When Benjamin Haber, 85, attended PS 87 in Middle Village, buildings in Queens did not exceed six stories. From the third floor of his elementary school, he was able to look north toward Corona and see the construction of the Trylon and Perisphere, iconic structures from the 1939 World’s Fair.
He recalls Robert Moses’ promises to build a first-rate, world-class park after the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs and laments it hasn’t come to pass.
“Robert Moses gave us a park and the city abandoned it,” Haber said.
Flushing Meadows Corona Park is the second most-used park in the city, and most of the people who use it are poor, middle class, and minorities.
“This park was singled out for politicians to dump on,” he said. “There is nothing in the city charter that says that this park is different from other parks,” noting that Central and Prospect parks have not been targeted for development or cluttered with nonpark structures.
“I get upset when the big government takes advantage of the little people,” Haber said.
Haber is a protagonist of “City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York,” by Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett, which details Haber's successful opposition to former Borough President Donald Manes’ proposals to turn Flushing Meadows Park into New York’s Meadowlands, a home for sports stadiums for televised games.
When the LeFrak Corporation wanted to build apartments on the shores of the park’s Willow Lake, Haber stopped the project by exposing Manes’ list of campaign contributors, which included the LeFrak developer, architect, and lawyer.
Manes’ Grand Prix Racetrack plan required cutting down 113 trees and constructing a 35-foot-wide roadway around the lake. It would have shut down the park in the summer for construction and preparations for the three-day race. Haber waged a three-year fight against the project, exposing cronyism and corruption, until Manes’ suicide in January 1986 ended the project.
“The Grand Prix Racetrack was just a horror. It was so absurd we even got The New York Times to write an editorial against it,” Haber said. “We did a fantastic job killing it.”
He also fought against the United States Tennis Association’s move to Flushing Meadows from Forest Hills, and now protests its proposals to expand its facilities. Haber also opposes Major League Soccer’s proposal to build a stadium in the park and the plans to build a mall in the Citi Field parking lot.
“I don’t know why politicians have the need to fall under the spell of the sports people,” Haber said. Sports activities equal less than .07 percent of the city GDP, Haber noted, and the city did not go bankrupt when the Giants, Jets and Dodgers left.
“The pictures the USTA shows do not look like a park,” he said, referring to the lack of trees and open space.
Haber goes to Flushing Meadow Park often. “I can’t walk around the lake and sit down because there are no benches,” he said. “If the Parks Department spent one-tenth of the time it spends lobbying for the USTA, taking care of the park, it would be a much nicer place.”
Still active at 85, Haber plays tennis in Cunningham Park twice a week. “When I fight the USTA, it’s not because I don’t like tennis,” he said.
Haber is known in the advocacy world for his constant presence at community and civic board meetings and prolific letters, according to Geoffrey Croft, the founder of New York City Park Advocates, an independent group which is part of the Save Flushing Meadows Corona Park Coalition.
“It’s a pleasure to watch him shuffle around the room,” Croft said. “He’s trying to bring joy and justice to these communities, which is admirable.”
Croft said that Haber brings a lot of institutional knowledge to the movement, since he’s been following and participating in the process for many years.
“We need a heck of a lot more people doing this, especially in Queens, standing up and fighting for vital open spaces,” Croft, the founder of New York City Park Advocates,
“We’re up against these community boards that have been rubber-stamping these proposals,” Croft said. “It’s really sad that this is just horse trading and this is the way our parkland is doled out.”
Haber also objects to development in Willets Point, where Mayor Bloomberg is looking to build a mall.
“All of the years I’ve been fighting, I’m not involved with Willets Point. It just bothered me to see 225 small businesses with 1,000 employees kicked out,” Haber said.
The Willets Point United Inc. honored him for authoring “brilliant letters that inform, persuade, and inspire.”
The retired defense lawyer, has been married to his wife Ethyl for over 50 years. They have a son who lives in California and a daughter in Massachusetts.
When he is not advocating for the parks, Haber sculpts and builds furniture.
Despite flunking shop class in elementary school, Haber began building furniture as an adult. He read articles on furniture in Women’s Day, which his wife brought home from the supermarket. He purchased the pattern for an armoire, and “it came out magnificently,” according to Haber. He has since built over 100 pieces of furniture, many of which reside with his relatives around the country.
He also took up sculpture at Queensborough Community College, where a piece of his work is displayed at the Holocaust Center and another at his daughter’s synagogue.
“My wife said my work would look good in the window of an upscale Manhattan store,” Haber said.
On a subsequent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Haber showed photographs of his work to the owner of Occhiaci, an eyeglass store on the corner of 81st Street and Lexington Avenue. “They were happy to have my stuff in the window,” Haber said.