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Queens Chronicle

Vets Tribute Coming To Queens—Vietnam Memorial In Cunningham Park This Fall

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Posted: Thursday, March 4, 2004 12:00 am

A plan to bring a half-size replica of the Washington, D.C. Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall to Juniper Valley Park in Middle Village has been scrapped, in part because of questions about keeping the park open to the public 24 hours a day, the Queens Chronicle has learned.

Rather, “The Movable Wall,” a 252-foot structure which traverses the country from April through November, will make its home for a week this October in Fresh Meadows’ Cunningham Park.

Bringing the Movable Wall to Queens had been a mission for the past three years of the borough’s only chapter of Vietnam Veterans. Pat Toro, president of Chapter 32, based in Glendale, said the wall is a solemn tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

“We wanted to bring this for everyone to see,” Toro said. “People are going to be proud of this; seeing the Vietnam memorial in the borough of Queens.”

The idea for a movable memorial was conceived by John Devitt, a former helicopter door gunner. Devitt visited the Washington, D.C. monument in 1982, and was so moved by the experience that he devoted his career to bringing a replica of the wall to those who could not travel to the nation’s capital.

Since its creation, the wall—which like the D.C. monument, has 52,228 names inscribed—has travelled to more than 900 cities, including most recently in Queens at Flushing Meadows Park in 1991.

Toro finally got the go-ahead in mid-January to look for a suitable Queens location to house the wall, which, once put together, stands six feet tall and is nearly the length of a football field.

Expecting little to no community opposition, Toro applied for a permit with the Parks Department and then took the plans to Gary Giordano, district manager of Community Board 5, and City Councilman Dennis Gallagher.

Initially, Toro said the project was faced with three seemingly surmountable hurdles: security, location and hours of activity.

The first concern, he said, was easily alleviated when the Vietnam Veterans chapter volunteered to keep a watch over the wall at all hours.

The other two issues, though, proved more difficult to settle.

Toro suggested the wall be placed on the lower baseball fields, where the September 11th candlelight vigil was held more than two years ago. The centrally located area, he said, offers the best area for viewing. The area also has a ceremonial purpose; it is located closest to the American flag pole.

The ballfields, however, were recently renovated and some in the community expressed concern that driving a flatbed truck onto the field could damage the new surface. After speaking to his members, Toro said the veterans agreed to carry each of the aluminum-framed panels, which separate for easier mobility, one by one onto the field.

However, despite the concession by the vets, there remained a level of debate about whether the lower ballfields was the best location for the wall.

Bob Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, suggested an alternative nearby location, at a small park that houses the Pullis Cemetery.

“It would be a tranquil and passive area for meditation,” said Holden, who passed along his suggestion to Giordano and Gallagher.

However, Toro said the Pullis Cemetery site has an abundance of trees, which would make erecting the wall nearly impossible.

Holden, though, insists that he never had any direct contact with the veterans about the plan and refutes claims that he was against the project.

Holden said he gauged the opinion of some of his civic members, many of whom live near the park and that some residents expressed concern about keeping the wall open to the public 24 hours a day—Juniper Valley Park normally closes at 9 p.m.—while others had questions about lighting, parking and noise.

“But, I was never vocal about it,” Holden said, adding that his civic group never met on the subject. “As a civic president and a responsible community member, I was just looking at this in all possible ways. But, I always believed there was room for discussion.”

The question about keeping the wall open throughout the night and early morning proved the most difficult to answer. Toro said that since its inception, the wall has always been open to the public 24 hours a day, as a courtesy toward the vets.

“This was not negotiable,” he said. “The vets should be able to choose when they want to see the memorial. And, if they want to sit and reminisce and pray, then they need to have access. I can’t imagine telling them that the park is closed. If we were trying to hold a festival or a street fair, I could understand that. But, this is a solemn event.”

As the debate continued to drag on, time proved to be the plan’s biggest obstacle.

Community Board 5’s Parks and Recreation Committee met on Monday, February 23rd to discuss whether to recommend approving the permit to the Parks Department. Giordano said there seemed to be no serious objections at the time to the plan. However, the committee requested that the vets come back before them again to iron out some minor details.

However, Toro said he did not have the luxury of waiting any longer. He was faced with a difficult decision: move the wall to an alternative Queens location or risk losing it altogether.

With a deadline looming to sign the contract, the Queens chapter voted unanimously last Friday to sponsor bringing the wall to Cunningham Park, near the corner of Union Turnpike and Francis Lewis Boulevard.

“Nobody told us yes and nobody told us no,” Toro said about the Juniper proposal. “Issues were brought up and each time we took care of them. But, there always seemed to be a new obstacle. The way we look at it, it seems they just didn’t wanted us there.”

Gallagher, though, disputes that this was simply a case of “not-in-my backyard.”

“Unfortunately, we just didn’t have enough time,” the councilman said, adding that he believes that with an extra week or two, an agreement could have been reached. “It’s really unfortunate.”

“There are times when we just can’t move quickly enough to accomplish everything fast enough,” Giordano said. “If I could have had more time to devote to this, maybe we would have this in Juniper.”

For his part, Toro believes that Cunningham Park will ultimately prove to be a better location to temporarily house the wall. The park, he said, is easily accessible from both the Grand Central Parkway and Long Island Expressway, and is accustomed to housing major public events, such as the Big Apple Circus.

Fresh Meadows City Councilman James Gennaro said he does not expect any serious opposition in his district to keeping Cunningham Park open to the public throughout the night.

“I suspect most people’s reaction will be that, for a limited amount of time, let’s make some accommodations on behalf of the vets and on behalf of what this monument represents,” Gennaro said.

Toro is scheduled to meet with Community Board 8 next week to discuss the details of the plan.

“The Parks Department looks forward to working with the Vietnam War Veterans and the community to find the moat suitable location for the travelling memorial,” said a Parks Department spokesperson. “As the date gets closer, we will explore the best way for the public to experience this memorial.”

The Movable Wall will arrive on September 30th with the opening ceremonies scheduled for October 1st. The wall would then be up for public display from October 2nd through October 8th.

While grateful that Queens will still play host to the wall, Toro remains deeply frustrated by how the situation was handled. However, he suspects that eventually, the entire Middle Village community will realize that they missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“This would have been great for the community,” he said. “We really thought the community would welcome this.”

Welcome to the discussion.