Not much changed in South Queens in 2003. A firehouse didn’t close, a councilman wasn’t voted out of office and there was not mass chaos when the long-awaited AirTrain opened in December.
But the area did have its moments. Woodhaven native Adrien Brody won the Oscar for best actor for his role in “The Pianist,” the site of the former St. Anthony’s Hospital was finally sold to a developer, and the Concorde supersonic airliner made its final voyage over the Atlantic, out of sight and out of the ears of South Queens residents for good.
Here’s a look back at the major news events of the year:
In January, the much-beleaguered light-rail project suffered another setback when the family of Kelvin DeBourgh Jr., the 23-year-old Jamaica man who was killed while testing the system, announced their plans to file a $200-million lawsuit against the Port Authority and Bombardier Transportation, the Canadian company that built it.
DeBourgh’s family hired Johnnie Cochran Jr.’s firm to represent them. Attorney Paul Weitz blasted the Port Authority for having DeBourgh, a customer service representative, test-drive the system, which operates automatically.
“Basically, the people who formulated the test didn’t know what they were doing. They disabled the speed governor. If the test was designed to be fast, no one should have been in there,” he said. The Port Authority has not commented on the case, but has announced it will build some sort of memorial to DeBourgh.
There were two other major legal battles in January. The three officers who were fired in 1998 for participating in a racist float at the Broad Channel Memorial Day Parade sued the city to get their jobs back. They argued that they should not have been fired since the incidents did not occur during work hours.
The city claimed that it had the right to fire the three employees because while they are entitled to free speech, that speech is limited if it could impede job performance in any way. City lawyers argued that the incident could have negatively influenced interaction between the three men and the communities they served. In July, Judge John Sprizzo ruled the firings were unconstitutional, possibly opening the door for the trio to be reinstated.
The second was the arrest of Joseph Massino of Howard Beach, the alleged crime boss of the Bonanno organized crime family of La Cosa Nostra on murder and racketeering charges. According to U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf, Massino was the last major New York organized crime boss who had not yet been arrested.
He had avoided prosecution over the previous years while dozens of Bonanno family members had already been indicted on other charges. He lived on 84th Street in Howard Beach, but after his arrest local residents were tight lipped. “I don’t know anything about Massino and even if I did, I would not say anything,” one said.
There was more mob-related fallout in November, when alleged Gambino family crime boss Ronald Trucchio was indicted by the Department of Justice along with nine others. Trucchio, commonly known as Ronnie One-Arm because of a childhood accident which deformed his left arm, was pegged as the leader of a group that committed criminal acts, including murder in Florida and bank robberies in New York.
There was another departure from Howard Beach, but this one was celebrated by everyone in town. The Concorde made its final departure to London on October 24th. Departing shortly after 7:38 a.m. as the sun rose, the plane took off from a runway facing west. Its unmistakable silhouette quickly appeared, then turned over Jamaica Bay as the plane performed its final U-turn over the Rockaways on its way to Europe.
On the beach at Frank Charles Memorial Park, residents of south Queens expressed mostly relief that what many described as a 26-year nightmare of rattling homes and damaged eardrums was over. Joe Campisi, who lives across the street from Charles Park, said life came to a sudden stop every day when the plane took off. “You really can’t be inside the house when it goes overhead. And more than half the time, it doesn’t fly where it is supposed to. When it flies over the park, everyone ducks.”
Many joked that the plane’s final flightpath, directly over Jamaica Bay, spared south Queens residents the unmistakable roar they have lived with every morning for more than a quarter of a century. The planes often deviated from their flightpaths to fly directly over houses. “I think this is the first time in 30 years it’s flown on the right path,” Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr. (who was handily re-elected in November) quipped.
The residents weren’t the only beneficiaries of the plane’s departure. For years, the Concorde’s Rolls Royce engines have wreaked havoc on the ecosystem of Jamaica Bay, where the marshland has been steadily disappearing. The marshland supports most of the animal life in the bay, and the National Park Service accepted public comment in March for a $50,000 study to maintain and restore the marshlands. Jamaica Bay serves as an important migration stop for East Coast birds and is one of the best birdwatching spots in the country.
In August, Congressman Anthony Weiner announced a pilot program to repair Big Egg Marsh in Broad Channel and then study the forces at work against it to determine why the millenniums-old formation is disappearing in a matter of years. A private contractor brought a barge that removed sand from the bottom of the so-called “cow path” through the marsh and built up the marsh’s shore.
Once the shoreline is repaired, the National Park Service and Jamaica Bay Eco-Watchers will study the different effects of the ocean on the marsh. Some ecologists believe the bay’s tides are the culprit for beach erosion.“Many people don’t know about it, but here in South Brooklyn and South Queens we are home to one of the most important ecosystems in this part of the world. Much to our chagrin, this ecosystem is disappearing and we don’t know why,” Weiner said. According to estimates, Big Egg Marsh will disappear by 2025 if the erosion is not stopped.
The environmental problems in South Queens weren’t limited to Jamaica Bay. PS 65 in Ozone Park continued to be a battleground between the Department of Education and angry parents who are unconvinced the toxic spill under the school has been adequately cleaned. But there was a bright moment for the school when former Mayor Rudy Giuliani visited in May to rename it in honor of Ray York, an Ozone Park native who died in the World Trade Center attacks. York was a firefighter at Engine 285, which is directly behind the school.
At PS 64 in Ozone Park, parents successfully stopped the DOE from implementing a busing procedure that would have sent many neighborhood children to other schools including PS 65 due to space constraints. After protests, DOE officials said they would renovate some offices in the building to accommodate the 842 students who are currently crammed into a building with space for only 765 children.
It was not a banner year for Franklin K. Lane High School in Woodhaven. In February, a former student filed a class-action lawsuit against the school. The lawsuit sought to allow students who were discharged because they were too old to re-enroll in school, and was strikingly similar to a 1969 lawsuit against Lane. The same judge even heard both cases.
In January, Lane was added to the state’s School Under Registration Review list for the second time with substandard performance in both English and math. And in September, members of the Latin Kings and Bloods gangs were fighting at the intersection of Eldert Lane and 87th Avenue on the Brooklyn-Queens border just after school dismissal when a Cadillac Escalade pulled up and six shots were fired.
Two 17-year olds and one 16-year-old, all students at the school, were hit by the gunfire. The victims were each hit once, two of them in the ankle and one in the arm, and were treated at Jamaica Hospital. The area around the troubled school is coveted by Bloods from Richmond Hill High School and Transit Tech High School in Brooklyn, but has long been Latin Kings territory.
But Woodhaven struck it big in almost every other way. In March, longshot Brody, a native of 85th Road, won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in “The Pianist.” Brody played Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew and gifted pianist who spent six years evading the Germans in Nazi-occupied Warsaw virtually alone. Brody had one of the more memorable acceptance speeches in the history of the Oscars once his name was announced. He held presenter Halle Berry in an extended kiss, then cut off producers who tried to coax him off stage by starting the traditional exit music.
He thanked the Academy, his parents, and sent a surprise message to Rego Park’s Tommy Zarobinski, a childhood friend who was serving in the Army National Guard in Kuwait. Brody is the son of the acclaimed photojournalist Sylvia Plachy and Elliot Brody, a retired public school teacher and painter. Plachy, who has been the staff photographer for the Village Voice since 1977, herself escaped the Hungarian revolution in a corn truck and settled in Austria before coming to America.
Brody’s win, however, was only the second biggest victory for Woodhaven this year. In late May, a $2.7-million bailout by state legislators allowed Mayor Bloomberg to save two out of eight city firehouses that were slated to close, including Engine 293 in Woodhaven, ending months of drama surrounding its fate. The bailout came on the heels of a lawsuit filed by Councilman Addabbo and 15 other elected officials.
The mayor first announced a plan to close eight firehouses in November 2002 to save the city an estimated $10.8 million in annual operating costs. Residents rallied at Engine 293 three times between November and March, and most were shocked that firehouses were being sacrificed for such a small financial benefit.
The mayor formed a Blue Ribbon Panel to explore alternatives to the measure after the affected communities opposed the cuts. But most people saw the panel, which was appointed by the mayor, as a rubber-stamp for his budget priorities.
Engine 293 received one reprieve in March, but was scheduled to close for good on May 22nd when the good news came. The mayor said he decided to keep the firehouse open because the rise in response time in the area would have been one minute and eleven seconds. Squad 252 in Brooklyn was also saved because of its hazardous materials unit.
Woodhaven also finally got closure—not to mention a brand-new housing development—when Catholic Charities sold the site of the former St. Anthony’s Hospital to a private developer in June. The Ciampa Organization agreed to buy the land and has started to build the Woodhaven Park Estates on the property, a private community that will be finished by the end of 2004.
They also agreed to donate some of the land to the city, where a 400-seat Early Childhood Center will be built to relieve school overcrowding in the area. The Office of the Borough President has long wanted to build a school on the fallow property, and the plans for the facility are making their way through the approval stages.
But the biggest news of the year was the opening of the AirTrain, the $1.9-billion light-rail system that was plagued by problems before it ever got off the ground. In early December, the Port Authority’s long-awaited pet project finally spread its wings, so to speak, and began ferrying passengers from Jamaica and Howard Beach to Kennedy Airport.
Exactly one hundred years after the Wright Brothers made the first powered flight, the AirTrain made its maiden voyage, carrying Governor George Pataki, who was the driving force behind the system, Mayor Bloomberg and dozens of city and Port Authority executives from Kennedy’s Terminal Four to the gleaming new AirTrain terminal in Jamaica.
“This has unified the gateway to America to New York. And what better way, than through beautiful downtown Jamaica, New York,” the mayor said to resounding applause.
The opening marked the completion of the largest public works project in Queens in decades, the fruit of 50 years of studying and heated debates that date back to the years of master builder Robert Moses. It took five and a half years to build the 8.1-mile link, which runs in a loop between the airport’s nine terminals before branching off to the Howard Beach and Jamaica stations. The project was funded by a $2.50 per-ticket surcharge on passengers travelling through Kennedy, and the train ride costs $5 to or from Jamaica or Howard Beach. It is free within the airport.
In time, the AirTrain may be extended to Manhattan. Governor Pataki said those plans are already being studied. “We did this, we are going to do that too.”
Transportation advocates like Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers’ Campaign say they look forward to that day as well. “This holy grail is the one-seat ride,” he said. “But you’ve got a pretty damn good station here right now.”