Residents gained useful skills and a chance to know their neighbors as many teamed up for a small-scale public project to install benches at Jamaica bus stops.
“In this recession, we were upset that the stimulus didn’t go directly to people who needed it most. So, since the government hasn’t brought the WPA back, we will,” said Christopher Robbins, outreach officer with the Work Projects Administration-2010.
The WPA is a former U.S. government agency, established in 1935 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s purpose was to relieve widespread unemployment by putting people to work on useful projects such as construction of public buildings and roads. It ended in 1943, in the midst of World War II, after training became available to teach individuals how to perform factory jobs and unemployment had largely ended.
On July 1, WPA opened an office at 90-26 161st St. in Jamaica where the group held a series of workshops to find out what kinds of projects were desired and needed. One idea that consistently came up was the installation of benches at area bus stops.
WPA gave seven residents, who would have otherwise been unemployed, $12 an hour to build two benches. One was installed on Parsons Boulevard near 88th Avenue and the other will serve as a back-up for the first. If it is determined that the second bench is not needed it will be placed at another location.
“After an hour of watching and filming it, people came over and sat down and said ‘This is great,’” recalled Robbins. “But they felt we needed a way to permanently affix it or else it would get stolen. We wanted to play the trust game, but people kept saying it would disappear.”
The WPA workers have taken the bench away while the group figures out a plan to make it more secure. It is considering bolting the bench to the concrete, but will consult the city’s Department of Transportation, to find out if that is the best method before moving forward.
However, involving the DOE may turn out to work against the WPA, since the group does not have permission to put the benches on city property.
“It is a renegade project in the sense that we are doing what we wish the government would do,” said Robbins “It gives average citizens a way to improve their neighborhood.”
Even if the city takes the bench away or it gets stolen, the project is not a total bust because it is what the bench symbolizes at least as much as its physical presence that is important.
It was an opportunity for community members to come together and make some money while learning skills that they would not have otherwise had, all while producing a product that benefits their neighborhood.
“It was a new experience,” said Robbins. “They liked having the chance to do something that is immediately positive.”
The WPA has also opened a branch in Wassaic, NY and Robbins says that officials there are generally appreciative of the public works projects, even if they are not technically allowed to be doing them and he hopes the same will be true of Jamaica.
WPA workers are selected from office walk-ins and range in age from teens to middle-aged adults. All funding and materials are acquired through private donations.
In the future, the group would like to construct a bus shelter on Parsons Boulevard somewhere between 88th and 89th avenues. Also in the works are a mural for a construction site, the creation and distribution of parent resource information packets and the use of a mom-pop store as a social center.