streets and the west by 78th Street. It is comprised of several smaller neighborhoods including Hamilton Beach, Ramblersville, Rockwood Park and Lindenwood.
A sign on Crossbay Boulevard pegs the founding of Howard Beach around 1897 by William J. Howard, a Brooklyn glove manufacturer who operated a goat farm on meadowland near Aqueduct Race Track as a source of skins for kid gloves. Howard is credited with dredging and filling the tidal wetlands that make up Howard Beach and then laying out streets, water and gas mains.
For his part, Addabbo says that more money is needed to tackle the area’s flooding problems and that he’s taking steps to secure such funding. “Flooding affects our community greatly… it has been a problem for decades in Howard Beach,” he points out. “What is needed is more money to install bulkheads to stop road erosion and help to get high tide water out of the area as quickly as possible and alleviate flooding.”
He added that bulkhead construction would be focused on Hamilton Beach. “High tides can’t be stopped but they can be slowed.” Addabbo said that other short-term solutions include cleaning out catch-basins and pitching roads in certain ways as to go toward operable catch basins.
But despite some inconveniences, realtors say that people don’t leave Howard Beach often and that new residents are not difficult to find. “Howard Beach is still very desirable,” says Deirdre Panzarella of Panzarella Realty, adding that although apartment rentals are slow now, co-op and condo sales are improving.
“It’s still a buyers’ market and buyers now want more value than ever,” says Panzarella, whose agency has served the Howard Beach community for more than 55 years.
For those interested in living in Howard Beach, 2-family homes start at $650,000 and up, while single-family homes can be had from around the low $400,000’s and up. Studios and co-ops can be purchased from $100,000 and up. Renters will find studios and one-bedroom apartments going for $800 to $1,000 per month.
Panzarella noted that the area’s population continues to be dominated by Italians and Jews with smaller populations of Irish, Russian and new immigrants from both India and Pakistan settling throughout the area. The most recent Census estimate puts the Howard Beach population at around 30,000.
Popular annual events in the community include a Columbus Day Parade, Halloween Parade and Memorial Day Parade.
Panzarella said the ratio of homeowners to renters in the community is nearly 70 to 30. “Most people that move here plan on staying for a while,” she said.
The realtor pointed out that the area’s public schools are also well-maintained and offer a quality education in safe surroundings. The schools are P.S. 146, 207 and 232 for grades K-8 and two private Catholic schools, Our Lady of Grace and Saint Helen.
From her perspective as the assistant director of the Howard Beach Senior Center on 156th Avenue and 84th Street, Judy Ascherman says the redevelopment of the former Bernard Fineson Developmental Center on Crossbay into affordable senior housing is coming none too soon.
The Howard Beach Senior Residence, located at 156th Avenue and Crossbay Boulevard, will provide 81 units of affordable housing for seniors and people with developmental disabilities. The project is scheduled for completion in early 2012, according to its developer, the nonprofit Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens.
“Housing has always been an issue here with scarcely any real rental housing,” Ascherman said. “There are mostly condos and co-ops. We get people calling all the time looking for apartments.”
Further, she says that area seniors in particular are looking forward to the project as about half of the units will be made available to residents of Community Board 10, which includes Howard Beach.
Addabbo was equally sanguine, noting that the housing project will create local jobs and help enhance the growing senior population by keeping families together as well as providing lower-cost, subsidized housing for seniors.
And then there is the much-anticipated and long-delayed multibillion-dollar contract for a massive video-lottery casino or “racino” at Aqueduct Race Track. Although Aqueduct is not technically located within Howard Beach — it’s in nearby Ozone Park — residents and area leaders agree that it can greatly impact Howard Beach in the form of jobs, increased traffic and even security concerns, according to Tom Mercatante, president of the Howard Beach Civic Association who has lived in the area for more than 15 years.
“We’re still awaiting a suitable developer for the entire Aqueduct project,” noted his wife and association member Andrea.
Among the five major bidders for the Aqueduct contract are Aqueduct Gaming, SL Green Realty and Hard Rock International, Penn National Gaming, Aqueduct Entertainment Group and The Peebles Corporation, which partnered with MGM Mirage.
In Howard Beach, Mercatante points out persistent upkeep problems relating to Charles Memorial Park in Old Howard Beach, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. “The tennis courts are falling apart, the baseball fields are in disrepair and the park is just not being cleaned properly,” he says. “We’re not getting enough funds for upkeep. Charles Park is being overlooked.”
He added that lately local residents have been taking matters into their own hands and initiating their own cleanups. A recent event yielded more than 200 garbage bags.
Overall, Mercatante paints a picture of Howard Beach as an extremely stable, resilient community that has been growing from within in recent years. For example, he noted the recent opening of Vetro, at 165th Avenue and Crossbay, a restaurant operated by the Russo family, owners of Russo’s on the Bay. He estimated that this new business brings at least 75 new jobs into the area.
When it comes to local attractions, Mercatante adds that residents truly support community businesses from the areas’ great restaurants and shops to offbeat attractions such as the Federation of Black Cowboys, headquartered at Cedar Lane Stables along the Belt Parkway. “It’s a good, close community and a great place to live,” he said. “You always get smiles from people.”
Rocky “B.”, a longtime resident of Howard Beach, says that sometimes the community gets a bad rap. “I think people have a long memory and certain people will always think of this area as being intolerant and hostile to ethnic minorities,” he said, alluding to several highly publicized bias attacks that took place in Howard Beach during the late 1980’s, in 2005 and most recently in 2007.
“The truth is that most people in Howard Beach are friendly, helpful, law-abiding and tolerant of different types of people. I see that every day,” he said.
Indeed, the reality is that crime is generally low throughout Howard Beach and statistics from the 106th Precinct that covers Howard Beach, bear this out. Year-to-date crime statistics for the community revealed four murders, five rapes and 186 robberies for the entire precinct, which includes Howard Beach.
“People get along very well here,” Addabbo said. “Thankfully, crime is not something we have to worry much about.”