Western Queens had a big year news-wise. Protests as far-flung as the Middle East and as close as Wall Street impacted Astoria and Jackson Heights, while homegrown stories — like the renaming of the Queensboro Bridge and the ongoing transformation of Queens’ waterfront — kept our reporters busy.
The fight for gay marriage rights, an issue taken up by openly gay Council members Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), culminated in New York State’s first legal gay marriages.
And while schools throughout the area were bursting at the seams, the puzzling results of the 2010 Census showed many neighborhoods were shrinking, despite evidence to the contrary.
From threatened postal closures to a spate of gropings throughout the neighborhood to a hurricane that shut the city down, here’s a look back at the stories that made the news in 2011.
The year kicked off with the ramifications of the previous year’s dehabilitating snowstorm. One Corona woman, Yvonne Freeman, died after it took emergency responders three hours to get to her house through snow-clogged streets, prompting her daughter Laura to sue the city for $20 million. Michael Halberian, owner of Astoria’s Steinway mansion, also died after waiting for emergency workers to reach him. To top off the year’s rocky start, the holiday bandit robbed a bank in Astoria on Jan. 19, his third. With a lot of work ahead of them, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Queens and Manhattan), state Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Astoria) and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) were inaugurated at month’s end.
The holiday bandit struck again in early February, robbing yet another bank in Astoria. But the same neighborhood had some cause for cheering: the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11 after months of protests. And the announcement of Hunters Point South, a $360 million housing project with 638 affordable units, was good for Long Island City. That, along with the news that the East River Ferry would be expanding service, guaranteed Queens’ waterfront would see changes not just through 2011, but far into the future.
The Queensboro Bridge got renamed in March, much to the chagrin of Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) and Queens residents. On the 23rd, the renaming plan, backed by Council Speaker Christine Quinn — and originally proposed by Mayor Bloomberg — was approved by the City Council, christening the structure the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. Whatever its name, the first of three serious accidents involving the same exit ramp off the bridge killed a pedestrian on the 28th. And at month’s end, area politicians reviewed the Census results and were not pleased: Astoria and Long Island City declined in population according to the data, something newly inaugurated state Sen. Gianaris called “ludicrous.”
On April 6, a second car sped off the same Queensboro Bridge exit, killing the car’s passenger and amputating the driver’s arm. The two accidents prompted Van Bramer and Gianaris to demand the Department of Transportation make traffic changes to the ramp, though the DOT claimed the exit ramp had been the same since 2007. Fallout from the Census persisted, with Census workers coming forward to the Chronicle about how the survey had been severely mismanaged, an article which prompted Gianaris to ask the United States Attorney to investigate the matter. In Long Island City, residents continued to wait for the transfer between the E/M/G and 7 train lines at Court Square to be completed, all while MTA officials claimed the project was in fact, done.
The uncompleted transfer at Court Square and some 106 disruptions on the 7 train line had politicians and residents in an uproar at a rally in Long Island City in early May. A week later, Muslim leaders in Western Queens and people the world over welcomed news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. On the 25th, the push to legalize gay marriage in New York State moved forward when Gov. Cuomo expressed his support for marriage equality in a video message.
The first baby steps toward repairing Queensbridge Park’s collapsing seawall were taken in early June, as Maloney and Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Sunnyside) raised funds for the project. And there was good news for another waterway: a wastewater treatment plant on Newtown Creek announced it had met city standards for clean water two years ahead of schedule. June ended with a historic moment: late on the night of the 23rd, the state Senate passed and the governor signed a bill legalizing gay marriage in New York.
A hate crime against a member of the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee on 36th Avenue in Astoria on July 1 outraged the community. Vallone announced his discretionary member item spending — valuable money allotted council members to give to organizations serving their communities — had been significantly slashed, something he attributed to his opposition of the renaming of the Queensboro Bridge. Mid-month, food trucks opened on a lot in LIC, while women on the online forum “Why Leave Astoria?” reported numerous attacks by a groper on a bike. The month ended with the first gay marriage in Queens, between Astoria residents Greg Levine and Shane Serkiz on the 24th, when the equality law took effect.
The end of summer saw another groping incident involving two young girls in an Astoria elevator on Aug. 8. The spate of incidents prompted a rally at month’s end, during which Maloney thanked the first two Astoria women who came forward about their attacks. A group fighting the proposed garbage transfer station near LaGuardia Airport filed four lawsuits, claiming the building would attract birds and endanger flights, while beloved diner M. Wells closed its doors in Long Island City after lease renewal talks stalled with the landlord. In Corona, a street was renamed “Mama’s Way” after the late owner of the Italian deli Leo’s Latticini, Nancy DeBenedittis, better known as “Mama.” On Aug. 28, the eye of Hurricane Irene, downgraded to a tropical storm, drenched the city.
Cleanup post-Irene occupied early September. The hurricane felled many trees throughout the area, and left one street in East Elmhurst, which Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe visited, particularly damaged. September was also the month New Yorkers paused to observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Astoria residents Maureen and Al Santora remembered their son, Christopher, a firefighter who died during the attacks. On Sept. 12, the death of a 50-pound shar-pei named Brooklyn, who was allegedly thrown out the third floor window of an Astoria apartment by his owner, Milan Rysa, appalled residents.
Reports of sexual assaults in Sunnyside and Woodside prompted Van Bramer and area officials to alert residents about the attacks. After a month of protests, a post office in Astoria slated for closure was spared. Long Island City’s Fortune Society, a nonprofit providing education and health services to formerly incarcerated men and women, was named the best nonprofit criminal justice advocacy group in the country. Queens Pride House in Jackson Heights welcomed a new director, Silvia Dutchevici, while Delta Airlines’ proposed $117 million construction project at LaGuardia Airport got the green light. October ended with a freakishly early snowstorm on the 29th.
Long Island City High School was mired in confusion in early November, as scheduling problems left pupils without permanent teachers for weeks and without basic classes like English or math, leading Vallone to call the situation a “disaster.” Ground was broken on the new Elmhurst Library, a few Sunnyside and LIC residents got their Verizon phone service back months after Irene, and Astoria noted an influx of Greek immigrants escaping the crisis in Europe. Swastikas painted on Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst Queens libraries, as well as the Congregation Tifereth Israel of Jackson Heights, near the anniversary of Kristallnacht, prompted protests. Police arrested a man suspected of the crimes a week later.
The Department of Education’s School Construction Authority announced that little could be done to alleviate the overcrowding in Corona’s and Jackson Heights’ schools, prompting state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) to say that a “state of emergency” should be declared. Alexander Palacio, a man involved in one of the Queensboro Bridge crashes, sued the city and the Department of Transportation for damages, claiming they held some responsibility for the crash that led to his passenger’s death and his own amputation. Dromm held a hearing on alleged abuses in the city’s immigration detention centers, including one in Jamaica, while the donation of some 2,500 items helped out the 25 residents left homeless by a fire in Woodside in November. Selma Heraldo, a longtime Corona resident and friend to Louis Armstrong, died in early December, giving the Louis Armstrong House Museum an unexpected gift: the use of her own home, next door.