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Queens Chronicle

Tough year in southeast Queens

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Posted: Wednesday, December 31, 2008 12:00 am

2008 was a challenging year for residents of southeast Queens, presenting stories of heartbreak over lost homes, justice eluded and communities terrorized by the most reprehensible of society’s ills.

It wasn’t all bad news, however, as a history-making national election made residents see hope even in what were a dark 12 months.

The year began with the revelation that lawyers were trying to get the Sean Bell trial moved out of the borough. Bell, a 23-year-old groom killed the morning of his wedding by police gunfire, had become a symbol of racial tension in the southeast Queens community.

Many residents held his slaying up as an example of what racial profiling can do when it is institutionalized, especially among police officers.

In the 14 months since the shooting had taken place, the upcoming trial had become a focal point for the community, with southeast Queens residents praying for what they believed would be justice served in their own backyards.

When their request to move the trial upstate was denied, the officers charged with manslaughter and reckless endangerment, among other crimes, elected to have a bench trial without a jury.

The trial began on Feb. 25 with a flurry of activity. For two months, both the prosecution and the defense weaved their tapestries of oral argument.

Lawyers for the defense attacked the character of the victims, including Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, who were injured in the incident in which Bell was killed.

Witnesses testified about the nature of the crime scene, what had gone on at the club before the shooting, how many shots were fired, and the like.

Both sides brought in ballistics technicians and referred to testimony from crime scene investigators and forensics experts.

The trial, before Justice Arthur Cooperman, became an exercise in trying to impress the values of law enforcement and morality upon the court, represented by just one man.

When Cooperman returned with a verdict of not guilty on all charges for all three of the officers involved, the reaction was explosive.

Thousands of Queens residents crowded the Queens County Courthouse in protest of the verdict, and many feared rioting as a result.

In the end, most of the reaction to the case was peaceful, with civil disobedience taking place in parts of the city. The Rev. Al Sharpton, among others, was arrested and cited on a day when protesters disrupted traffic to show their anger over the verdict.

For now, the Bell family waits on a federal civil rights case that is working its way through the U.S. attorney’s office.

Over the summer, residents of southeast Queens were terrified by a pair of rapists, who followed similar patterns and struck in several neighborhoods in the borough.

While residents originally became concerned after three rapes took place near the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008, the case exploded when it seemed that two men were accountable for a dozen rapes or attempted rapes by August.

For the two suspects, the modus operandi was similar: lying in wait for victims in dark and often uninhabited bus stops.

Victims came forward numerous times over the summer, filing reports of being attacked by a man holding a knife. He would then force his victim into a secluded area.

For weeks, residents of southeast Queens lived in fear for community members, and every call to the NYPD tip line resulted in a massive response from officers in the area.

After weeks with no arrests made in the case, state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) issued an ultimatum to the NYPD, telling the brass he would request state and federal assistance if the NYPD was not able to put a stop to the rash of sexual assaults in the area.

While neither state troopers nor the National Guard was ever brought in to southeast Queens, the sex-crime spree did eventually slow down. As of yet, no arrests have been made that were definitively tied to the more than a dozen assaults that occurred.

Beyond the exterior threats brought on by physical attackers, the mental toll brought on by recession was a major factor in southeast Queens in 2008, as foreclosure numbers rocketed upward.

The area has been described by multiple local leaders as New York’s “ground zero” for the foreclosure crisis.

No neighborhoods in the city have been hit as hard — and pervasively — as those of St. Albans, Jamaica, Hollis, Springfield Gardens and surrounding areas.

In some neighborhoods, nearly a quarter of all homes have seen some stage of foreclosure in recent years.

Some relief came in August, when Gov. David Paterson signed New York’s foreclosure rescue package.

“It’s not a bailout, we’re not using tax dollars to pay people’s mortgages,” state Sen. Frank Padavan (D-Bellerose) said. “What we’re doing is helping [subprime lending victims] stay in their homes.”

Padavan was a major author of the legislation, and helped push it through the state Senate, where it had languished for months after passing the Assembly.

The new legislation has already helped homeowners in foreclosure-stricken southeast Queens, by introducing warning notices to homeowners and forcing lenders to help share the burden. It also provides free legal advice to those undergoing foreclosure, all in the interest of fighting one of the main causes of the current economic downturn.

Much of southeast Queens was overjoyed, as tough as the year had been, on Nov. 4. That history-making day will be etched in stone for many residents, as Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was elected President of the United States.

Obama, the son of a woman from Kansas and a Kenyan immigrant, was the first African-American candidate running for president on a major-party ticket.

He bested New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in an epic Democratic primary and defeated Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, of Arizona on Nov. 4.

Carrie Ward, a 70-year-old black woman originally from Hampton, Va., was in southeast Queens to watch Obama’s historic election.

“I’m overwhelmed,” Ward said. “Our parents, those who came before, some of them died for this day.”

Ward, while sitting in the Maranatha Baptist Church in Springfield Gardens, reminisced about her life, and what had led up to one of the truly remarkable moments in the nation’s history.

Like many other southeast Queens residents, she came to the church to watch and pray.

Rev. Akim Beecham, whose flock worships at the church, said he was overwhelmed with feeling at the event, and after leading a prayer for the assembled revelers, tried to compose himself.

“I’ve got tears in my eyes, because I got to experience history tonight,” Beecham said.

That same night also gave way to one of the most contested elections in recent Queens memory.

While most of the borough elections resulted in a clean sweep for Democrats, Padavan, held on to a razor-thin lead in his district, after being challenged for the seat by City Councilman James Gennaro, a Fresh Meadows Democrat.

The race was too close to call on election night, and remained that way through the remainder of the year.

As the official count began in early November, both sides ruthlessly attacked one another, and the process of counting ballots — and challenging them — got into full swing.

As it stands now, Padavan remains in front by a nearly 600-vote margin with about 2,000 left to count. It’s likely that Padavan will enjoy another two-year term at the helm of the 11th State Senate District, but as the year comes to a close, residents still don’t know for sure.

2008 was a difficult year in the southeastern part of the borough, and there’s no guarantee that 2009 will be better, but if there’s one thing that has defined the area, it’s a sense of hope and renewal for the future.

Welcome to the discussion.