Queens Students Illuminate Social Issues with Vibrant Bench Murals at Juniper Valley Park

By MOHAMED FARGHALY mfarghaly@queensledger.com

Students from Queens public schools showcased socially conscious bench murals at Juniper Valley Park, addressing critical topics like gun violence and climate change. Credit: Mohamed Farghaly.

In a display of artistic activism, students from public schools across Queens took center stage at Juniper Valley Park on May 30, unveiling their socially conscious bench murals that tackle pressing community issues. Under the gray skies of Thursday morning, the event took place on the circular path west of the bocce court, drawing attention to critical topics such as gun violence, climate change, neurodiversity, and housing rights.

Part of a citywide summer exhibition organized by NYC Parks, the initiative was spearheaded by The Center for Educational Innovation (CEI), under the banner of “CEI BENCHMARKS: Youth Setting the Standard for Social Change” program. The benches, adorned with vibrant murals, serve as poignant canvases for the voices of tomorrow’s leaders, reflecting a commitment to social justice and civic engagement.

Among the participating schools were P.S. 124 Osmond A. Church, M.S. 137 America’s School of Heroes, J.H.S. 226 Virgil I. Grissom, and P.S. 277 The Riverview School – High School, each contributing their unique perspectives to the public discourse.

“The benches are part of our Benchmarks program that showcases social issues, so students, they work with their teaching artists on their benches and they figure out a social issue that’s close to their heart, or that they feel that people need to be made aware of, and they put those social issues in art and then transfers them to the benches,” Tia Walker, Senior Program Manager at CEI said. “So the social issues range from things like housing and climate, housing, bullying, climate change, gender inequality, and various other things.”

The CEI BENCHMARKS program, which engaged over 1,000 students from thirty schools citywide this year, provided a structured platform for students to delve into social activism and express their concerns through art. By aligning with state learning standards and emphasizing social-emotional learning, the initiative empowers students to become agents of change in their communities.

Spearheaded by The Center for Educational Innovation, the initiative provided a platform for over 1,000 students to express their concerns through art. Credit: Mohamed Farghaly.

“In this current climate, young people need a public platform to express themselves on current social issues in a constructive, creative and powerful way, so they can join the conversation and make a difference in our world. We are so proud of our students who have confronted major social issues through their beautiful and powerful bench murals. Their messages for social change on a wide array of critical issues will inspire hundreds of thousands of people this summer in our citywide parks exhibition,” said Alexandra Leff, Creator of CEI Benchmarks and CEI Executive Director of Arts Education. 

Unisha Chetram, an eighth-grader from M.S 137 America’s Scholastic’s of Heroes participating in the venture, expresses the significance of their bench installation project. She highlights the collaborative effort between classes, focusing on addressing issues of inadequate housing and gun violence, which they feel passionately about. Unisha emphasizes the importance of shedding light on these critical issues, particularly given the ongoing challenges faced in New York. She underscores the urgent need for action, citing the devastating impact of gun violence and the struggles of individuals living paycheck to paycheck, often leading to homelessness. Through their artful benches, Unisha and her peers aim to raise awareness and spark dialogue around these pressing societal concerns.

“Our bench is a pretty special message that we are sharing to the world,” Chetram said. “It was important to kind of display these benches in what we think is very important because a lot of people are dying every day due to gun violence. And there’s just a lot of people who can’t live paycheck to paycheck. And sometimes they have problems like health problems and stuff and they have to spend money on them. And that could maybe get them on the streets and it’s just a very big problem.” 

Eighth grader Johnathan Rambally explains that the purpose of their presence is to promote their benches, intending to educate New Yorkers about the pressing issues in their city. He describes their involvement in the program as stemming from a collective recognition of the prevalent challenges facing New York. With a focus on gun violence and inadequate housing, Johnathan and his peers aimed to address the most prominent issues affecting their community through their bench project.

Student Hanah Sbatri shares her involvement in the program, stating that her school’s collective desire to make a difference led to their participation in creating the bench. She emphasizes the passion her peers and she felt towards the chosen topic, contributing ideas to the project. The process took a few months due to limited class time, but the dedication remained steadfast. Hanah underscores the importance of such projects, stressing the need to address overlooked issues to foster a safer community. She concludes by expressing her commitment to making a positive impact through their efforts.

“I think it’s important for us to do such a project because it’s very overlooked, because we really want to create a safer community but in order to do that, we need to get rid of the things that are causing harm to us,” Sbatri said. 

Their powerful messages aim to inspire change and foster dialogue across New York City, as the benches rotate through parks in each borough throughout the summer. Credit: Mohamed Farghaly.

The unveiling at Juniper Valley Park follows a Citywide Event on May 23 at Randall’s Island, where all thirty social-action benches were first revealed. From June to August, these thought-provoking installations will rotate through parks in each borough, continuing to spark conversations and inspire action across the city.

“These public artworks beautify our diverse neighborhoods, foster dialogue about pressing matters, and exemplify our core values of acceptance, inclusivity, and communal care,” said Eric Adams, Mayor of New York City. “The next generation of New Yorkers should always pave new pathways to fairness and equality and I am proud to see you have already undertaken this fundamental responsibility. Today, I commend your artistic skills, commitment to social justice, and impactful contributions to civic life in our global city.”

Protest erupts at Hochul’s office against the delay of congestion pricing

 By Jean Brannum | jbrannum@queensledger.com

Protestors against the Governors decision gathered outside her New York City office holding up signs calling for congestion pricing. Credit: Jean Brannum

In a shocking twist of events, Governor Kathy Hochul put an indefinite pause on congestion pricing and supporters of the plan are not taking the news quietly. 

Rider’s Alliance, a group for congestion pricing, gathered outside the governor’s office to show their anger towards Hochul’s change of plans. Protesters waved signs calling on Hochul to stop waiting to implement the program. 

“Governor Hochul is turning her back on the promise she made to riders and  New Yorkers,” said Rider’s Alliance Executive Director Betsy Plum.

Protestors against the Governors decision gathered outside her New York City office holding up signs calling for congestion pricing. Credit: Jean Brannum

The Gov, who has pushed to implement a $15 toll for people commuting to the city business district, was supposed to be implemented on June 30. The toll was meant to persuade commuters to take public transportation to improve air quality and decrease gridlock in Manhattan. In addition, the money from toll payers would provide funding for improvements to the subway and commuter rail systems. 

However, critics have said congestion pricing would be a burden to New Yorkers who do not live near public transportation and cause more pollution in the outer boroughs. 

“Let’s be real: a $15 charge may not mean a lot to someone who has the means, but it can break the budget of a working- or middle-class household,” Hochul said in her announcement. “And given these financial pressures, I cannot add another burden to working- and middle-class New Yorkers – or create another obstacle to continued recovery.”

There were also counter-protesters at the event. Jack Nierenberg from Passengers United, a group that has strongly opposed congestion pricing, said that while he was shocked, he believes it is the right decision.

“I’m glad to see the governor is now finally taking the action that she should have taken a while ago,” Nierenberg said. 

Plum mentioned that New York State is required to mitigate the potential air quality issues that would worsen in the South Bronx. An MTA environmental report showed that air quality in the area would worsen due to westbound traffic circumventing Manhattan through the Bronx. 

Protestors against the Governors decision gathered outside her New York City office holding up signs calling for congestion pricing. Credit: Jean Brannum

Two men disrupted the conference to protest congestion pricing. Their yelling was promptly drowned out with chants from protesters. The police outside the building eventually escorted them away from the crowd. The counter-protesters continued to make noise to disrupt the rally. 

It is not clear what Hochul’s next steps are, but in her speech, she said she was committed to further improvements to the subway and rail systems. 

Greenpoint City Councilmember Lincoln Restler and Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso joined the protesters. Restler voiced his concerns that Hochul would never approve congestion pricing. 

“Governor Hochul has betrayed us and do not believe what she is saying that this is a delay. This is a clean and simple attempt to kill congestion pricing.”

Protestors against the Governors decision gathered outside her New York City office holding up signs calling for congestion pricing. Credit: Jean Brannum

In an interview at the rally with a Reddit user who goes by the name of Miser, Restler tried to persuade state politicians, and citizens to push Hochul to go through with congestion pricing. 

“We cannot allow her to delay because it delay in all likelihood could mean the end of congestion pricing,” Restler said.

NYC Lady Bulldogs Volleyball Club Excels During 2024 Club Season

by Stephen DeSalvo

Volleyball continues to gain popularity in the local area, and the NYC Lady Bulldogs Volleyball Club excelled during the 2024 Club Season! If you do not know, club volleyball is high-level competition, national travel opportunity for both girls and boys volleyball. Club volleyball provides a next level of play for girls who are interested in improving their skills and gaining the experience necessary to play in high school and beyond. It allows players to improve skills, provides great experience through practice with a selected team and offers play in tournaments that provides the best way to help players get collegiate exposure.

The NYC Lady Bulldogs Volleyball Club is a Queens/Brooklyn base club that operates within the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).  In only their second full-season competing against national competition, the NYC Lady Bulldogs, now with 10 teams ranging from 11 – 18-year-olds, made a significant impact this year. The under-12 Blue team especially with multiple-championships throughout the season. 

The 12U Blue team led by captains, setter Sienna DeSalvo and outside attacker Isabella Cioczek mowed down competition right away in the first tournament of the season in Philadelphia beating some teams even two years older. They brought home their first gold medal at the Martin Luther King Weekend tournament in Atlantic City where they took home the Open Level championship and earned their first national bid. 

They protected their home court by winning gold in the NYC Lady Bulldogs Invitational Tournament President’s Day Weekend and then took silver in the March Madness event at SpookyNook. However, maybe the most significant and gratifying was finishing up the season on the podium with gold at the York Strong Finish Tournament with an action-packed game, going undefeated in pool play, losing the first set 25-23, but rallying to win sets 2 (25-17) and 3 (15-8) to earn another national bid!

The rest of the team is made up of girls from all over Queens anchored by the defensive specialist, libero, Angelina Pardo, hitters Julia Wiszowaty and Barbara DiMaria, setters, Ava Leone and Milena Soltys, middles Rosalie Estrella, Liliana Labarca and Kaya Lupinska, well as assistant coach Samahra Pardo.

Head Coach, and Director of the NYC Lady Bulldogs Volleyball Club, said “It was amazing to see all of the dedication and hard work pay off this year. These girls play sick and hurt, travel hours away and sometimes play 6 games in one day, but it is all worth it when you see them celebrating and tears of joy when they receive their gold medals!” 

Other NYC Lady Bulldogs teams also made their presence felt including the 12U White (coached by Julia Dib), 13U Blue (Stephen DeSalvo and Chris Lamotta) and White (Brandon Colon) and 15U (Stephanie Filip) teams taking home multiple medals throughout the season. Teams include players all the way up to 18 years old and are comprised of players from all of the major programs in Queens and Brooklyn such as St. John’s Prep, Christ the King, McClancy, St. Francis Prep, Molloy, Mary Louis, Fontbonne, and many of the public school programs. 

DeSalvo added, “None of it could be done without the commitment of the parents and coaches. They give all this time and effort to see the girls be the best players they can be!” 

If you are interested in playing club volleyball, please go to www.nyclb.org and inquire today!

Fundraiser Hosted in Windsor Terrace in support of Congressman Jamaal Bowman

by Stefanie Donayre

On Monday, May 20th, supporters gathered in a private residence in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, NY to attend a fundraiser to rally behind Democratic representative Jamaal Bowman’s re-election for the Democratic nomination in N.Y.’s 16th Congressional District.

The event featured passionate appeals for unity and support of Bowman’s candidacy from Council Member Shahana Hanif, who represents Brooklyn’s 39th District in the New York City Council, and Rana Abdelhamid, former candidate for Congress and a Muslim human rights activist.

With topics ranging from combating racism, a call for a Gaza ceasefire, and xenophobia to housing and food insecurity, Bowman addressed concerns shared by those dedicated to advancing progressive ideals.

“This is not about an election. This is about our humanity. If we are not governing from the perspective of our humanity, then we should not be in positions of power,” said Representative Bowman. “Humanity comes first, and humanity means every single life is precious and sacred, and we have to stand up and fight for those lives, whoever they are, whether they’re in the Bronx, Mount Vernon, Gaza, Israel, Yemen, Sudan, wherever they are. That is our mission.”

Abdelhamid, Hanif, and Bowman raised questions about the substantial financial resources collected by Bowman’s opponent, George Latamier, particularly focusing on Latamier’s largest donor: AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). 

“Just like this election isn’t only about me, it’s about everything we all have fought for our entire lives, and everything we represent, this election is also about what he represents,” said Bowman. “To make the conscious decision to do fundraisers with Trump donors, make the conscious decision to be endorsed by AIPAC, be supported by people who are going after our reproductive freedom and voting rights and affirmative action and supporting 200 insurrectionists. This is who this so-called lifelong Democrat is deciding to partner with to take the first black man in U.S. history out of this congressional seat.”

It was openly acknowledged that in addition to more general worries about racial fairness and reproductive justice, AIPAC’s role was strongly connected to issues concerning Israel and Palestine. 

“36 days left and millions have been poured in by AIPAC and they’re not just genocidal. They’re not just inciting violence on our communities. They are also anti-reproductive rights, they are also anti-climate reparations, they are also anti-racial justice, so we cannot have the other guy in that seat, too much is at stake” said Councilmember Hanif.

Councilmember Shahana Hanif praised Bowman’s track record as a leader dedicated to fighting for the well-being of his constituents as she discussed the challenges she faces as a woman in elected office. 

“There’s no, there’s no roadmap, there’s no blueprint on how to show up with dignity with the identities that we hold as a Muslim woman, as an Arab woman, as a Palestinian woman,” said Councilmember Shahana Hanif. “But Jamaal doesn’t need that blueprint because he knows how to show up with dignity. He knows how to show up compassionately and with empathy.”

Bowman expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support from not only his volunteers but the women in leadership working alongside him and pledged to continue fighting for a future where social justice causes and equity are prioritized. 

The fundraiser concluded with calls to action, encouraging attendees to donate throughout the event by scanning QR codes placed around the host’s home, volunteering, and spreading the word about Bowman’s campaign as they emphasized their urgency with just 36 days remaining until the primary election.

$457,600 in Grants Awarded to 138 Queens-Based Artists and Organizations

By MOHAMED FARGHALY mfarghaly@queensledger.com

The cultural vibrancy of Queens, one of the most diverse communities globally, received a significant boost with the announcement of $457,600 in grants awarded to 138 artists, artist collectives, and small nonprofits. The grants, part of the 2024 Queens Arts Fund (QAF), are jointly funded by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) and administered by the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA).

Spanning an array of creative disciplines including music/sound, poetry, performance art, film, and sculpture, the projects aim to foster moments of joy, community, and celebration, while also addressing pressing issues such as cultural identity, social activism, and climate awareness.

Woomin Kim (QAF New Work ’24), “The Warehouse: Bins,” fabric and embellishments, 2023. Courtesy of NYFA.

“Culture is a central part of who we are as New Yorkers, and contributes to a stronger economy and healthier communities,” said Cultural Affairs Commissioner Laurie Cumbo. “That’s why we’re proud to partner with NYFA to invest this funding in more than 130 artists, collectives, and small nonprofits working in every corner of Queens.”

Inclusivity and representation were paramount in the selection process, with over 70% of panelists identifying as women or gender non-conforming/nonbinary, and nearly 80% identifying as People of Color. Additionally, materials were made available in Spanish and Chinese, alongside English, ensuring accessibility.

“We’re thrilled to announce this year’s Queens Arts Fund recipients, who continue to amaze us with the creativity that they bring to the borough of Queens and to New York City at large,” NYFA Chief Executive Officer Michael Royce said. “We are grateful to the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs for supporting this program, and look forward to the work of these talented artists, organizations, and collaboratives reaching and enriching communities across Queens.”

One of the grant recipients, Concetta Abbate, shared her enthusiasm, stating, “Receiving this grant furthers my goals to utilize art towards accessibility and inclusivity.” Abbate, born with a visual impairment, aims to guide audiences through a musical exploration of Queens, highlighting shifting soundscapes and local infrastructure needs.

Another recipient, Sofia Geck from The Dream Unfinished, emphasized the grant’s significance in promoting health awareness and under-recognized classical music composers of color.

“Receiving this grant is a huge honor and a wonderful opportunity for our organization to simultaneously increase awareness of both critical health resources and under-recognized classical music composers of color,” Geck said. “With the receipt of this funding and the production of our 4th annual VITALS festival, The Dream Unfinished will continue to combine the power of music and community engagement.”

Astoria Film Festival Media Production Lab (Queens Arts Fund Arts Access ’24) filming the Group Film at Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens. Courtesy of NYFA.

The grants also empower artists to celebrate and preserve cultural heritage. Araceli Poma of Afro-Andean Funk expressed gratitude for the opportunity to produce a concert featuring original music in Quechua, emphasizing the importance of strengthening cultural roots and promoting linguistic diversity.

“Receiving a Queens Arts Fund grant means a great support, as it will allow us to produce a concert with identity, where we will share original music in Quechua, and it is a great pride to be able to spread our indigenous languages,” Poma said. “This is important because it strengthens our connection to our cultural roots, promotes the preservation of our ancestral traditions, and fosters respect for linguistic and cultural diversity. Additionally, it gives us the opportunity to bring our music and message to a wider audience, creating a positive impact in our communities and beyond.”

Similarly, Sophia Walsh-Newman from Asoso International Ensemble highlighted the grant’s validation of their efforts to preserve folk traditions. “This grant provides monetary assistance that allows us to focus on rehearsing rather than rehearsal costs,” Walsh-Newman stated.

“Receiving this grant means much to me and my fellow artists. It validates to us that the work we are doing to learn, retain, and share our folk forms is necessary and important,” Walsh-Newman said. “This grant provides monetary assistance that allows us to focus on rehearsing rather than rehearsal costs. Further, this grant will allow us to continue to bring presentations to our communities that will allow participants to learn and engage with the heritage and folk traditions of the Caribbean Diaspora.”

Afro-Andean Funk (QAF New Work ’24)’s Araceli Poma and Matt Geraghty, “Mavy Roots,” concert at Bryant Park. Courtesy of NYFA.

The QAF projects promise to enrich Queens’ cultural landscape, with upcoming events, exhibitions, and film screenings showcasing the borough’s diverse talent and heritage. From outdoor health festivals to musical comedies and community storytelling events, the QAF grants demonstrate a commitment to fostering creativity, inclusivity, and community engagement in Queens and beyond.

“I’m thrilled to see so many Queens artists, from photographers to performers and beyond, receive grants through the 2024 Queens Arts Fund,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr. said. “Queens is an unmatched hub of arts and culture, and this funding is a critical way of elevating the incredible work of the many brilliant artists chosen from across Queens, especially those from historically marginalized communities. Congratulations to all our recipients.”

Community Leaders Oppose The Mayor’s “City of Yes” Proposal, Neighborhoods Could Be Forever Marred, The Voice of New Yorkers Must Not Be Ignored

By Michael Perlman

Queens residents among New Yorkers at large are increasingly concerned and in opposition of the controversial City of Yes proposal, conceived by Mayor Eric Adams and the City Planning Commission. This could significantly alter the residential and commercial environments of New York City’s neighborhoods by amending and stripping numerous zoning regulations, and therefore nullify the distinctive and contextual characteristics that residents, Community Boards, elected officials, shop owners, and urban planners have advocated for throughout several decades. It could pose disastrous consequences for owners of one and two-family homes and small businesses, and community leaders are becoming vocal. 

In late April, the Queens Civic Congress launched a petition directed towards Mayor Adams, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, and City Council: www.change.org/p/save-our-nyc-neighborhoods-oppose-the-city-of-yes. Based on 2,330 signatures to date, 60 percent of signers encompass zip codes 11375, 11357, and 11361. 

In response to the City of Yes proposal, which consists of thousands of pages, President Claudia Valentino of the Forest Hills Community and Civic Association said, “A most important task of civic leaders is to make homeowners and shop owners aware, and ask them to educate themselves about the plan’s components, so they can express their own viewpoints. Now that they have, their feedback is a resounding ‘No’ to the City of Yes.” 

On May 6, Valentino coordinated the Emergency Town Hall Meeting at Our Lady of Mercy Parish Hall in Forest Hills, which featured an informative session attended by over 200 residents. An overview of the City of Yes was presented by Valentino and urban planner Paul Graziano.

Additionally, nearly 600 residents signed a letter to Councilmember Lynn Schulman, encouraging her to vote “No” on the economic aspects of City of Yes. Furthermore, Valentino attended zoom meetings with Queenswide residents and attended a May 31 rally in City Hall Park with over 200 passionate civic leaders, largely from Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Queens. On June 4, the Land Use Committee of Community Board 6 scheduled a public hearing on the housing component of the City of Yes, which was followed by a committee vote. 

Valentino is one of numerous residents and civic leaders who feel that the City of Yes would cause destructive overdevelopment within neighborhoods of one and two-family homes and small and historic commercial corridors, such as Metropolitan Avenue and Austin Street. She explained, “While our area and surrounding neighborhoods would be harmed, it is important to realize that the City of Yes plan applies to all neighborhoods, especially those in Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx. Specifically, the plan calls for additional floors to small buildings, such as those on Metropolitan Avenue. Most businesses on Metropolitan rent the retail space they occupy, despite belief to the contrary, and landlords could be induced to sell buildings to real estate speculators, and the resulting add-ons to buildings would displace both retail and residential tenants. It would also be disruptive to the buildings they abut, not to mention infrastructure such as sewer, water, and utilities.” 

These small commercial strips, which offer historic details, are an anchor of such neighborhoods, and recently symbolized stories of community, diligence, and originality to stay afloat during the pandemic’s economic downturns. “There is no excuse for the disruption that the City of Yes would bring to these small commercial streets and their mom-and-pop, single owner businesses, and not to mention rent increases. The entire plan is a hidden attempt at destructive gentrification,” said Valentino. 

Regarding one and two-family homes, the proposal would permit Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in homes as rental units. These include apartments in basements (many have been deemed illegal and unsafe), attics, and garages, as well as additional rental structures in

backyards to stand 10 feet from the back door of a main home, and five feet from property lines. Valentino explained, “This takes a one-family or two-family home to three, four, five-family residences. Again, real estate speculation, with people purchasing homes with the express purpose of turning them over completely to rentals, or to Airbnbs, which occurred in Sedona, Arizona with these plans, is in the cards for us.” 

Such plans originated from urban planners in other cities, such as those in California and Oregon. One and two-family homes typically sit on larger lots out west. Valentino pinpointed how zoning would be greatly compromised. “Even on Long Island, where ADUs are appearing, lot sizes are required to be significantly larger than what New York City has. Where I live, lots are typically 25 feet by 100 feet, and houses are only 16 feet wide, but yet the City of Yes plan seeks to apply to all lots and all houses across the boroughs.” 

Near Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills are 16-foot-wide frame houses, symbolic of those in the credits to “All in the Family.” They were commonly erected in the 1920s as “worker” houses for Forest Hills Gardens. “Our homes are set close to sidewalks with a small front garden for flood control, and deep backyards. The rationale was that lower income residents did not have the option of summering in the Hamptons, and would need outdoor space for family enjoyment and relief from the heat. Houses in Forest Hills Gardens, by contrast, are set way back on the property, to have a dramatic approach to the front door, but typically have a very small backyard. With this understanding, proposed ADUs would destroy the very intention of our yards, which enable recreation, gardening, and privacy.” 

Regarding ‘transit zones’ under the City of Yes, three and four-story apartment buildings can be erected among the one and two-family homes, increasing density and noise, while decreasing privacy. “One and two-family neighborhoods are places that people move to by quite explicit choice. Apartment buildings and density are precisely what we have sacrificed to move away from,” she said.

One component of the City of Yes that may be greener and preservation-friendly is adaptively reusing former office buildings as residences. Since the pandemic, people are not reoccupying office buildings in significant numbers. Valentino feels it is time to renovate commercial space 

for residential use, in addition to the excess of empty warehoused apartments. “These spaces are the equivalent of hiding money under one’s mattress, but for what? When real estate prices rebound? It’s time to address the terrible affordable housing problem and the problem of decently housing our homeless.” 

A serious misrepresentation about zoning is being circulated by the powers who desire the City of Yes to be approved, claiming that one group wants to keep others out. “We’re not Oregon, for example, where between 75% and 85% of the population of one-family neighborhoods is white, and where they are using ‘Yes’ type rezoning plans to integrate the state. This is New York City, 

and Queens is the poster-children for diversity,” said Valentino, who finds this accusation divisive. She hopes that the city will realize that residents helped downzone their neighborhoods, comparable to how the Forest Hills Community and Civic Association was successful two decades ago, to prevent density and real estate speculation, and commercial activity out of residential areas, and to safeguard fragile infrastructure, to prevent flooding and keep at bay the risk of fire that comes with overpopulation and business activity among homes. 

Valentino also hopes that officials will walk in the footsteps of residents to realize how their homes are close together with only a common driveway. “There is no room for additional development! We simply matched our zoning to what exists, and there has been no attempt of any kind to prevent our fellow New Yorkers, who come from every corner of the globe, from moving here. Ring doorbells and you will see how diverse we are. We are New Yorkers who must always stick together, and we do not need cast-off plans from other municipalities that in no way compare with us.” 

Countless residents, including Valentino are devoted towards neighborly, historic, and idyllic low-rise sections, such as Metropolitan Avenue shops and the commercial strip of 69th Avenue.

“They are our anchor and allow us to have a small-scale, walkable community, doing business with people we have relationships with. I also love the quiet of my backyard. We all know when to enjoy a chat and how to offer privacy and peace to our neighbors, even as we hear the sounds of birthday celebrations, gardening, and outdoor recreation. Most of all, our community is what fancy people call artisanal.” Walking around, she can pinpoint the loving care that each owner dedicates to their homes, including their flower and vegetable gardens. 

Leslie Brown, President of the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce, has many small business owners who are members, spanning Austin Street and nearby. “The City of Yes proposal is complex, and there needs to impact studies on how this will affect Forest Hills. Quite a few business owners and residents I have asked do not seem to be aware of all the implications,” she said. 

She expressed concerns about the proposed end to parking mandates for new housing. “We struggle with not enough parking, so proposals to take away parking and have more residential buildings without required mandates, will have an impact that can cause serious issues.” 

Brown is also concerned as to how the City of Yes would permit ADUs. “This could give homeowners extra cash or provide more space for multi-generational families, but absolutely alter our community’s character.” 

Twenty-year Forest Hills resident Chad Callahan proudly serves the community as president of the Forest Hills Van-Court Association, and takes into consideration all concerns from homeowners. The Forest Hills Van-Court section offers approximately 300 homes that are safeguarded by Architectural Covenants to preserve the beauty, character, and distinction of properties erected over a century ago. “We work every day to ensure that our area is preserved for the enjoyment of future generations,” he said.

Callahan is proud of how Queens has been called the “borough of families.” He explained, “Our children go to school here, many of us operate our businesses here, and this area is known for its diversity in living options, such as a luxury high rise apartment, a modest apartment with access to public transportation, a multi-family townhouse, or a single-family residence.” However, that 

diversity is now threatened. “The City of Yes would end single-family neighborhoods like Forest Hills Van-Court. Every block in the low-density areas of Forest Hills could then have multi-family houses on each short-end of the street,” he continued. 

If it passes, irreversible damage will be in the forecast, since an assemblage of private homes is the community’s pride. “In Van Court, we certainly go above and beyond to ensure that materials, architecture, and colors are adhered to, in order to preserve the intent of which the community was originally built.” He also shared concerns over the proposed ADUs. “Garages could then be converted into living quarters, illegal basement apartments can be legalized, and possibly even the establishment of new small structures on lawns or in backyards. Imagine how NYC spent decades improving living conditions, but now wants to go back 100 years to allow tiny units to be created. These concepts are beneath the living standard that any person should have to endure, and should not be allowed,” he continued. 

Zoning has been a component of New York City for over a century. Callahan explained, “It operates well to provide systems and laws for developers to operate within, and zoning laws are here to also protect us. To allow multi-family units in areas zoned for single-family homes is to betray residents who advocated for years to maintain our status as a single-family community.” 

Callahan is also a proponent of repurposing older office buildings into residences and installing eco-friendly greening. “There are several new office developments that would jump at the opportunity to convert to residential. It does not make sense to demolish a 100-year-old historic home to build an apartment building in its place.” 

He among residents embrace Forest Hills’ distinctive character, which includes the covenant-protected Forest Hills Gardens and Forest Hills Van-Court. “Block after block, you find

well maintained, historic single-family homes, shaded by trees and enhanced by flowers and shrubbery. It is quiet, parking is available, and you can often find kids playing on their front lawns. However, if multi-family housing is incorporated, it is more than likely that the number of such single-family homes would decrease, parking would become a problem, and families that invest to raise their children here may consider leaving in search of less crowded places.” 

The Association is a fine example of being civic-minded, with their attendance at Community Board 6’s public hearing, in addition to the City Council hearing. They also marked the June 4 CB 6 Land Use meeting and hearing on their agenda. At the Association’s recent meeting, the 

City of Yes was a hot topic. “So far, none of our residents are supporters, and they are scared of what may result. Remember, living here is a choice, so eliminating our designation as a single-family community goes against their wishes.” 

Callahan requests Mayor Adams and his team to directly engage with communities. “We have an active board and a passionate community of homeowners, who welcome the opportunity to provide constructive ideas to help the city tackle challenges. Our hope is that our voices are heard, and this proposal does not go forward in its current form. We will request to meet with our elected officials.” 

Stay tuned for an upcoming column featuring perspectives of residents, businesses, a zoning expert, and the Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance.

PAL’s Carlos Velazquez Honored in City & State’s 2024 Nonprofit Trailblazers

By MOHAMED FARGHALY mfarghaly@queensledger.com

Carlos Velazquez, Executive Director of the Police Athletic League , named a 2024 Nonprofit Trailblazer for transformative contributions to NYC’s youth and community. Courtesy of PAL.

Carlos Velazquez, Executive Director of the Police Athletic League (PAL), has been acknowledged as a Nonprofit Trailblazer on the esteemed 2024 list by City & State and New York Nonprofit Media. This accolade celebrates his remarkable contributions to the nonprofit sector, particularly in enhancing the lives of New York City’s youth and fostering community development.

The 2024 Nonprofit Trailblazers list showcases visionary leaders dedicated to advancing critical missions across New York. Velazquez stands out for his innovative leadership, marked by forging impactful community partnerships and championing the youth of New York City, especially those in underserved neighborhoods. With a career spanning two decades in public service, he has prioritized addressing the needs of marginalized youth while cultivating strategic alliances with community stakeholders and governmental bodies.

“I am honored to be recognized on the City & State and New York Nonprofit Media 2024 Nonprofit Trailblazers List among these esteemed New Yorkers,” Velazquez said. “This award reflects the extraordinary work of the PAL staff and volunteers who remain committed to serving New York City’s youth who face unprecedented challenges.  Our communities are living through a pivotal time, and PAL will continue to be a safe place where youth can build relationships and emerge as leaders.”

Velazquez leads initiatives to build positive relationships between communities and law enforcement, inspiring change across NYC. Courtesy of PAL.

A native of East Harlem, Velazquez assumed the role of PAL’s Executive Director in 2022, bringing with him a wealth of experience and a deep-rooted commitment to his community. Prior to joining PAL, he served as the Chief Program Officer for the Boys’ Club of New York, collaborating with various partners in youth development, education, and law enforcement.

Velazquez holds a Master of Education from Bank Street College of Education, along with a Master of Social Work and a Bachelor of Science from Syracuse University. His educational background, combined with his hands-on experience, equips him with the tools necessary to drive meaningful change in the lives of young New Yorkers.

The honorees of the 2024 Nonprofit Trailblazers list were featured in City & State Magazine on May 20 and celebrated at an event graced by keynote speakers New York City Deputy Mayor for Strategic Initiatives Ana Almanzar and Department of Social Services Commissioner Molly Wasow Park.

Reflecting on his journey from East Harlem to PAL’s Executive Director, Velazquez emphasizes the pivotal role of community support and mentorship in shaping his career trajectory. He attributes his dedication to public service to his personal experiences, emphasizing the transformative power of positive role models and access to supportive programs during his formative years.

 Velazquez credited his upbringing and active participation in programs during his youth for shaping his career path. He highlighted the importance of parental support and community engagement in fostering his leadership skills and dedication to public service.

“I was very fortunate to have parents who understood that partnership and support in raising kids in New York City was important, especially during the time I was growing up in New York City,” Velazquez said. 

After attending LaSalle Academy and pursuing higher education at Syracuse University, where he studied social work, Velazquez returned to New York City to embark on a career focused on empowering underserved communities. He emphasized the significance of giving back to one’s neighborhood and serving as a positive role model for future generations.

“Success was always about leaving your neighborhood. But then we end up missing our neighborhood, so why not come back and make your neighborhood better and teach the future of our city that it’s not about leaving the city, it’s about gaining world experience, and coming back and giving back?” Velazquez said. 

As the Executive Director of PAL, Velazquez outlined his primary responsibilities, which include strategic planning, fostering partnerships, and ensuring program effectiveness. Under his leadership, PAL has prioritized initiatives aimed at promoting mental health and social-emotional well-being among youth, alongside innovative programs like the upcoming launch of an indoor baseball training facility in Washington Heights on June 15. 

Under his leadership, PAL continues to innovate and expand its reach. Notable initiatives include a focus on mental health and social-emotional well-being, alongside the upcoming launch of an indoor baseball training facility in Washington Heights, aimed at addressing community needs and enhancing program accessibility.

“Our motto for 2024 is getting better at being better,” Velazquez said. “Being around 100 years, you begin to address the different needs right now, there’s a large focus on mental health and social emotional well-being.”

Velazquez views the recognition on the 2024 Nonprofit Trailblazers list as a testament to the collective effort invested in PAL’s mission. He underscores the significance of collaboration and diverse representation within the nonprofit sector, emphasizing the ongoing commitment to serving New York City’s diverse communities.

“When you see a young person you work with achieve a goal or the staff that you have develop, take their skill and their career to the next level, or you see the impact you have in a community, those are the things that I am the proudest of,” Velazquez said. 

Looking ahead, Velazquez envisions a future where PAL serves as a cornerstone in every neighborhood, fostering positive relationships between communities and law enforcement while addressing unique community needs. His unwavering dedication to youth empowerment and community development continues to drive PAL’s mission forward, inspiring positive change across New York City.

“To me, there’ll be a PAL in every neighborhood, “Velazquez said. “Becoming kind of, you know, no pun intended, the trailblazer in this work.”

For those interested in supporting PAL’s mission, Velazquez encourages donations and spreading awareness of the organization’s impactful work. More information can be found on PAL’s website at www.palnyc.org.

New Library Opens at Samaritan Daytop Village Shelter in Queens

By MOHAMED FARGHALY mfarghaly@queensledger.com

Samaritan Daytop Village, in collaboration with United Way and NYC Department for Social Services, launched ‘The Bookmark,’ a new library at Boulevard family shelter in Queens on May 29. Courtesy of Ana Gerstein.

A new chapter in literacy and community support unfolded on May 29 as Samaritan Daytop Village, in collaboration with United Way and the New York City Department for Social Services, unveiled ‘The Bookmark,’ a vibrant library nestled within the Boulevard family shelter in Queens.

Designed to serve 199 families residing at the shelter, The Bookmark offers an array of literary resources aimed at enriching the lives of children and parents alike. From a diverse collection of children’s books to designated reading spaces and computer terminals for older youth and adults, the facility promises to be a sanctuary of learning and relaxation.

The facility, serving 199 families, offers books, reading spaces, and computers. Courtesy of Ana Gerstein.

The grand opening ceremony witnessed a heartwarming moment as DSS Administrator Carter, Samaritan CEO Mitchell Netburn, and United Way CEO Grace Bonilla came together to read the beloved children’s book “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” to the shelter’s young residents.

The creation of this haven for literature owes its existence to a $10,000 grant from United Way of New York City, part of a broader initiative aimed at enhancing access to books and literacy-based activities in underserved communities. In line with this vision, The Bookmark represents a cornerstone of a larger endeavor to ensure that every child in shelter environments has access to the resources necessary for their educational and personal development.

“We are grateful to partner with trusted organizations to advance education equity and empower all children and adults with increased access to the world of literature and books,” Grace Bonilla, President & CEO at United Way of New York City said. “These community libraries are foundational for ensuring that all New Yorkers can thrive as the libraries are planting seeds for future economic mobility.”

In a statement, Mitchell Netburn, CEO of Samaritan Daytop Village, expressed gratitude for the collaborative effort that brought The Bookmark to fruition, emphasizing its significance in promoting academic advancement and fostering social and emotional well-being among shelter residents. Netburn underscored the library’s role as a model for similar initiatives across New York City, thanking United Way for their generosity and support.

“Thanks to the generosity of United Way and the partnership with the New York City Department of Homeless Services, our families have a space where children and their parents can spend quiet time, research, read, and engage in activities,” Netburn said. “This new library adds to our Afterschool Zone initiative at the Boulevard shelter, which gives children a leg up academically, promotes intellectual learning, and expands their social and emotional learning opportunities.  Together, this library and the Afterschool Zone serve as a model for other family residences in New York City. We are grateful to United Way for making this possible.”

United Way’s $10,000 grant funded the project, aiming to enhance literacy in marginalized communities. Courtesy of Ana Gerstein.

Similarly, Joslyn Carter, DHS Administrator, highlighted the transformative power of reading, describing it as a conduit to imagination and relaxation. Carter commended United Way of New York City for their contribution, recognizing The Bookmark as a vital resource for children and families seeking solace and inspiration during challenging times.

“Reading is fundamental. Reading is one of things that can take you to a place of fantasy, where you can just relax and hear stories,” Carter said. “That’s the opportunity that we need to give to children and families, and here it is, the chance to do just that in this beautiful space. As soon as I walked through this door, my spirits were lifted. We could not have done this without the generosity of the United Way of New York City – thank you.”

Leaders praised the initiative’s potential to support educational and emotional well-being in shelter residents. Courtesy of Ana Gerstein.

The unveiling of The Bookmark marks a significant milestone in the ongoing efforts to provide holistic support to families experiencing homelessness, reflecting a shared commitment to nurturing a culture of learning and resilience within communities across the city.

Fill the Form for Events, Advertisement or Business Listing