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Queens Chronicle

For South Queens, a year of lending hands

Residents band together after the hurricane, to battle breast cancer

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Posted: Thursday, December 29, 2011 12:00 pm | Updated: 2:19 pm, Thu Jan 5, 2012.

No matter how hard the water came this year, how fast it rushed down narrow side streets and into residents’ basements, leaving in its wake destroyed possessions and a mangled mess of downed trees and snarled wires, South Queens residents did what they’ve always done —tried to stand tall and, when they saw their neighbors’ ceilings crumbling, dropped everything to lend a helping hand.

Steadier than the water, but often seeming even more powerful, this outpouring of help from residents erupted after Hurricane Irene’s devastation, then again when thousands of people banded together to fight cancer — a disease that this year claimed far too many of the people who were essential stitches in closely knit communities — and, most recently, to remind the daughters of slain Police Officer Peter Figoski that they have the emotional and financial backing of South Queens.

There were the ups and downs inevitable in any year —though perhaps they sometimes skyrocketed higher and sank lower in 2011 than in recent years past. South Queens made national headlines during Barbara Sheehan’s emotional month-long murder trial and when tens of thousands of people flooded into South Ozone Park for the opening of the city’s first casino. Howard Beach’s own Pia Toscano captured millions of hearts across the country as a finalist in “American Idol.” There were fires and murders, cultural celebrations and parades.

And on the last day of this year, South Queens residents will, as they have so many times before, drive along Crossbay Boulevard or Jamaica Avenue, turn down side streets away from the hustle and bustle and step into the place that makes them care so vehemently about their communities, into the reminder of why they fight so hard for their battles —home.

January

The year began much as it ended — with Aqueduct. That is to say, residents bid adieu to the racetrack’s 40-year-old flea market in the beginning of the year in preparation for the incoming Resorts World New York City Casino that has generated both adoration — often for the jobs created —and ire —often for the traffic — from residents.

Business owners, and shoppers, lamented the change in the traffic pattern around the Liberty Avenue, Crossbay Boulevard and Woodhaven Boulevard intersection in Ozone Park. The city’s decision to make a portion of Liberty Avenue one-way, they said, and continue to say, has made it difficult for drivers to get to their mom-and-pop shops, seriously hampering business and forcing many owners to lay off employees.

February

February began on a sour note, with the city’s annual budget dance beginning and legislators, including state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach), and educators fearing that Gov. Cuomo’s proposed $1.4 billion cut to education would translate into fewer teachers working with more children in Queens’ notoriously overcrowded classrooms.

After garnering attention throughout the city, and the greater metropolitan area, a 30-year-old Ozone Park babysitter, Krystal Khan — a mother herself — was convicted of reckless assault after the 11-month-old boy she was watching drowned in a bucket of water while she was sleeping, according to the Queens DA.

South Ozone Park residents found themselves increasingly nervous when a middle-aged paraplegic man from Jamaica, Anthony Dehaney, was shot in the head and killed while sitting in his car around 120th Avenue and 135th Street. Many asked for increased surveillance cameras in the neighborhood.

March

Pia Toscano burst onto the scene in March, garnering attention from coast to coast and making her hometown of Howard Beach burst with pride after the 22-year-old singer wowed millions of “American Idol” viewers —not to mention the show’s judges, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and fellow city girl Jennifer Lopez. A lifelong Howard Beach girl, Toscano attended MS 207 in Howard Beach and graduated from LaGuardia HS in Manhattan.

Crime exploded during the month, with 18-year-old Anthony Callao being beaten to death outside a party in Woodhaven. Four other teens, two from Flushing and two from Woodhaven, were charged with the beating, which police said happened after the teens allegedly screamed anti-gay slurs during the party, which they reportedly crashed. Callao was not gay, according to family and friends.

Another shooting happened in mid-March, this time in broad daylight along Crossbay Boulevard near the C-Town in Ozone Park, leaving many residents shaken at the brazen attack. According to witnesses, a shooter in his early 30s pumped five shots towards a car at the intersection of Crossbay Boulevard and Sutter Avenue. The man in the car was reportedly not hurt, but an elderly man across the street was shot in the hand.

To wrap up a month dominated by crime, police found a noose hanging across the street from PS 232 in Lindenwood. They also discovered swastikas painted outside the school.

April

After more than a month of Howard Beach residents being elated that one of their own had made it into the national spotlight, Toscano was voted off “American Idol” in early April. She placed ninth in the competition, shocking individuals across the borough and country who thought her talent would usher her to the top. Even J-Lo said she “didn’t know what happened” with Toscano’s oust.

Another Queens resident announced she was leaving the spotlight, at least a legislative one, at the end of April. Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Ozone Park) resigned from her seat the following month after serving the 23rd District for nearly a quarter of a century. Pheffer is now the Queens County clerk.

In mid-April, eight Queens residents from Ozone Park, South Ozone Park, Elmhurst, Richmond Hill and Sunnyside filed a lawsuit seeking to disbar five of the eight judges who hear Social Security disability cases in Queens. According to the suit, the Queens Office of Disability Assistance and Review had the third highest rate of denying benefits of the 166 Social Security offices across the country from 2005 to 2008.

April ended with a dispute over leadership at the Baba Makhan Shah Lubana Sikh Center in South Richmond Hill that erupting into violence, and the clash between worshippers armed with swords and cricket bats shook residents who questioned the future of their religious community. About 10 to 15 people were injured, according to worshippers, and no one was killed.

May

Residents and legislators said they were devastated to see the 111-year-old Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Woodhaven close in May, which officials from the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island said had to happen because of a dwindling number of parishioners.

Unlike Saint Matthew’s, the city announced five high schools in Queens that had been pegged for possible closure would remain open —including John Adams in Ozone Park. The high school had originally been placed on a list for possible phaseout because the state labeled it as “persistently low-achieving.” Instead, an educational nonprofit began working with John Adams this year to help the school increase its graduation rates and test scores.

The Queens DA charged two more men in the murder of Gerardo “Jerry” Antoniello, the 29-year-old who was trying to protect his father during a home invasion when he was shot and killed on Sept. 9, 2009. His parents own Romeo’s Pizzeria on Cross Bay Boulevard in Ozone Park.

Ozone Park residents Francis LaCorte, 29, and Vincent Mineo, 29, were charged in the slaying. In 2009, Brooklyn resident Jason Burrell, 39, and Bronx resident Rashod Cowan, 32, had also been arrested and charged in Antoniello’s murder.

June

Much of June was dominated by a scandal that sank former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner’s political career. He resigned in the middle of the month after first denying, then ultimately admitting, that he sent lewd photographs to women online.

While many in South Queens were closely following Weiner’s political implosion, it was the death of Mary Napolitano that mattered most to many area residents.

Napolitano, 44, was a beloved Howard Beach resident and mother of three who had battled pancreatic cancer for more than six years.

She was honored during the annual Howard Beach Relay for Life, which drew more than 1,000 people to the Frank M. Charles Memorial Park on June 11 and 12 and raised more than $150,000 for the American Cancer Society.

July

Thousands of people rallied to keep Peninsula Hospital in the Rockaways open after its parent company, MediSys, said it could no longer operate it because Peninsula had sunk into about $60 million in debt. The Brooklyn-based Revival Home Health Care came to the hospital’s rescue and took it over in September.

Finances have since been rocky, and officials at the institution said earlier this month they were worried about making payroll, which they ultimately were able to do.

August

One of the year’s most memorable events happened in August — Hurricane Irene.

The storm, which swept the eastern seaboard and prompted the mayor to order the city’s first-ever mandatory evacuation for the Rockaways and other low-lying neighborhoods, left thousands of people without power in south Queens. Residents are still fixing basements that were once submerged in knee-deep water. Many residents said they lost photos of family and friends now long gone, their faces swept away by the water and now only living in memories.

About 550 residents sought shelter at John Adams High School in Ozone Park.

Also in August, irate parents and concerned elected officials attended a Community Education Council District 27 meeting to voice their opposition to the city’s proposal to implement a middle school choice program in South Queens. The program would allow children to apply to any middle school in the district, but parents said they were worried their students would get stuck with no seat in their zoned institution. Originally expected to vote on the choice program in August, the CEC still has yet to say yea or nay but expects to do so at its upcoming February meeting.

September

U.S. Rep. Bob Turner (R-Queens, Brooklyn) won the Sept. 13 special election for the Congressional seat previously held by Weiner, beating Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck) in a stunning defeat that some said was indicative of discontent with President Obama’s policies, particularly when it came to Israel and the Middle East.

Turner, who lives with his wife, Peggy, in Breezy Point, garnered 54 percent of the vote in a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than three to one.

Israel become a focal point in the race, and former Democratic Mayor Ed Koch endorsed Turner in July because he said he wanted the election to be a “referendum” on Obama’s policies in the Middle East, which he said “threw Israel under the bus.”

Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Ozone Park), a former aide to U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), beat Republican Jane Deacy, a retired policewoman, in the race for the seat previously held by Pheffer.

Residents commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Remembrance events were held throughout South Queens, including for Richard Allen Pearlman at the Howard Beach Judea Center. Pearlman, a member of the Forest Hills Volunteer Ambulance Corps, was 19 years old when he died after heeding a call for medical help at the Twin Towers.

Another major story of the year began in September —the trial of Howard Beach resident Barbara Sheehan, who had been charged with shooting and killing her ex-cop husband, Raymond Sheehan, after he had allegedly abused her for the past 18 years of their 24-year marriage. Sheehan was acquitted of murder but found guilty on a felony weapons charge and was sentenced to five years in prison.

The trial was emotionally charged, with Barbara Sheehan’s family and friends, as well as domestic violence advocates, packing the courtroom daily. Barbara Sheehan’s two children testified during the trial, both of them saying their first memories were of their father beating their mother and that they grew up hearing their father threaten their mother’s life, and their own, if she ever told anyone about the abuse.

October

After years of planning, the casino at Aqueduct flung open its doors to much fanfare — more than 65,000 residents flocked to South Ozone Park for the opening weekend. Since Resorts World New York City opened its Times Square Casino in October — and two subsequent casinos in December —residents have been concerned with the increase in traffic in the area. Others have said they are nervous there will be a jump in crime, though officers from the 106th Precinct said that has not happened.

After the city Parks Department said it had failed to find an operator for the Forest Park carousel, residents intensified their battle to ensure the merry-go-round spins again. Members of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association began selling “Save the Forest Park Carousel” T-shirts, and residents have written numerous letters to the city in support of landmarking the 1903 carousel, as well as for finding an operator. Earlier in December, the city issued another request for proposals for the merry-go-round.

Crime dominated the news in October, as it did in previous months, and a Woodhaven immigration attorney was murdered in her home. A male tenant who had been renting apartment space from her was charged with the killing.

Former Woodhaven resident Edwin Fuentes pleaded guilty in October to murdering his wife in 2007, dismembering her and putting some of her body parts in a suitcase that was found by a group of teenagers in Forest Park almost a year later.

A van driver who had allegedly sideswiped another vehicle on the Belt Parkway sped away from the scene, reportedly reached 80 miles per hour while navigating residential side streets in south Queens and ended up taking a dive into a 20-foot boat docked outside the Howard Beach Motor Boat Club.

November

Residents kicked off their Thanksgiving weekend by voicing concerns about students from JHS 210, who have terrorized some Woodhaven residents for years. As the pupils make their way from school in Ozone Park to the Woodhaven area, residents said they’ll break windows, jump on cars and hurl expletives at elderly individuals.

The principal of JHS 210 has said she is not sure if the students are coming from her school, but said she has addressed the issue of the problem behavior with them.

At the end of the month, Councilman Eric Ulrich was tapped to lead Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in New York City.

December

After a 29-year-old man was gunned down and killed while driving near his home in Howard Beach, residents said they wanted better street lighting to deter crime.

Ozone Park residents, as well as individuals from throughout South Queens, rallied together to raise money for slain officer Peter Figoski’s family, particularly to help pay for his four daughters to attend college.

Just as they had so many times throughout the year, for many causes, the people of this community gave their all —in this case for someone who had given his all, less than a dozen blocks outside of South Queens.

Welcome to the discussion.