Five years into her role as Queens Borough President, Melinda Katz outlined her vision for the borough, promising to stand up for immigrants and expressing support for closing the Rikers Island jail. The latter is a hot topic in the crowded race for Queens District Attorney, which Katz is seeking. “I have been, and I remain, a strong supporter of closing Rikers Island,” said Katz. “It is a moral imperative that we overhaul our city’s jails system, one that is safer, more efficient, more humane, and less costly. And closing Rikers is an integral part of that.”
Katz qualified her position with the demand that a replacement for Rikers, “must include meaningful community engagement and input.” Katz delivered the remarks at her annual State of the Borough speech, given last Friday at LaGuardia Community College. As she expects this to be her final year as Borough President, she outlined her office’s recent achievements and projects for the coming year.
With the census determining the number of Congressional representatives and federal funding for New York, Katz spoke of the need to have every Queens resident counted. “For each person and each household unaccounted for, that’s less Federal funding for our schools, our hospitals, our infrastructure, even less representation in Congress and the State Legislature. An undercount is something we simply cannot afford.”
She noted that President Donald Trump’s proposal to include a question about citizenship in the census will discourage immigrants from participating. “As I fill out the Census, if the citizenship question appears on the survey, I will abstain. I will refuse to answer that question.” The census last included the question about citizenship in 1950. Last week, a federal court in New York ordered the Trump administration to halt its plan to add the citizenship question, citing procedural violations.
“To conclude otherwise and let [Commerce] Secretary [Wilbur] Ross’ decision stand would undermine the proposition – central to the rule of law – that ours is a ‘government of laws, and not of men,’” wrote US District Judge Jesse Furman in a 277-page opinion that quoted second president John Adams. Nevertheless, the climate of fear promoted by Trump’s policies and rhetoric will make Katz’s job of counting every Queens resident difficult in requesting the participation of reluctant non-citizens for the census.
In connecting past successes with upcoming projects, Katz spoke about the Queens Library system. “We put our money where our mouth is: $46 million for upgrades across 23 different branches.” These include expanded libraries for Far Rockaway, Steinway, Corona, and Rego Park. Concerning parks, Katz mentioned Al Mauro Playground on Park Drive East, where she provided $4.2 million for improvements, with additional funds provided by Councilman Rory Lancman. In the coming year, Katz is partnering with Councilman Barry Grodenchik to update play equipment at Redwood Playground in Holliswood, among other playground projects across the borough.
In contrast to her predecessors, Katz has been proactive in preserving the unused New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows, an arena and observation tower designed by Philip Johnson for the 1964 World’s Fair. Following up on her agreement with the DC 9 union that repainted the crown of the Pavilion, Katz is now looking to have it illuminated at night. “This historic, architectural marvel of the 1964-65 World’s Fair is now saved: $21 million toward its revitalization, secured between my office, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the New York City Council. Another $2 million is now coming in from the state. And another $16.5 million is secured by Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand for electrical repairs in and around the Pavilion,” said Katz. “Let’s once again make this a destination of choice and an icon of our borough.”
On transportation, Katz cited the success of the NYC Ferry in Astoria and Rockaway Park as inspiration for its expansion further east to College Point and Bayside. Earlier this month, the city announced new ferry stops in Brooklyn and the Bronx for this subsidized privately-run service, which charges the same amount as a subway ride for the ferry. Katz also spoke of the popularity of the Atlantic Ticket, the pilot program that charged a $5 fare for the Atlantic Avenue branch of the Long Island Railroad. “But if we truly want to provide service that Southeast Queens deserves, we need the MTA to expand the scope of the pilot program to include discounted rides to Brooklyn and to Manhattan. We’ll be watching.”
She did not mention other rail proposals, such as reviving the Rockaway Beach branch, commuter service at Belmont Park, and on the Montauk Line in Middle Village, nor anything about expanding bus lanes and bike routes.
The limited political power of the Borough President comes with a budget and staff, but often the position involves simple promotion of the borough’s history and tourism. Alongside the New York State Pavilion, a contemporary structure that she brought up in the speech is the former TWA terminal at JFK Airport that is being redeveloped into a hotel. “Let me tell you, it’s going to blow you away. The iconic departure clock in the lobby and other hallmarks of the 1960s are still there, but the amenities are state-of-the-art: 512 rooms, six restaurants, and eight bars, including one inside a vintage Lockheed Constellation. And just like our vision for the New York State Pavilion, the TWA Hotel, too, will become yet another Queens landmark.”
Another upcoming Queens attraction that Katz is involved with is the Queens Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Elmhurst Park. A decade after being approached by local veteran Pat Toro with the idea, Katz stood alongside her colleagues on November 29 in breaking ground for the monument. “When it opens later this year in Elmhurst Park, the memorial will bear the names of more than 350 Queens service members who died in the Vietnam War, either killed in action or are listed as missing. Another installed plaque will also recognize Pat and fellow Vietnam War veterans from Queens who died or still suffer here at home due to effects of the war, such as exposure to Agent Orange.”
Katz concluded her 2019 State of the Borough by remembering her parents, David Katz and Jeanne Dale Katz, who sought to unite people through their respective love of music and art. She seeks to do the same through “the fight for fairness, for inclusion, equal opportunity, for shared prosperity.”
It is an ambitious vision for a better Queens that an estimated 2.35 million people call home. That’s more people than 15 of this country’s states representing people from all corners of the world. Their participation in the census will determine how much of a voice Queens will have on the federal level, with so many federal policies affecting the borough and its people.
By Sergey Kadinsky