The second half of 2021 brought South Queens results, follow-ups and conclusions.
Progress was made in beautifying Jamaica Bay in various regards, cleanup on the ground continued, landmarks ranging from Neir’s Tavern to Resorts World New York City Casino solidified their presence in the community and justice was served for many.
Divisions and divides were made more evident as the Covid-19 pandemic endured and vaccination and testing sites popped up.
A historic and notable City Council race for District 32 was closely watched throughout the city as one of the few seriously contested in the borough. It brought out over 20,000 voters and drew a line in the sand for many.
The year ended with a grand display of holiday cheer and goodwill throughout the neighborhoods as residents looked towards a fresh new year full of new administrations, promises and hopes ahead.
In the summer months, a new project to restore and protect Jamaica Bay’s shoreline and freshwater West Pond broke ground, spearheaded by the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy. The “living shoreline” project was a partnership with the Fund for the City of New York and designed by Dirtworks Landscape Architecture PC, Rippled Waters Engineering and Great Ecology. It continued through the fall. The West Pond trail was closed to visitors of the Gateway National Recreation Area park as volunteers helped to plant 6,000 of the 200,000 native grasses and shrubs that now line — and will continue to fill in — the shoreline. The West Pond is a freshwater haven for a variety of wildlife once again, after Hurricane Sandy caused a breach, contaminating the valuable resource.
Covid rates rose throughout the city as the Alpha and Delta variants made their rounds and Howard Beach was for a time among the top four neighborhoods with the most new cases citywide. Vaccination rates at the time were among the lowest in the city, along with Breezy Point, Broad Channel and the Rockaways.
The City Council race for District 32 was narrowed in July as Felicia Singh, a teacher and activist from Ozone Park, was officially named the Democratic nominee, and Kenichi Wilson, president of Community Board 9, announced he would run on a third-party line. The two candidates faced now-Councilwoman Joann Ariola (R-Howard Beach), formerly chairwoman of the Queens County GOP, in a race that quickly boiled down to the two women competing to become the first female in the seat.
Honors were granted to Lindenwood teacher Cheryl Rizzo, a Queens native, who was awarded the 2021 FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence.
A petition to reopen the case of slain jogger Karina Vetrano gained over 40,000 signatures from those who believed prosecutorial misconduct occurred. In 2019, Chanel Lewis was convicted in the 2016 murder of the Howard Beach woman, who was found strangled and sexually assaulted in Spring Creek Park. On Facebook, Vetrano’s father announced he would start a counter petition with support behind him from the neighborhood.
Richmond Hill became a key neighborhood in the redistricting debate as Punjabi Sikh and Indo-Caribbean populations fought to remain undivided.
The issue of trash in South Queens continued, and Aracelia Cook of the 149th Street South Ozone Park Civic Association finally got the Department of Sanitation’s attention regarding chronic dumping.
Cleanups, beautification and the relative lack of garbage pails in the area compared to neighboring communities even became a talking point in the District 32 race.
A renewed effort to resurrect plans to build a new Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department firehouse persisted, continuing a 20-year fight.
In August, the 106th Precinct gained new leadership as Capt. Jerome Bacchi was promoted to lead, promising to restore quality of life. The 22-year veteran was born and raised in Woodhaven and previously served two years as a lieutenant in the 106.
Historic Neir’s Tavern, argued to be the oldest in the city, unveiled a mural by Queens artist Bienbenido “Benny” Guerra that honors the vibrant history of the bar and neighborhood. It portrays horse races as a nod to the bygone Union Course Racetrack, characters from “GoodFellas,” a scene from which was filmed at Neir’s, and a tribute to the Sept. 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.
The Hyatt Regency JFK Airport hotel at Resorts World New York opened. The $400 million project boasts 400 rooms, a fitness center, conference and meeting spaces and additional gaming areas.
Before school started up again, an “Unmask Our Kids” rally in Howard Beach protesting public school mask requirements brought opponents of all government mandates to Cross Bay Boulevard. Protesters held signs like “My body my choice” and “I can’t breathe.” At the time, Howard Beach had the second-highest positivity rates in the city.
The remnants of Hurricane Ida struck on Sept. 1, killing eight people in Queens and causing billions of dollars worth of damage. Residents of “The Hole,” a neighborhood northwest of Lindenwood sitting 10 feet below street level and lacking sewage and draining systems, dealt with flooding weeks after the storm.
Cleanup efforts in South Queens continued as state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) enlisted the City Cleanup Corps to regularly spruce up the Joseph P. Addabbo Memorial Bridge, named after the senator’s father. For over a year, complaints were made about trash along the bridge that carries Cross Bay Boulevard over Jamaica Bay and connects Howard Beach and Broad Channel.
Tragedy struck in Ozone Park when a basement fire broke out and killed 9-year-old Remi Miguel Gomez Hernandez. His family had just moved in the day before, according to reports. Eleven others were injured in the blaze that was determined to have been started by the batteries of an electric bike, an issue that FDNY Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said was rampant across the city.
The ongoing gripes over parking near Woodhaven’s Forest Park Co-op were compounded by confusion over a plan from Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar (D-Woodhaven) as she tried to find a solution to the residents’ plight. She has since met with Department of Transportation officials and proposed a plan to free up about 75 new spots. The plan is still under review by the DOT.
As the city marked the 20th anniversary of September 11th, a Howard Beach memorial many years in the works was finally revealed. A mural featuring 2,977 stars representing those who lost their lives on that day, as well as the city skyline and first responder badges, was unveiled under the Belt Parkway overpass between 157th Avenue and Shore Parkway North on the border of Howard Beach and Lindenwood. The stretch was dubbed “Never Forget Way.”
Ariola, who was leading the Howard Beach-Lindenwood Civic Association at the time, said it was a “true community effort” by elected officials, community boards and residents. Another mural now mirrors the 9/11 work and efforts to rid the area of a persistent pigeon problem ensued, helping preserve the integrity of the art.
The Woodhaven Business Improvement District brought the popular Open Streets program to Jamaica Avenue. Events occurred twice throughout the fall and was packed with family-fun programming and further promoted their mantra of shopping local.
South Queens welcomed a new resident, Baby Ruffles the seal, whose birth made waves in Jamaica Bay as an indication that the environment was healing and could sustain seal nativity for the first time in an estimated 100 years.
After nine months, the alleged drunk driver charged with fatally hitting Ritawantee “Rita” Persaud’s Uber last Christmas Eve was arrested. Vigils were held honoring the Indo-Carribean vocalist whose death shook the Hindu community.
October brought welcome news to boaters in South Queens when then-Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) announced a second wave of funding to rid the waters of abandoned boats. Ulrich put $65,000 behind the effort, $10,000 more than the year before. The goal was to target five vessels and the last two are expected to be gone this month, including one monstrosity wedged in the narrow Hawtree Basin.
Neir’s Tavern drew crowds again but this time to celebrate the “Neir’s Way” street co-naming at the corner of 78th Street and 88th Avenue. Community members and local officials gathered for the unveiling and cheered as owner Loycent Gordon pulled the rope to unveil the new street sign with help from his wife, mother and young son.
The District 32 race heated up as Singh and Ariola took to several debate stages. At a forum hosted by the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association, the candidates differed on unemployment, congestion pricing and law enforcement. Ariola ran a campaign focused on law and order, funding the police and maintaining quality of life, which countered her progressive opponent, Singh, who vowed to further defund the police and pour resources into alternative forms of public safety like violence interruptors.
During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Howard Beach mom Kelly Adams-Mahindra raised $1,100 with an event at Charles Park. The funds went towards METAvivor, a volunteer-run nonprofit. Adams-Mahindra, a pediatric pulmonologist, has been fighting metastatic cancer since November 2019.
By the end of Election Day, it was clear that Ariola had won by a landslide with over 16,000 votes, more than doubling Singh’s.
“This race wasn’t only won on message, it was won because each and every portion of this district felt that I represented them,” Ariola said at a celebration at Russo’s On The Bay where she was surrounded by family, friends and supporters.
Her predecessor, Ulrich, announced the historic win.
“The torch is being passed,” said the councilman who held the office for 12 years. Ulrich had made history in his own right; he took office after a special election in February 2009, just a week after he turned 24, making him the youngest Republican on the Council and the youngest member ever from Queens.
The community joined together just weeks later to mourn the passing of longtime Rockaway activist and community leader Lew Simon. Officials from all over the city shared their experiences with him and many events and memorials were held in his name.
Howard Beach became the center of a high-profile crime that went down in Central Park on Nov. 11. Paulie Velez, the suspect charged with a rape near Swan Lake, fled law enforcement all the way to the marshes of Old Howard Beach, where he was ultimately caught after trying to hide under decks and in the water. It was reported that his family lived in the area. The incident was the second assault against a woman in Central Park that day, just 25 minutes apart.
Two months after mourning the 20th anniversary of 9/11, South Queens remembered another tragedy that struck just two months later that same year; Flight 587, headed to the Dominican Republic, crashed in Belle Harbor just after takeoff and killed 265 people. Officials including Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato (D-Rockaway Beach) and then-Mayor de Blasio joined for the annual service at Flight 587 Memorial Park.
Some justice was delivered for two different heroes in November.
A cold case was solved when the remains of World War I veteran George Seitz, who went missing 45 years ago, were identified and a Queens man was charged with the murder.
Later in the month, a Brooklyn man was sentenced to 33 years for a robbery that led to the friendly fire shooting of Det. Brian Simonsen of the 102nd Precinct. The 19-year veteran of the NYPD was killed in 2019.
The month ended on a celebratory note when the West Pond Loop at Jamaica Bay was reopened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony after being closed all summer as the “living shoreline” project was completed. Now, thousands of biodegradable bags of oyster shells, recycled Christmas trees and coconut fiber logs reinforce the wetlands. The Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers advocated for the project, as well as the American Littoral Society and NYC Audubon, as the site is an important habitat for birds.
The holiday season kicked off with a magical moment at the Ozone Park Residents Block Association Christmas tree lighting where Jefferson Pesantes, a 6-year-old who lost his arm as a toddler in Ecuador, received a lifetime supply of prosthetics courtesy of Glenn Easton’s Centerpedes Center for Pediatric Therapy, Orthotics and Prosthetics. The community banded together to connect Easton with the boy.
Other festivities and acts of goodwill happened across South Queens with several weekends packed with tree lightings and events. Christmas dinners were given to the needy from the Kiwanis Club of Howard Beach and CTown, and the Cityline Ozone Park Civilian Patrol gave food and toys away to thousands of people in the community.
Ulrich’s Jamaica Bay cleanup yielded results when three boats were removed from the waters. The Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, led by Dan Mundy Sr. and Dan Mundy Jr., identified the crafts, and Custom Marine removed them with help from the NYC Parks Department. They pulled the boats, including one 35-footer, up to the shore for a gathering to see for themselves, barnacles, rot and all.
On the same day that he finished up clearing out his office for his successor, Ulrich gave an exclusive interview to the Chronicle, recapping his tenure as “custodian” to District 32. He discussed his proudest moments, namely the bill he introduced that established the city Department of Veterans Services. As for what is next, the Ozone Park native is expected to join the team of newly elected Mayor Eric Adams.
Ulrich recently tweeted, “As Frank Sinatra says, ‘the best is yet to come ...’” in what will hopefully foreshadow not only his next move but also the future of his community.
Find Part I at qchron.com.