Tour Highlights Jamaica’s Heritage

Residents of Jamaica were given a historical treat on Saturday morning as concerned citizens and members of the Central Queens Historical Association guided a tour of some of the most celebrated buildings in the neighborhood.

The tour’s purpose was two-fold; to educate residents about the beauty inherent in their neighborhood’s history and to advocate for the landmarking of several sites in the area which have been overlooked by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

For many in Queens, the struggle with the LPC has been long and difficult, with few significant victories. Now, with the rezoning of downtown Jamaica, and the upcoming construction of new hotels and business centers in the area, many history buffs fear that the city will lose many of the distinctive old buildings that have made it unique for so many decades.

“The massive rezoning of Jamaica and the resulting rise of property values has caused big firms to come in and purchase land either near potential landmark sites, or the sites themselves,” said Jeff Gottlieb, of the Central Queens Historical Association. “We fear the demolishing or defacement of potential landmark sites and strongly urge the Landmarks Preservation Commission to speed up their investigations and calendar as many of these properties as possible.”

The tour itself was an enlightening journey through Jamaica’s rich history, and the people in attendance, roughly two-dozen strong, were thrilled by the variety of the buildings and the knowledge that tour moderator Gottlieb was able to impart.

Several other groups were represented, and split their time between talking about the importance of preservation, as well as the vitality of areas which have enjoyed the best of both worlds.

“Economic redevelopment and historic preservation are not mutually exclusive,” said Paul Graziano, president of the Historic Districts Council. “This is not about stopping the engine of commerce, we’re talking about protecting those buildings that need to be protected.”

Lisi deBourbon, a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, said that Gottlieb had met with several members of the group in recent weeks to discuss important buildings in the community and that those discussions had resulted in immediate action. “Those buildings were all in a survey we’ve conducted of buildings in Jamaica,” she said. “We’re currently reviewing each building and have begun to reach out to their owners.”

She added that there were just over 20 buildings that were all under consideration, but there was no timetable for how long the process would take.

“There’s a lot of legwork that goes into designating a building, and we’re just beginning that now.”

Gottlieb guided those in attendance past a wide variety of buildings, all varied in style, construction and history. The group went from Jamaica’s storied YMCA building from 1927, to one of the original synagogues in the area, now a Haitian church.

The tour started on Parsons Boulevard, with the Lyceum building of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, built in 1910, which was itself included in the tour. Residents marveled at the carved gargoyles and stained glass windows.

Gottlieb said that in the case of buildings like the church, conservation can cost millions of dollars, and be a terrible burden on what is already a charitable organization.

Thankfully, he added, there are specific funds available to those groups which are struggling to preserve their own heritage, in the form of the Sacred Sites Fund, which is administered by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a group that helps fund massive repairs and restorations to keep the past in the present.