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Queens Chronicle

38th ANNIVERSARY EDITION A love story as dynamic as Jamaica


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Posted: Thursday, November 10, 2016 10:30 am

One of Marge Hall’s fondest memories of life in her native Jamaica, the dynamic, ever-evolving neighborhood in Southeast Queens, was the time she spent as a student at the Bernice Johnson Dance Studio, the first such school in the borough to be owned by an African American.

“That was the school when we were coming up,” Hall recalled in a recent telephone interview, putting an emphasis on “the.” “That was your recreation. If your parents had the money, you could go.”

Back then, each class cost 50 cents, to the best of Hall’s recollection, at a time when spare change was not always easy to come by.

“We started out in her house basement,” Hall said. “Then she had a studio on Sutphin [Boulevard]; then it grew to a studio near the old Valencia,” a reference to Loew’s Valencia Theatre — a movie palace that opened in 1929, closed in 1977 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

Today, the site is home to the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People church.

During her lifetime, Johnson, who died in 2005 at the age of 94, broke the color line by becoming a chorus girl in the famed Cotton Club. In the years after, she saw her humble dance studio eventually grow into the cultural arts center that bore her name, which only closed in 2000 when her health declined.

Johnson’s studio holds a special place in Hall’s heart, for it was there that she would have a fortuitous reunion with the young man who would eventually become her husband.

Hall, nÈe Margaret Le Monier, was born in Mary Immaculate Hospital, a community institution on 89th Avenue just north of Rufus King Park, until it went bankrupt and closed its doors seven years ago.

It was the same place her future husband, Raleigh Hall, made his entrance into the world.

Hall said that baby Raleigh’s mother looked in baby Marge’s carriage and promptly announced that he would someday be her husband. In between, there would be some unanticipated twists and turns.

When Hall was born, her family was living in a Jamaica housing complex that she described as “the first interracial low-income housing project in Queens.”

“We were among the first occupants of the projects,” she said. “When we made too much money, they moved us to Woodside.”

That was when Hall was 10. She would go on to attend Newtown High School in Elmhurst. Raleigh went to Jamaica High, and for years they did not see each other.

Then one day while in dance class, Marge turned to see who was beating out a familiar rhythm on the conga drums, only to find it was her old childhood friend.

“Everything went on from there,” she said. Twenty-one years after his mother’s prophecy, they were married, and together they built a life for themselves and their family, scarcely venturing out of their beloved hometown.

Throughout her 73 years, Hall has seen a lot of changes there.

“In the summer, we walked from the projects to Jamaica High School so we could swim in the pool,” she remembered.

On the way, she and her friends would stop at the Woolworth’s on Jamaica Avenue around 160th Street to pick up some 10-cent bags of broken cookies.

“You didn’t have the money to do much else and the pool was free,” she said.

In high school, she was selected as captain of the cheerleading squad. She also happened to be its sole black member.

“To be captain and black was something to us,” she said.

At the time, the students in the school were predominantly white and Jewish.

In 1967, a few years after graduation, she and Raleigh bought a home in the area, where they reside to this day. He handled an extension himself.

“He opened the whole top and put a box on top,” she said.

That he had the know-how was not surprising. Hall and her husband run a construction company, which she said is the first black company to build under the New York City Housing Partnership.

Many of the places that used to be neighborhood landmarks are no longer around.

Hall used to frequent The Alden, a movie theater on Jamaica Avenue at 165th Street.

“I think you paid 15 cents for the movie,” she recalled.

The theater had opened on New Year’s Eve in 1928 as the Shubert Jamaica Theatre, a venue for live performances. Several years later it was converted into a movie theater, eventually closing in the mid-1980’s, last operating as a quadraplex.

Also long gone is Jamaica Racetrack.

“I walked to school,” Hall said, “and I could hear the races being called.”

Today, the space is occupied by Rochdale Village.

“The majority of people when they built it were young, white, Jewish families. We had to stand our ground to get in there. After that, came white flight.”

Today, in the section of Jamaica where she has lived for nearly 50 years, most of her neighbors are senior citizens — many of whom grew up in the area — or their children, who have taken over their homes as their parents passed on.

According to Hall, the neighborhood is now home to more immigrants than in the early days, and the ubiquitous McMansions are popping up everywhere. With these changes, Hall said she is no longer as close to her neighbors as she once was.

“There used to be more sharing and caring,” she said. “We used to know everybody. Now I only know two neighbors across the street. With the change of culture, everybody sticks to themselves.”

Also, gunfire recently sounded perilously close to her residence.

“We never heard that before,” she said. “I was sitting at my kitchen window and said, ‘Those were gunshots.’”

Still, home is home.

“We were born in Jamaica,” she said. “We love Jamaica, and we’ll be here until the day we die.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t be snowbirds!”

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