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Queens Chronicle

A Wild And Woolly Year For Southeast Queens

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Posted: Thursday, January 3, 2002 12:00 am

Let’s be frank. Last year was a pretty bad one for Southeast Queens, one that many folks are more than happy to put behind them.

To be sure, there were plenty of good things that happened in 2001: crime plummeted, we finally got some of our eyesore parks and public amenities repaired and there was a sense of optimism and hope in the political process that had not been seen in decades.

Yet it was also a year in which long-standing problems continued to fester like old wounds. Public school testing scores continued their slow decline. Much-needed infrastructure improvements proved habitually elusive. Environmental problems seemed to be everywhere.

And in the middle of the ups and downs, the biggest down of them all happened—September 11—separating us from loved ones and leaving Southeast Queens more uncertain than ever about the future.

The first weeks began innocently enough, with a focus on fixing ailing schools. From a January perspective, things looked promising: then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani said he would accelerate capital funding to the School Construction Authority. That was music to the ears of the borough, which had 15 schools on the drawing board and needed another 27,000 seats.

But by summer, the rosy picture started to grow thorns. The Board of Education said in July that it racked up nearly $3 billion in debt because of cost overruns and that some projects would have to be shelved.

The Board of Ed was still wrangling over the issue in December, when it finally agreed to build only 12 of those schools. Among the 3 casualties was PS 263, a desperately needed 700-seat school for School District 29.

In the meantime, math and reading scores reached new lows. In June, Chancellor Harold Levy announced that 29.4 percent of students in grades 3, 5, 6 and 7 had met the state standard in math in the district, down from 31 percent the year before.

Eighth grade results, released in the fall, were even more dismal: only one in four met the reading standard and only 12 percent passed in math.

Many factors doubtlessly contributed to the dismal scores, but many in the community believe that unresolved issues regarding the ailing district’s leadership are partly to blame.

Michael Johnson, whom Levy appointed in 2000, continued to head the district for the year, but as administrator, rather than superintendent.

His stewardship remained largely uncontested, though a fresh search is currently under way to screen candidates for the permanent post.

Bizarre happenings seemed to be in the air early on, especially for 10 families living at one intersection in Jamaica. Awoken one January night by earthquake-like rumblings, the families—all living near 159th Street and 84th Avenue—were forced to flee after the ground shifted and sank beneath their homes, leaving their foundations and walls cracked and caved in.

City agencies said that the homes were probably built on loose soil but several displaced residents continue to believe that a water main break near their homes just prior to the shifting was responsible.

Nearly a year later, none of those residents has been allowed to return; some are still residing with family and friends while matters are sorted out.

On a positive note, years of debate about what to do with a large industrial lot at the corner of Springfield Boulevard and Belknap Avenue came to a close in March, when Home Depot broke ground on a 125,000-square-foot superstore.

Originally the site of the Empire Shoe Polish Factory, the most interesting thing about Home Depot coming to Southeast Queens wasn’t the promise of a wide selection of goods, but rather the implication that the local economy is strong and worth investing in.

In April, the serious problems faced by the small waterfront community of Meadowmere came to light. Located off Rockaway Boulevard to the east of Kennedy Airport and surrounded on three sides by water, the neighborhood of about 70 residents is frequently swamped by storms, but has no flood control or sewers. Homes discharge their sanitary waste directly into the bay and the roads are in disrepair and pockmarked.

After calls from the Chronicle, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection said that it plans to install a pumping station that will pump Meadowmere’s storm water into Jamaica Bay and household waste to a station in Rosedale.

But the station, which will cost $12 million, is still at least 4 years away from being constructed and it remains unclear how budget cutbacks will affect it.

May brought a fresh perspective for Jamaica when the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, a non-profit business advocacy group, unveiled a 20-year master plan for the downtown area.

Called “Vision for Jamaica,” the proposal calls for a 250-room hotel, several parking garages and a reshaping of the area’s parks and streets near the AirTrain terminal, which is to open in 2003.

Greater Jamaica acknowledged that the project hinges on market uncertainties and need, but a construction firm has already been awarded the $90-million contract for the first new building at 94th Avenue and Sutphin Boulevard. The Metropolitan Transit Authority has signed as a tenant.

By the time summer rolled around, the borough was swept by local politics like never before. Because of term limits legislation passed in 1993, all of Queens’ 14 City Councilmembers, as well as Borough President Claire Shulman, were forced from office.

That left a rare power vacuum in Southeast Queens, where scores of Democratic candidates threw their hats into the ring to replace Councilmembers Tom White, Archie Spigner and Juanita Watkins.

Councilmembers Sheldon Leffler and Helen Marshall, as well as former Board of Education president Carol Gresser, stepped up to the plate to become the next borough president.

After months of raising cash, exchanging barbs at countless political forums and mounting behind-the-scenes legal challenges, candidates were excited and ready as primary day finally neared.

They were at the polls pressing the flesh that morning, September 11, when something happened, something terrible and unthinkable that changed our lives forever.

As the World Trade Center came down that day, the twin towers took with them thousands of our neighbors—as well as our innocence.

In interviews immediately following the terrorist attack, Southeast Queens residents who worked in downtown Manhattan painted a gruesome picture of bodies cascading to the ground from the sky as fireballs exploded all around.

Among the lost were Moira Smith, of Queens Village, who was a community policing officer with the NYPD’s 13th Precinct in Manhattan; Tarel Coleman, a firefighter who lived in Rochdale Village; and Andrew Bailey, a private security guard, to name but a few.

Shocked and angered, we somehow mustered the energy to pull ourselves back together and move on and two weeks later, on September 25, went to the polls for a second Democratic primary.

A familiar face, Leroy Comrie, claimed his former boss’ seat in the 27th Council District, but two non-establishment candidates, Allan Jennings and James Sanders, emerged as winners in the neighboring 28th and 31st Districts.

All three sailed to victory in the general election in November, while Marshall was elected as Queens’ first minority borough president.

With the new leadership in place, the city was debating the new security and financial environment post-September 11, when tragedy struck again—this time in our own backyard.

At 9:17 a.m. on November 12, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into Belle Harbor, killing all 260 on board and another 5 on the ground. Just minutes into the flight from Kennedy Airport to Santo Domingo, both engines and the tailfin separated from the fuselage, sending the Airbus-300 to the ground.

It was the worst plane crash in Queens’ history and a powerful blow to the western Rockaway Peninsula, which lost more than 30 current and former residents in the September 11 attacks.

By design or by fate, the final weeks of 2001 were relatively peaceful, a notion supported by Police Department statistics that showed major crimes had, once again, fallen in Southeast Queens.

The only stirrings of note were the holidays—Christmas, Chanukah, Idul-Fitr, Kwanzaa and New Year’s celebrations. For reasons all too clear, they seemed to have renewed importance in 2001.

Welcome to the discussion.