A year that began with transit workers walking the picket lines ended with transit workers walking the picket lines.
In between the Command and Green Lines strike in January and last week’s citywide transit walkout, 2005 saw a local hospital fight for survival, plans for a shopping mall spark a year-long fight, and the case of a murdered mother and abandoned child catch the attention of the nation.
The year was bookended by labor unrest in the city’s transit system. In January, workers at the Command and Green Bus Lines walked off the job for 10 days, leaving 70,000 riders in Central and Western Queens and Brooklyn stranded.
Workers at the then-privately owned bus lines had been without a contract for two years when the strike was called. An agreement was eventually reached where the union got its medical plan in exchange for not interfering with the process of integrating the two bus lines with the MTA.
Benefits were again an issue this month as the MTA’s workers on the city bus and subway lines in a three-day citywide strike. Benefits, in this case pensions, were again at the heart of the dispute.
With the LIRR one of the only remaining mass transit links between Queens and Manhattan, hundreds of commuters flocked to the Forest Hills station daily until transit union leaders suspended the strike and resumed negotiations last week.
Union debts were also a part of the financial troubles New Parkway Hospital in Forest Hills struggled with this year . The hospital ultimately declared bankruptcy, but managed to remain in operation.
At issue was $29 million owed to creditors, including the IRS, food services, utilities, ambulatory services and the hospital employees’ union.
The voluntary filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy came just days before the July 5th deadline to repay approximately $13 million to its union local.
Financial troubles at Parkway Hospital began well before new owners Capital Care Management took over last June. Last February, Local 1199 froze Parkway’s bank accounts while trying to settle a $32-million debt. For a period of several years the hospital had deducted money from employee paychecks that was supposed to go to the union.
In addition to problems with the union, nearly half of the hospital’s beds were empty on a daily basis, the hospital owed the IRS more than $7 million and the building as well as much of the equipment sorely needed repair.
One local event that garnered citywide and even nationwide attention started when a little girl was found wandering a Middle Village street in October.
Cesar Ascarrunz, 32, of 66th Avenue, Forest Hills, faces two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of tampering with physical evidence in the death of 26-year-old Monica Lozada and the disposal of her body. He faces charges of first-degree reckless endangerment, abandonment of a child, and endangering the welfare of a child for allegedly abandoning Lozada’s 4-year-old daughter, Valery, on the street after the crime.
Ascarrunz, a graduate of Newtown High School, who allegedly has a medical degree from South America, and worked as a janitor in Forest Hills, and Lozada, a Bolivian immigrant who was a waitress for a nightclub in Jackson Heights, were living together at the time of the crime. Valery is Lozada’s daughter from a previous relationship.
According to police, Ascarrunz confessed to strangling and stabbing Lozada to death September 24th. He has since denied making a confession.
He is then alleged to have left Lozada’s body on the curb in a garbage bag and to have abandoned Valery barefoot on a Middle Village street in the early hours of the morning.
Valery remained unidentified for four days until the Administration for Children’s Services, in an unusual move, turned to the media for help. Her television interview, in which she said her mother looked like a princess, captured the hearts of the city.
She was eventually identified by staff members at the Head Start program she attended. Further tips led police to Ascarrunz.
Ascarrunz faces 25 years to life on the murder charges.
In November, Heather Zlotshewer, 35, the former owner of Devlin Day Care in Forest Hills pleaded guilty to recklessly endangering the life of a 7-month-old boy entrusted to her care by leaving him and two 3-year-olds unattended in August 2004.
Zlotshewer had left the infant, Matthew Perilli, alone in an upstairs room while she spoke with Department of Health inspectors downstairs. The infant later died as a result of suffocation after the two toddlers piled toys into his playpen. Zlotshewer was ordered to perform 1,250 hours of community service and is facing a lawsuit from the infant’s parents.
In the development front, an empty lot in Rego Park became the focus of controversy when Wal-Mart reportedly expressed an interest in opening a store there. The reported plans by the retail giant to open its first New York City store at 62nd Drive and Junction Boulevard sparked citywide interest and three months of protests organized by union leaders and politicians, including Councilwoman Helen Sears, who object to the chain’s labor practices.
Ultimately, the site’s developers decided not to pursue negotiations with Wal-Mart, but was continuing with plans to build a 693,000-square-foot mall and apartment complex on the site.
Those plans, and the traffic and population increase they would bring, were still objectionable enough to some area residents to spark the formation of Rego Park’s first civic association, the Rego Park Sustainable Communities Coalition.
In other developments in Forest Hills, a former printing plant at 90-30 Metropolitan Avenue was slated for decontamination and redevelopment. Also, a 21-story luxury apartment building brought Manhattan-style rents to Queens Boulevard.
A nearby apartment building created a stir when management decided to defray the cost of facade renovations by renting out its scaffolding as ad space, resulting in 100-foot-high lingerie ads looming over the Long Island Expressway and the surrounding neighborhood. A legal loophole allowed the owners of the Queens Boulevard Towers to avoid a fine for building and zoning code violations that the sign would have earned them by taking down the ad within a month, then replacing it with a less racy movie poster.
The year also saw the departure of the last remaining factory in Kew Gardens, as the Chatillon company ended 74 years of producing measuring instruments and scales on Kew Gardens Road in July.
Other departures in 2005 included Forest Hills Assemblyman Michael Cohen announcing his resignation from public office, citing family obligations that would prevent him from continuing as a representative of the 28th Assembly District.
Cohen had represented the 28th District—which includes Forest Hills, Rego Park, Middle Village and Glendale—since 1999. He was first elected at age 49. Prior to holding office, he served in various capacities within the Transit Authority, was a member of Community Board 6 for 16 years and was a commissioner for the New York City Board of Elections.
Andrew Hevesi, the son of State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, won the special election for Cohen’s seat.
The year also saw the retirement of long-time Community Board 6 district manager Kathleen Histon. Histon, who had been the district manager in Forest Hills and Rego Park for the past 28 years, will retire at the end of this year, along with Virginia Wilson, who has served as assistant district manager for the last 27 years.