Last year began with flight activity in and out of Kennedy Airport being one of the most talked about issues in South Queens. And low-flying planes over mainland and Rockaway communities continued to spark questions and controversy throughout 2002.
At a meeting in January, just two months after the fatal American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in the quiet neighborhood of Belle Harbor, Federal Aviation Administration officials met with members of the community to assure them that a plan would be implemented in which fewer planes would fly directly over residential areas.
“This will cost airlines more money and some of them aren’t happy about it,” said Frank Hatfield at that meeting. Manager of the Air Traffic Division of the FAA, he described a plan that would add more than two minutes to flights which used to cut across parts of Rockaway to save time and fuel.
Congressman Anthony Weiner, who arranged the meeting, said once the new flight patterns were put into effect there would be an 80 percent reduction in flights over Rockaway. As early as February 21st, new Global Positioning Satellite Technology was to have been put into place to automatically guide planes on a path over the waters of Rockaway Inlet and around Breezy Point instead of over residential areas.
Hundreds attended a ceremony on a November morning to mark the anniversary of the Flight 587 disaster, which killed all 260 people on board. Miraculously, only five people on the ground perished.
To date, members of the Rockaway community are still waiting for the FAA’s plan to be put into place. In addition, people living in the neighborhoods of Howard Beach and Ozone Park have complained about planes flying over their homes lower and more frequently this year than in the past.
Although the skies above South Queens may have seemed noisier, the waters surrounding the area were quieter last year. The National Park Service banned the use of jet skis in April.
Residents of communities in close proximity to Jamaica Bay have also been concerned about the continued deterioration of the wetland environment. Several meetings of the Jamaica Bay Task Force were held last year to address the problem.
In January, members of the group were angered at the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to study the feasibility of filling Jamaica Bay’s borrow pits with contaminated sludge and sediment dredged from the mouth of the Hudson River.
By July, more than $700,000 in federal and state funding was secured to study and remediate the problem of the bay’s dying salt marshes. At an October meeting of the task force, a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers announced a potential bankroll of several million dollars to help save Jamaica Bay.
This month, Don Reipe, retiring from his National Park Service role as manager of Jamaica Bay, will assume the position of guardian of Jamaica Bay, through a state grant provided to the local chapter of the American Littoral Society.
The beginning of 2002 was the end for at least two venerable Victorian-era buildings in South Queens. In January, demolition was begun on a Queen Anne-style home in northern Richmond Hill and the fate of St. Anthony’s Hospital in Woodhaven was sealed.
Now, in place of the stately white-columned house on 118th Street, there are three two-family homes constructed of brick face and vinyl siding.
The seven-acre property on Woodhaven Boulevard, where the six-story St. Anthony’s Hospital once stood, remains vacant. Perhaps by this time next year, the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens will have made a decision as to what will be built there.
While some structures were being torn down, others were being built. In February, Port Authority architects met with Community Board 10 and presented their plans for the lighting and landscaping of the future combined A Train and AirTrain station in Howard Beach.
AirTrain service between Coleman Square in Howard Beach and JFK Airport was to have begun by now. However, a tragic accident in October that took the life of a young man conducting tests on the train changed those plans. Although construction on the train stations continues, the Port Authority recently announced that use of the trains has been put on hold indefinitely.
In March, the very fabric of some South Queens’ social lives seemed threatened when local bowling leagues were informed that AMF would be closing its bowling alley on Rockaway Boulevard in Ozone Park.
However, a few local long-time bowling afficianados saved the day by joining forces to keep the lanes open. They took over the lease, spruced up the facilities, dubbed the place Cozy Bowl and were up and running in time for fall bowling leagues.
Also in March, a five-alarm inferno engulfed the northeast’s most prominent Sikh gurdwara, which was housed in a former church in Richmond Hill. A visiting priest lost his life in the blaze and some of the group’s holy books were lost.
It is expected to take at least two years of construction and as much as $10 million before members of the Sikh Cultural Society can replace their gurdwara. However, in the weeks following the tragic blaze, they expanded and renovated a two-story house adjacent to their fire-gutted temple. Worshippers now gather in that building for daily services and meals.
Spring would not be complete without marking the opening day of baseball season. In South Queens the Ozone Howard Little League opened with a parade to a newly refurbished sports complex.
Members of 70 T-ball, softball and baseball teams marched with their parents and fans to the league’s renovated fields near Bristol Avenue and Centerville Street in Ozone Park.
After years of neglect, the four fields there had been reconstructed with new fencing, a sprinkler system, sod, Yankee Stadium clay and a drainage system. New blacktop covered the walkways and parking area. New leaders of the Little League organization sparked local enthusiasm and fundraisers for the project.
The first weeks of spring were also marked by the bloom of daffodils in many public parks and Greenstreets areas. Like those at Forest Park and the Locust Grove Civic Triangle, the flowers were a symbol of hope for people still mourning the losses of the terrorist attacks.
In May, it was announced that the owners of a bankrupt hotel near Kennedy Airport that had shut down their operation and negotiated with the city to turn the 335-room facility into a homeless family shelter. By the middle of summer, the shelter was in full use to the consternation of local civic groups.
Seven of the borough’s 14 homeless shelters are in Community Board 12. The newest facility, which previously was a Best Western Hotel, has come under fire for unclean conditions and quality of life complaints.
By the end of May, some Ozone Park parents were worried about more than just quality of life issues when it was brought to light that PS 65 on 99th Street is situated over groundwater tainted with toxins. The school opened in 1996 in what was once a factory building.
Media attention and parent protests led to meetings with city and state officials as well as United Federation of Teachers representatives. Testing of soil and groundwater, as well as the air inside the school, continued into the summer.
PS 65 opened its doors to children in September amid Department of Education assurances that it was safe in spite of the doubts of some parents.
The big borough and citywide story in June was the death of mob kingpin John Gotti. Prior to his imprisonment in 1992 on federal racketeering and conspiracy charges, the boss of the Gambino crime family made Ozone Park and Howard Beach his home.
Some remember John Gotti, as a ruthless thug who wriggled out of three previous attempts to convict him, while others hail him as a friendly man who generously bought ice cream treats for Ozone Park youngsters.
Within an hour of Gotti’s death in a Springfield, Missouri federal prison hospital, local residents were arranging flowers and candles in front of the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club on 101st Avenue. His lengthy flower bedecked funeral cortege snaked slowly through the streets of South Queens.
In the wake of the sex abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church last year and that touched many Queens parishes by association, allegations of a slightly different nature surrounded the pastor of one South Queens church.
After reported silence from the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens, the story of sexual misdeeds and misappropriated funds at St. Elizabeth’s parish in Ozone Park was finally made public by the school’s principal in June.
The Queens District Attorney’s Office impaneled a grand jury to investigate allegations that Father John Thompson, pastor of St. Elizabeth’s until he resigned under pressure in March, used school funds to buy expensive gifts for his 18-year-old gay lover. He pleaded guilty in September to embezzling nearly $100,000 and was ordered to pay restitution.
Although demolition of an old factory at 84-40 101st Street in Richmond Hill was already well under way, an official ground-breaking ceremony was held there in June for PS 254, which is expected to open its doors by September 2004.
It will house 650 children in grades pre-kindergarten through five and go a long way to relieve the overcrowding in District 27 schools, as does MS 137 in Ozone Park, which opened its doors in September for the first time. Named America’s School of Heroes, the middle school was completed in two years and $8 million under budget.
In July, increased use by fishermen of the Joseph Addabbo Bridge brought increased attention to the garbage left there. City and state officials at first just scratched their heads when asked which agency was responsible for maintaining and cleaning the structure, which crosses over Jamaica Bay from Howard Beach to the island that includes the community of Broad Channel.
The city Department of Transportation finally agreed the task was theirs and the agency gave the bridge walkways a clean sweep for the rest of the season. However, no trash barrels were ever placed there for the fishermen.
Fall arrived with the spector of budget cuts and increased taxes looming. Woodhaven residents rallied around the Fire Department’s Engine Company 293, which was threatened with closure. As the year comes to a close, the firehouse’s fate is still in question.
The Howard Beach Civic Forum celebrated its seventh anniversary with a dinner dance and a project that can be enjoyed by the whole community. Board members were able to see a long-sought-after beautification project realized when seasonal banners were installed on light poles along Cross Bay Boulevard, the commercial strip of Howard Beach. In the spring, the winter banners will be replaced with those of a patriotic theme.
The weather was a bit nippy but the sunshine cooperated one Sunday in December to make the borough’s 22nd annual Toys for Tots Run a huge success with thousands of bikers joining from around the city and out of state.
Throughout the morning, bikers converged on the intersection of Hillside and Myrtle Avenues in Richmond Hill with toys and gifts strapped to their handlebars and rear seat racks. They carried the gifts to the Bernard Fineson Developmental Center in Howard Beach