Caught in limbo on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, members of the Jewel Streets Block Association are frustrated that their community is forgotten by the city and used as a dumping ground by everyone else.
Elizabeth Watt, president of the group, gave a walking tour of her neighborhood to city and state representatives last Thursday, hoping that a message will get out that she wants action.
The Jewel Streets community, which residents have nicknamed “The Hole” because it lies many feet below the grade of Linden Boulevard, includes Sapphire, Amber, Emerald and Ruby Streets between South Conduit Avenue and the Lindenwood development of Howard Beach.
Comprised of fewer than 20 blocks, the Jewel Streets area, zoned R-4 residential, is home to a scattering of residents who are surrounded by vacant lots, abandoned cars, make-shift stables made of truck trailers, and piles of dumped garbage, construction debris and tires.
The community is one of only two small, isolated areas of Queens that are still not hooked up to the city sewer system.
Homeowners and city officials agree that, once sewers are installed, the vacant lots will be snapped up by developers and the neighborhood will get cleaned up.
But Watt hasn’t heard from the Department of Design and Construction or the Department of Environmental Protection since representatives came to her civic group’s meeting in June.
John Spavin, spokesperson for the DDC, said that the capital project which includes sewers, water mains, streets and sidewalks, is still in the design stages. “It’s still relatively early in the process.”
He added that, while the department hasn’t quite decided how to tackle the project, the projected date for beginning construction is not until August, 2003.
Spavin said that the project includes the blocks of both Brooklyn and Queens, which still need sewer installation.
One of the reasons the project has been put off for so many years is because both boroughs have their own separate sewer systems, which work differently. Depending on which block or side of certain streets they live on, homeowners rely on either Queens’ Community Board 10 or Brooklyn’s Community Board 5 for help.
Rose Pepe, district manager of CB 10, participated in last week’s inspection of the area. She observed the mounds of debris, trash and garbage bags that were piled in every vacant lot in the small neighborhood, a few of which are owned by the city.
Frances Scarantino, representing Councilman Joe Addabbo, and Larry Love, of Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer’s office, also took part in the inspection.
Joann Ariola, with the mayor’s community assistance unit, was there. She said the situation called for a multi-agency task force.
What makes the community unique, aside from the fact that residents are still waiting for sewer construction, is the proliferation of horse stables constructed from old trailers, vans and odd scraps of wood and metal.
The stables, some of which house other animals such as poultry, sit side by side and occupy roughly two or three blocks. Several homes, including Watt’s, are on the lots surrounded by stables.
“If I could afford to move, do you think I’d stay here?” said Watt, who, with several other residents of the area, has had an ongoing conflict with the stable owners.
The battle escalated last year when her efforts culminated in the Departments of Health and Sanitation coming to the neighborhood. Mountains of manure were removed from the side of 78th Street (Sapphire). But Watt, her husband, James, and other residents say the smell is still horrible.
“I used to like horses,” James Watt said, “but now I can’t stand them.”
The Watts and other Jewel Streets homeowners say the stables and horses have appeared gradually over the past 10 years. They blame the Giuliani administration for allowing it to happen.
Horse and stable owners say that there have always been stables in the area. According to the Department of City Planning’s Web site, R-4 zoning will allow stables with a special permit.
However, when Rose Pepe observed how most of the stables were constructed, she said, “There’s nothing legal about this.”
Max Esquilin, who manages a stable at the corner of Dumont Avenue and Amber Street on the Brooklyn side of the border, said he had been there for 10 or 12 years. He later said he worked with horses there for 17 years.
The lot Esquilin was taking care of is about 25 by 100 feet. Last week the lot contained: three mares, each in their own converted trailer; three ponies in a trailer with a window roughly cut out of the sheet metal side; six goats, a donkey and a llama, all of which were in a small van-like trailer together; assorted ducks and chickens and a dog.
Esquilin said the goats, llama and donkey were in the van together because they were going to be taken to New Jersey.
Water from a hose was running into the street, carrying straw and bits of manure with it. Although there have been a few catch basins installed in the community, there was not one on the street near that lot.
Esquilin, who had his young daughter with him, said that he goes to the diner or a McDonald’s on Linden Boulevard when he needs to use the bathroom.
He said he disposes of manure from the animals by taking it away to gardens in Floyd Bennett Field or donating it to community gardens in the Green Thumb program.
Joe Calvacante, 75, lived and worked in the community all his life. He has a stable on 78th Street, south of Linden Boulevard.
“There used to be cows and goats walking in the streets down here,” he said. “My uncles used to put me on a horse to get me to school on Fountain Avenue.”
Calvacante said that years ago Italian immigrants came to that area of Queens from Brooklyn. “They were squatters. They had vegetable and fruit gardens. It used to be called Nanny Goat Farm.”
He admitted that there are a few more horses and stables now than there used to be. “But once they put sewers in, there will be nothing but houses here.”
Housing construction is booming all over Queens. One developer, who is building a street of attached two-family houses on the Brooklyn portion of Ruby Street, was so anxious to sell them that he ran his own sewer line three blocks to hook up with the existing lines.
Members of the Jewel Streets Block Association are hoping the construction of sewers will solve problems other than unsightly and smelly stables.
Elizabeth Watt said that crime has been increasing in the neighborhood. There have been robberies, drugs and prostitution.
Commercial enterprises have been sneaking into the residentially zoned vacant lots. Several garages are used for car repair; a paved vacant lot is used to store car service vehicles and Atlas Carting is using several lots to keep roll-offs and dumpster trucks.
But one of the biggest problems in recent months has been the men living in a thrown-together shack and trailer amid a junk yard-type collection of broken furniture and car parts.
Watt said the Fire Department had to respond several times in the last two months to put out fires that got out of hand on the lot. The elderly couple who live next to the lot are terrified that their wood-frame home will be destroyed.
The property squatters have been making a home on is owned by the city’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development.