Less than a month after his comfortable reelection, Mayor Bill de Blasio was hosted by Councilman Rory Lancman at a town hall gathering in Briarwood last Thursday, November 30. The packed gymnasium at Middle School 217 was filled with civic leaders, the press, and individuals eager to personally question the Mayor on some of his campaign promises.
The evening began with a review of recent projects, such as the 43 miles of street lanes that were repaved in this Council district last year, along with the upcoming introduction of five Select Bus Service routes, and outdoor environment classroom for the Willow Lake preserve. Very quickly, however, the Mayor and the Councilman heard from local activists on items that have yet to be realized.
“I was told that a new Briarwood Library will be constructed by 2020, but nothing has yet been done,” said Rosalie Quinones of Friends of Briarwood Library. Although Queens Borough Public Library is a private organization, it receives most of its funding from the city. The recent reconstruction of the Queensboro Hill and Kew Gardens Hills branches have inspired Briarwood residents to demand an upgrade for their library, which dates to 1957. “We’ve been talking to Queens Library and there are some challenges,” said de Blasio, without elaborating.
Monica Corbett of the Pomonok Residents Association spoke about the lack of working lights at her 35-building complex. “Pomonok is pitch black. We need lights; of the 660 outdoor fixtures, the majority are out.” De Blasio promised to have a representative of the Housing Authority visit Pomonok to identify the lights not working.
Among the Kew Gardens Hills residents present at the town hall was Alan Sherman, who is active in the Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association and the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Conservancy. As each individual was limited to one question, Sherman asked about the intersection of Jewel Avenue and Main Street, where vehicles making left turns and oncoming traffic result in congestion. “Everyone wants it, but not the DOT,” said Sherman. Having brought the issue before Lancman, Community Board 8, and recently-elected Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal, Sherman said that the DOT is not interested in this intersection, even as the crush of cars makes it dangerous for pedestrians to cross.
Among the institutions that got the word out on the town hall, Jamaica Muslim Center had many of its members present, with one asking about recent incidents or bias on the national and local levels. De Blasio forcefully reiterated the city’s enforcement abilities in combating religious discrimination. “We haven’t changed our values one bit. We have 900 Muslim police officers and they protect everyone, said de Blasio.
On that note, a hijab-clad middle school teen stood alongside Kew Gardens Hills resident Sam Verstandig, 14, asking why the promised funding for halal and kosher school meals has not happened. Their joint appearance was inspiring to many observers as an example of a matter where observant Jews and Muslims have a common cause. “It’s a prohibitive price tag. That’s the honest truth,” said de Blasio. “There are vegetarian meals that leaders of both communities say fits their standards. There is also uncertainty in funding coming from the federal budget.”
As he had faced complaints in his first term from businesses that were receiving multiple violations, he heard a similar line from Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. “We’ve been hit with a tax bill we didn’t expect. It was for $123,000.” Although synagogues are exempt from paying property taxes, the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills rents its space to a for-profit daycare operator. Adding to the pain of the unusually high bill, Rabbi Schonfeld noted that other city agencies followed in the wake, writing up sidewalk and door violations for his synagogue. Although the amount to pay the bill was secured, Rabbi Schonfeld said that it is being appealed. “I’m shocked by that number,” said de Blasio. “We need to see what can be done within the law, particularly as you’re doing something to help kids,” de Blasio responded.
While the overall attendance was high, there were not so many individuals from the Queens Jewish community at the Briarwood town hall. Topics that appear often on the Kew Gardens Hills Facebook group, such as bike lanes, and car wheel and box thefts, did not receive much attention.
“I was rather disappointed to see a relatively low turnout from KGH at last night’s Town Hall meeting,” wrote Jennifer Meltzer, who attended the event. “If this was in Brooklyn or Far Rockaway, you know the response would have been very strong. There’s a good reason why certain districts, such as CB12 in Boro Park/Midwood get political support. As Councilman Rory Lancman certainly knows, he can’t advocate as strongly for us if we’re not doing our part as a community to step up to the plate.”
By Sergey Kadinsky