Brooklyn and Queens Flooded in the Midst of the Workday

By Oona Milliken, Matthew Fischetti and Charlie Finnerty | news@queensledger.com

From Rockaway Beach to Gowanus to Elmhurst, residents of Queens and Brooklyn faced the brunt of last week’s flooding as roadways, homes, subway stations and airports filled with water Friday in what has now been recorded as the worst storm to hit the city since Hurricane Ida.

Trash as a result of the flooding in South Williamsburg. Photo credit: Oona Milliken

Communities worked together all afternoon to clear drains and save neighbors from rising floodwaters but as the outer boroughs return to dry warm weather this week, questions remain about Mayor Eric Adam’s ability to communicate and prepare New York City residents for the historic severe storm.

Water rose to more than three feet high on the corner of Wallabout Street and Harrison Avenue in South Williamsburg on Friday Sept. 29 as New Yorkers across the city dealt with a bout of extreme flooding that prompted a city-wide state of emergency. Anthony Calderon, a Queens-based resident who works at Top Quality Management, a management company on Wallabout St, said he was cleaning up the trash from his office that the water had swept away and spread out across the area. Calderon said when the intersection flooded, he was reminded of storms such as Hurricane Ida, when New York City was shut down under a Flash Flood Emergency for the first time in recorded history and 13 people perished due to the rains. 

“Hectic. A lot of rain. It’s just kept coming, kept coming. On Wallabout and Harrison, the flood was coming up here, to your knees at least,” Calderon said. “I was afraid, like ‘Not again, what is this flood?’ I remember a couple of years ago when the hurricanes came, all the subways flooded and Queen’s Boulevard…That’s how I felt, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Not again.’”

Mayor Eric Adams was slammed by critics for not giving proper notice of the flooding when his office knew of the dangers on Thursday evening and Governor Hochul had already issued a flash flooding warning for New York City earlier in the day. Adam’s office sent out an email alert at 11 p.m. on Thursday, but did not shut down schools and hosted a public briefing around noon on Friday, hours after the worst rainfall had subsided and the governor had already declared a state of emergency across the city. 

The New York City sewer system was originally designed to maintain 1.75 inches of rain per hour, but areas such as the Brooklyn Navy Yard were hit with 2.58 inches of rain per hour, as early as 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., according to the Mayor’s office.

“And so its no surprise, unfortunately, as a result, that that part of Brooklyn and a couple of other particularly (sic) part of Brooklyn have borne the brunt of this,” said Department of Environmental Protection Commish Rohit T. Aggarwala.

Right before noon, the mayor urged New Yorker’s to stay home or “shelter in place,” while many commuters were already at work. On the Wallabout St. and Harrison Ave intersection, Calderon said the flooding became so bad that community members stepped in and dealt with the problem on their own by removing a manhole cover and letting the storm water drain into the sewer systems. 

“People from the community thought of putting gates around, and I had to go do something, and when I came back I could just see a spiral [of water] going down right in the corner. It was amazing. I mean, you could see cars floating,” Calderon said. 

Community members gather around the open manhole drain. Photo credit: Oona Milliken

Sandy Spadavecchia was driving his car through the Wallabout and Harrison intersection when the water partially submerged his car, rising up inside and stalling his vehicle. Spadavecchia said he saw a couple of construction workers and Hasidic community members attempt to deal with the problem until someone finally pulled the manhole cover to drain the water. Spadaveccia said he was lucky his car stalled when it did because he could have driven right into the manhole as the water was running into the sewer system. 

“There was flooding and the car stalled out in the middle of going through it and that was it,” Spadavecchia said. “In some ways I was lucky because I stalled out three or four feet in front of that open manhole cover, I might have gone into that.” 

Spadavecchia said he felt the city could have prevented the piles of trash spread by floodwaters throughout the area had residents been told to keep trash inside during the storm. 

“In my personal opinion, they probably should have suspended trash pickup, because I did see a lot of trash bags that hadn’t been picked up clogging [the streets],” Spadaveccia said. “I mean, they knew this was coming so they probably should have told people to keep their trash in for the day.” 

Calderon and co-worker Peter Nieves, both at Top Quality Management, were mopping other stores on the street and picking up trash that had been spread during the floods Friday. When asked for a quote on the flooding, Nieves said he just wanted some help and maybe an alcoholic beverage.  

“Can I get a beer?” Nieves said.

Across Queens, where many residents are still recovering from the impact of Hurricane Ida, floodwaters closed roads, impacted public transport and filled basements. Cars were overrun with flooding on Grand Central Parkway and in Rosedale, with a number of drivers abandoning their vehicles altogether. Waters engulfed Rockaway Beach, where nearly every home is considered to be at risk of flooding, suspending Long Island Railroad service

As early as 6 a.m. Friday, travelers at LaGuardia Airport were experiencing inclement weather delays. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a ground stop for the afternoon across the airport, stopping all departing flights due to the flooding and weather in the area, canceling or delaying nearly 40% of all flights Friday. Terminal A, the oldest section of the airport, flooded with several inches of water and shut down 11 a.m. Friday until early Saturday morning. Videos captured travelers trudging through ankle-deep water at gates across the terminal. Ongoing renovations in Terminals B and C have included flood protections that have not yet been implemented in Terminal A.

Astoria Bookshop Turns Page on 10 Years 

Guests filled up the shop to celebrate 10 years since the bookshop opened in Astoria. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

By Iryna Shkurhan | ishkurhan@queensledger.com

Astoria Bookshop celebrated their 10 Year Anniversary on Monday, as well as a grand reopening in a new location, with an all day celebration featuring special guests and activities. 

For close to a decade, Astoria’s only bookstore was stationed on 31-29 31st Street. The queer and woman-owned shop opened for business on August 21, 2013 and has generated many bookworm regulars who could browse a wide selection in an intimate space. But earlier this spring, the books moved less than a mile away to their new home at 36-19 30th Street.

“For the past two years we’ve just been bursting at the seams,” said the store’s founder and owner Lexi Beach. “We just didn’t have room to carry everything.”

The new location is 40 percent bigger and has a garden with seating for guests to enjoy their newly purchased reads. Beach says that the bigger location has given her, and the seven other booksellers, the chance to play around with fun new subsections and stock more books in each category. The reaction to the new location has been split down the middle. Some of her regulars complain that she’s further away now, while others are glad that their trip to the shop got shorter. But everyone is happy about the new garden, especially the dog owners. 

The garden has several seats and is dog friendly. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

The party started with a storytime for the kids in the morning, and a station to create their own bookmark afterwards using cut out shapes from advance copy picture books. Meg Jones-Wall, of 3am Tarot and the author of Finding the Fool: A Tarot Journey to Radical Transformation, was also available for tarot readings in the garden in the evening. 

Casey McQuiston, author of the bestselling novel Red, White & Royal Blue, was another popular guest. Their book, which was adapted into a film this year, centers around the son of America’s first female president falling in love with a prince of England, and having to keep it under wraps. Fans of the queer novel had the chance to ask McQuiston their questions about the book, or for new recommendations. 

Even City Councilmember Tiffany Caban, who represents Astoria and other western Queens neighborhoods, briefly stopped by the celebration. 

Since day one, customers have been able to order their books online to be shipped directly to their home, or picked up in store. But since the initial opening, more and more people have ordered their books online, even if they live nearby in Astoria. The shop has even shipped books to all six continents. 

“Still, most of our business comes from here and most of our business is in person. It has not changed. And I don’t think that’s really going to change,” said Beach, who believes that the physical space of a bookstore, especially one that offers community events, cannot be replaced. 

Lexi Beach previously worked in the book publishing industry before taking the leap and starting her own business. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

The shop frequently hosts authors for various readings and meet and greets, as well as storytelling for kids. She says that giving people another reason to visit the bookstore, since most people are not buying a new book every week or even every month, is central to her mission. 

“The first steps that I took trying to open a bookstore were so much easier than I thought they would be. And so much easier than trying to find my next publishing job,” said Beach, who worked a range of roles in the book publishing industry for close to a decade before taking the leap of starting her own business. “I was like, oh, maybe this is the direction that I’m supposed to go in.”

That knowledge of the book world easily transferred over to her current duties of meeting with book representatives, and selecting what titles will fill up the shelves and tables. 

Her liberal arts degree in Spanish literature has also come in handy. She’s able to chat with Spanish speaking visitors and guide them through the growing Spanish speaking section, with books for both adults and kids. 

Visitors browse the shelves. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

“Even on the toughest day, it’s still better than any other job I’ve had,” said Beach, who lives on the Upper East Side with her wife and dog. 

Meng Awards 1 Million for Small Business Legal Desk 

Congresswoman Grace Meng allocated one million dollars for the Queens Chamber of Commerce to start a Small Business Legal Desk. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

By Iryna Shkurhanishkurhan@queensledger.com 

Small businesses in Queens will soon have access to free legal advice in five different languages through a new pilot program spearheaded by the Queens Chamber of Commerce. 

Congresswoman Grace Meng, who represents much of the borough, awarded the Chamber with a check for $1 million outside the Small Business Development Center at Queens College in Flushing. 

“This will consist of pro-bono, professional support to help small businesses avoid costly issues and mistakes that could impact the force and the strength of our workforce,” said Meng at the event on Thursday. “It will especially help small immigrant owned small businesses and link the small business community that I’m proud to represent.” 

She also pointed out that when business owners run into legal hurdles, they may not know exactly where to turn. Without resources to have a lawyer on retainer, or prior experience dealing with legal issues, they can fall victim to scams and end up in a worse situation than before. 

With the funding, the chamber will bring aboard lawyers, accountants and human resources professionals who can advise business owners in times of need, and in multiple languages – Mandarin, Korean, Bengali, Russian, and Spanish. 

Tom Gretch, President and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, recounted that during the pandemic, many business owners lost out on available government assistance, such as the Paycheck Protection Program loan, due to language barriers and a lack of expert advice. 

“We see the importance, especially in places like downtown Flushing, and other areas of Congresswoman Meng’s district, the importance of outreach, which is why we have people that speak different languages on staff,” said Gretch, who noted that Asian-American communities are growing in size and influence, both locally and across the nation as indicated by the 2020 Census count. 

Queens Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Gretch applauded the initiative. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

The Queens Chamber of Commerce represents over 1,400 businesses that employ over 150,000 Queens based employees in a range of industries. 

As the daughter of small business owners, who went from working in one of Flushing’s first Chinese restaurants to owning their own, Congresswoman Meng says the cause is personal. 

“They are helping to create jobs, they are helping to provide much needed services and goods that otherwise we would lack in our local neighborhoods,” said Meng. “And they provide a source of comfort.”

The Chamber is not the only group helping business owners take off, and stay afloat, in the borough. Several speakers at the event pointed out that the Small Business Development Center has been a key supporter of entrepreneurs and small businesses owners for over two decades.

Since 2001, advisors at SBDC have worked with close to 8,000 businesses, and helped invest over $100 million in the local economy, according to their website. They help business owners navigate a range of actionable steps, including setting up a business plan, marketing, securing funding, exports goods and adhering to regulations. 

“This is news that’s important not only for the Chamber of Commerce, but for everyone who lives and works in the world’s borough,” said Frank H. Wu, President of Queens College, at the gathering. “Small businesses are the lifeblood of this community.”

Spiritual Center Regrounds in LIC

The owner of Earth Angel Crystal, Daisy Tamberino, is a certified reiki master, psychic medium and certified crystal practitioner. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

By Iryna Shkurhan | ishkurhan@queensledger.com 

On 50th Avenue in Long Island City, just off Vernon Boulevard, the smell of incense spills onto the sidewalk. At first you might think that a church is close by, but you’ll actually find the area’s first metaphysical healing center at the top of a towering flight of stairs.

The owner, Daisy Tamberino, envisioned the space as not just a spot to buy authentic crystals, but as a community center where anyone can walk in to recenter themselves away from the city’s chaos. Tucked away on the third floor of a century old brick building is Earth Angel Crystal.

Tamberino has been around crystals, and highly attuned to the spiritual world since she was a child. She is a fifth generation medium and energy healer whose connection to the mystical stems from her mother’s lineage. Throughout her childhood, her mother worked in a botanica, a ritual goods store stocked with oils, incense and herbs, that she describes as an old-school Spanish version of her current shop. She recounts hours just flying by as she basked in the energy of the space.

Born and raised in Manhattan, Tamberino is first generation immigrant and the first in her family to own a business. Her mother, who is retired, now works out of the shop one day a week giving tarot and psychic readings. Tamberino focuses more on mediumship, which she describes as the connection to loved ones on the other side through a higher realm.

“But it wasn’t until my reawakening that the crystals just helped transform my life and then working with my angels and my guides, the combination of them have led me here,” said Tamberino in an interview with the Queens Ledger out of her light filled shop. “This is really a journey with how they’ve guided me here.”

The shop has dozens of crystals on display that are ethically sourced from around the country and range from under ten dollars to a few hundred. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

In 2010, Tamberino met her husband while salsa dancing and the couple ended up moving to Long Island to settle down in the suburbs. For 18 years, she also worked as an architect for a  government agency that sent her traveling around the country, even to Puerto Rico, where her family is from. During projects where she would be designing courthouses and other government buildings she recalls bringing peace to male-only construction sites with rampant cursing.

During the pandemic, she experienced “the darkest night of my soul” where a feeling of lack lingered amid a growing death toll across the world. Despite the secure career and a house in the suburbs with kids she felt misaligned from a destiny that she glimpsed as a child –  helping others in an energetic and spiritual way.

“My angel told me that I was going to sell my house, that I was going to move to Long Island City, that I would open my own business, and that I was going to have a healing center to help people,” recalls Tamberino. “And I sold my house two months later in two days.”

But before she moved into the current space, she spent a year renting out two rooms just down the street. And while space was tight, and it wasn’t necessarily what she envisioned, it was all she could afford at the time. But less than a year later, she had a nudge to inquire about a for rent sign posted across the street. Several nudges from her angels later, she secured a bigger and better space to expand her practice. She has been in her new center since May.

The new location is just down the block from where Tamberino has been practicing out of for the past year. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

Tamberino continues to further settle into the LIC community by facilitating a space that locals can visit whether for an event, or just a solo meditation in the gold room. Last month she hosted a book reading by another medium, and later this month she will be hosting an Angel 101 workshop.

“I’m creating a space where people feel like they don’t even have to buy anything, just come to receive the peace that they need,” said Tamberino. “This isn’t private, only to select people, this is for everyone. I’m dedicating it to whoever needs it, it’s open. The doors are wide open.”

Boys and Girls Club Celebrates Hip-Hop’s 50th 

The rain didn’t stop the celebration at Knockdown Center Maspeth. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

By Iryna Shkurhan | ishkurhan@queensledger.com 

In honor of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, hundreds of kids from the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Queens celebrated with an afternoon of double dutching, breakdancing and graffiti in Maspeth’s Knockdown Center. 

The “For the Love” event, hosted by SiriusXM and Pandora, allowed the youth to learn about the history of hip-hop in an interactive and fun way. The free event also served as a culmination of their summer youth employment program that ended last week. 

Later in the evening, the legendary Wu-Tang Clan headlined the venue to an older crowd. 

On August 11, 1973, hip-hop was born at a small back to school party in a Bronx apartment. Clive Campbell, also known as DJ Kool Herc, got the idea to improvise with two turntables that played snippets in a continuous loop. In his honor, a range of free celebratory events were held across all five boroughs. While Wu-Tang hails from Staten Island, Queens takes credit for Nas, LL Cool J, 50 Cent and Nicki Minaj. 

“The vision really was for this to be a community event, because hip-hop started as a basis of the community,” said Nicole Hughey, Head of Diversity, Equity and  Inclusion at SiriusXM. “We want to help inspire them to think about the historical nature of hip-hop, and to think about what they can do to take it even further. We see them as the next generation of talent that will really take us to a new level in this genre.”

Nicole Hughey, Head of DEI and Social Impact at SiriusXM, was a key organizer of the event. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

Over 250 kids who attended the event are members of the BGCMQ, which serves underprivileged youth with year-round programming that focuses on academic success, a healthy lifestyle and developing good character. 

In the summer, the organization places high school students who are eligible for SYEP in various jobs and internships across the city. Some even work at the center on Atlantic Ave. in Richmond Hill that serves as a recreational space where students can foster a sense of community while receiving resources.  

“They have been looking forward to this,” said Kimberly Paramhance, Director of Workforce Development at the Boys and Girls Club. “It’s so exciting to have the kids here today for them to be able to broaden their horizons and see what’s out there. The timing of it couldn’t have been better.” 

SiriusXM  presented a check to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Queens. Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM 

SiriusXM and Pandora, partnered with Cricket Wireless, presented the Boys & Girls Club with a check for $20,000 at the event.

“I just watched one of my kids break dance and so I didn’t even know he could break dance. That was fun,” said Paramhance, who grew up in South Ozone Park and has worked at the club for the past six years. 

Each attendee had the chance to decorate their own backpack. Photo by Iryna Shkurhan

For those who wanted to pick up some breakdancing moves, local dance professionals were on site to demonstrate and guide the newbies on how to nail floor rocks and flares. With strong determination, a handful of kids kept trying until they finally landed it to a round of applause from their peers.

Each attendee also received a white backpack filled with school supplies, which also served as a blank canvas to decorate with provided stencils and spray paint. In a tucked away corner, the kids focused on designing their new backpacks with words and drawings. In honor of the art of graffiti, a blank wall was designated for spray painting. By the end of the event, it had no white space left. 

Richard Whittingham, a 15 year-old from East New York, said that he was excited to attend the celebration because he had never been to a concert before. Like many others his age at the event, he hasn’t heard of Wu-Tang, the notable group that shaped east coast hip-hop.

“Is that a dance move,” replied Whittington, who says some of his favorite hip-hop artists are Lil Tjay and Lil Tecca, all of whom were born in this century. He chose to design his backpack with the words “Be Kind” in green paint. 

Pols Rally Against Corona Vendor Crackdown

Close to a hundred street vendors rallied at Corona Plaza after a city raid put them out of work. Photo: Iryna Shkurhan

By Iryna Shkurhan | ishkurhan@queensledger.com

The vendors who normally fill up Corona Plaza by selling some of the city’s top ranked food were forced to trade their stands for slogans and signs after a raid left them out of work. 

Two weeks ago, armed sanitation police arrived in the middle of the night and forced vendors operating without a permit to hand over their property and shut down. Days later, only a few vendors remained in the formerly bustling public plaza underneath the 7 train. 

For these small business owners, there was no room to resist when the officers approached them. The fear of a fine starting at $1,000 hung over their head.

At a rally on August 2, elected officials joined the vendors and the local nonprofit groups  advocating for a good faith solution. According to the Street Vendor Project, 84 vendors were affected by the crackdown and are now without income. 

“The Plaza we’re standing in today is more than just a slab of concrete underneath a noisy subway line,” said Queens Borough President Donovan Richards. “It’s one of the 50 best places to eat in New York City according to the New York Times.”

The article calling the plaza “the closest thing New York has to a market square in a small Mexican town” in its annual top 100 in NYC list was referred to more than once by elected officials at the rally. One vendor proudly held out a print copy of the newspaper while standing near the podium. 

Corona Plaza earned a spot on the New York Times 100 Best Restaurants in NYC list. Photo: Iryna Shkurhan

“The street vendors who work in this very place, embody all that we are as the world’s borough,” said Richards. “And it’s one of the reasons that we acknowledge those challenges that we had at this plaza.”

No one denied that the density of vendors kept growing following the pandemic leading observers and city officials to deem it unhygienic and unsafe. But many blame the city for failing to create a system that allows the vendors to operate safely with a fair chance at securing a license. 

The Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center has been running a campaign to lift the cap on street vendor licenses for over a decade. Currently there are only 853 merchandise vendor licenses in the city, what many say is an arbitrary number that hasn’t been updated since 1983. The backlogged waitlist list closed in 2016 after reaching capacity, restricting anyone else from a waiting spot. 

“It is very easy to say follow the rules. But when the rules are built against you…If these folks could get a license, you don’t think they would choose to get a license,” said Assemblymember Catalina Cruz as she alternated between Spanish and English. 

They argue that lifting the cap on permits and licenses would decriminalize the practice, increase space for vendors, bring more revenue to the city and make health and safety regulation more accessible. Some unlicensed vendors even resort to buying one on the black market for upwards of $20,000 when they initially cost $200, according to the project.

Congresswoman Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez criticized the city putting the vendors out of work. Photo: Iryna Shkurhan

“We have to increase the number of licenses for street vendors, rather than punish people who are just trying to provide for themselves and their family,” said Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Corona resident, at the rally. “We have to support the way of life that people have made for themselves so that we do not increase the number of homelessness and the number of people out on the streets because the city has prevented their ability to support themselves. It makes no sense.”

The electeds and community leaders unanimously agreed that the inhumane nature of the raid was what brought them out that day. Especially given that the Corona Plaza Street Vendor Association, formed this past March, was in the process of talks with city agencies including the Department of Transportation, the Department of Sanitation and the Queens Economic Development Corporation. The association is made up of 81 members that represent 100 families. 

“It’s important for me that I’m a street vendor. And the reason I choose to do this is because I can be the owner of my own small business alongside my daughter in my community,” said Rosario Trancoso, a member of the association. She says that the majority of her fellow members are also women from Latin America. 

“We’re not saying that things weren’t getting a little bit tough out in the street. I think we all recognize that the economy had driven a lot of people to an informal street market,” Cruz pointed out. “What we’re saying is the way things were done in the middle of actual conversation with agencies, with state officials, with community members.”

“That’s what makes the city’s raid of Corona Plaza so disturbing, and infuriating,” added Richards. 

“While one hand of the city is working together to work with vendors to come together to create an agreement with the department of transportation. The other hand of the city is cutting all of that community trust out,” said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, Deputy Director of the Street Vendor Project. 

Organizers with the Vendor Project gained 3,398 petition signatures in support of street vendors returning to the plaza, 1,997 of which live in the zip code, according to Kaufman-Gutierrez.  

The ones who were permitted to stay were forced to remove their canopies for shade, which the department of sanitation said were prohibited if bolted to the ground, according to reporting from Hellgate. Some switched to umbrellas to bear the heat lingering in the 90s that week. 

The simultaneous migrant crisis in the city, in which the city has been struggling to provide basic resources for the 90,000 new arrivals since last spring, 50,000 of which remained in the city, was not lost on the speakers. They pointed out the hypocrisy of Mayor Adams asking the federal government to expedite work visas for migrants, while removing New Yorkers ability to make a living without any notice or backup plan.

“They are part of our community because they understand the ecosystem of how we as neighbors, whether you have a storefront, or whether you’re the smallest of small businesses with a vendor,” said Councilmember Julie Won. “They are the hallmark of our city.”

Seth Borenstein, Director of the Queens Economic Development Corporation, confirmed that the street vendors were working with the agency to come up with fair solutions. 

“But one thing we know is there’s always going to be issues and problems. We solve them in a way by communication, not eradication,” said Borenstein. “And that’s what your city agency did last week.”

 

Expecting Queens Mothers Can Now Apply For Unconditional Cash

A family shelter in Brooklyn on Mother’s Day. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

By Iryna Shkurhanishkurhan@queensledger.com 

A philanthropic program that gives unconditional cash to expectant mothers for the first 1,000 days of their child’s life is expanding into Queens. 

The Bridge Project, birthed in June 2021 through the Monarch Foundation, is the first to launch a direct cash allowance program in New York. After an impactful first phase in the Bronx, the program will pivot from pilot status and continue to serve new mothers in all five boroughs, while remaining a research study. 

“It’s the first time that we’re actually opening applications in a borough and then leaving them open,” Megha Agarwal, the Executive Director of The Bridge Project, told the Queens Ledger. “The goal behind this is so that every mother who’s currently pregnant, and potentially could be eligible over the course of their pregnancy to join the Bridge Project, has the opportunity to do so.”

The initiative seeks to eliminate child poverty with a focus on the first three years of a baby’s life, which research shows is the most consequential period for a successful childhood and adulthood. Mothers can spend the cash how they see fit, unlike welfare programs with complicated requirements and restrictions. 

Following the birth, participants will receive $1,000 in cash a month for the first 15 months. And for the last 21 months, they will receive $500 a month, all in biweekly installments. The drawdown creates a recognition that the program will eventually end, and tries to help mothers adjust to that loss of a safety net slowly. 

To qualify, expecting mothers must live in Astoria, Corona, Elmhurst, Flushing, Jackson Heights or Jamaica and have an annual household income of under $52,000. In this third phase, women will also need to be pregnant for the first time, at 23 weeks or less.

The rollout into Queens on July 10 brought specific changes to the payments from past phases. An upfront prenatal allowance of $1,500 was introduced to cover the costs of preparing for the baby such as purchasing a crib, and stocking up on diapers and formula. 

“We just find that cash is the most effective tool to help support children and babies in their earliest years,” said Agarwal, who pointed out that oftentimes, mothers will spend the initial payments catching up on rent or paying off debt. “It’s not until a little bit later into the program, do folks actually feel that they can use the money towards their child. So the prenatal allowance really allows them to do that.”

Aggregate data collected from the first six months of the program showed that 46 percent of spending was taken out as cash, likely for rent and other living expenses. Mothers also spent 18 percent on food and 19 percent went to merchandise. 

The rate of respondents reporting that they have more than $500 in savings went up by 242 percent, and 13 percent more said that they can now pay for a $400 emergency. 

The organization says they focus on “upstream solutions” to address the root issues of inequality instead of attempting to solve its aftereffects. They also want to “eliminate the deeply paternalistic approach the U.S. takes to poverty” with their focus on mothers, regardless of relationship status.

Nearly one in five children in New York experienced poverty in 2021, with them more likely to experience poverty than in 32 other states. In the city, nearly close to one in four children under three live in poverty, disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx youth.

The already high cost associated with having a child is also continuing to climb. According to a report released by Annie. E. Casey Foundation, child care costs have increased by 220% since 1990 with infant care being the most expensive.  

With reliable research remaining a core purpose of the project, a control group is selected to not receive the funds. The initial application acts like a baseline survey. And every six to nine months, participants respond to quantitative surveys and can also be asked to participate in interviews and focus groups, all of which participants are additionally compensated for. 

The concept of universal basic income is not new, and goes back to the 18th century. But widespread unemployment and financial hardships during the pandemic brought new attention to the idea of providing unconditional and periodic cash, especially as a poverty reduction tool. While some see UBI as a radical concept, recent studies indicate that it is successful at lifting people out of poverty and facilitating a better quality of life. 

An MIT research study conducted in Kenya found that UBI decreased food insecurity and improved physical and mental health. But when conditions outlined that the money could only be spent on food, subjective well being was reduced. 

And city officials are taking note. At the State of the City address on March 8, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams expressed support for no strings attached income for communities in need, especially women. 

“Women are the cornerstone of society and the backbones of our families. When women are healthy and have access to opportunity, our children, families and communities thrive,” said Adams in her speech. “We will work with organizations like the Bridge Project, Children’s Defense Fund, and Chapin Hall to support programs that provide monthly financial assistance payments to vulnerable young people and low-income mothers with infants. These efforts have shown great promise in helping people out of poverty and into stability.”

On June 23, the city council enacted a bill that will establish and fund pilot programs to provide unconditional cash for low-income individuals. Research would remain a core aspect, and the funds received would be exempt from being considered income for existing public aid programs. 

“The power of our intervention is that it’s unconditional, and then it’s additionally flexible,” said Agarwal. “That’s completely different than the benefit system that we have in place today in our safety net. And it makes it really challenging and difficult, because it provides a lot of assumptions in terms of what people need at a certain point in time.” 

The federal Child Tax Credit, which brought financial relief to families during the pandemic, expired at the end of 2021. According to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, child poverty rose by 41 percent the following month. The initiative was able to help families meet their basic needs and no negative effects on parental employment were found. 

Agarwal says that the success of the federal program reinforced their own findings about the power of direct cash assistance for those with children. Its disappearance also reinforced their commitment to change policy nationwide.

With SNAP benefits, the monthly payment which averages $121 cannot be used for hot food at the point of sale, hygiene products, medicine and cleaning supplies. The income eligibility for WIC in NYC is also significantly less than the requirement for the Bridge Project, which excludes many low-income mothers. 

“Both the flexibility and the conditionality of the funds is really meant to allow people to take the autonomy and have self determination over what it is that they need, what their family needs and what their baby needs,” said Agarwal. “You know, your life much better than I do, so you should be able to make your own decisions the same way that I’m able to, in order to best serve yourself. It ends up being counterproductive if you place restrictions on top of people’s ability to make their own decisions.”

As of now, all their funding comes from private philanthropy which is made up of high net-worth individuals and private foundations. But with the possible infusion of government funding from NYC, the program can be sustained with both to reach even more mothers. 

“What we’re trying to do here is provide some sort of model for child allowance across the United States,” said Agarwal. “We think this is an effective policy and could be a solution for our nation moving forward.”

BP Secures $17 Million For Queens Parks and Libraries 

Credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

By Iryna Shkurhan | ishkurhan@queensledger.com 

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr. ended the city’s 2023 fiscal year with securing $10 million for parks across the borough, and $6.9 million for the Queens Public Library System. 

“It was a historic year for Queens, as we made unprecedented investments in ensuring our students receive the best education possible, our families have high-quality open space in their communities, our hospitals have state-of-the-art equipment and more,” said Richards in a press release on July 12.

The capital allocations will fund various renovations at 11 parks and playgrounds in Queens, including synthetic turf field renovations at Idlewild Park in Rosedale which received $1.5 million. Equity Park in Woodhaven, Frank O’Connor Playground in Elmhurst and St. Michael’s Playground in Woodside received $1 million each for playground updates, while Lawrence Virgilio Playground in Sunnyside was allocated $1.5 million for updates. The athletic field at Leonardo Ingravallo Playground also received $1 million. 

Twelve Queens Public Library branches will be upgraded with the near $7 million in funding secured by Richards. The Rosedale, Corona and Arverne branches will now be able to expand their facilities. The Richmond Hill, South Ozone Park, Baisley Park, and Hollis branches will undergo renovations. And the HVAC system at the Astoria branch will be upgraded. 

“Queens is the future of New York City, and I’m deeply proud of the work we are doing together as one borough to make that future as bright as possible,” said Richards, who said he will begin announcing allocations for next year in the coming weeks. “We’re just getting started, though, and I look forward to that work continuing in Fiscal Year 2024 and beyond.”

Since taking office in 2020, Richards has allocated more than $127 million in capital funding for schools, cultural organizations, healthcare facilities, CUNY colleges, community spaces and street safety improvements across the borough.

Tackling Food Insecurity In Queens

Andy Rodriguez, Executive Director at The Variety Boys and Girls Club                                                                   

 

Clare Baierl  |  cbaierl@queensledger.com  

Starting in July, the non-profit groups Queens Together and The Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens, are partnering up in the creation of a new way to think about food insecurity.

Through a modern-take on current food relief, the program will provide a sit-down dining experience in some of the best restaurants in Queens to those in need. The pilot program, run by Queens Together, will run with a progressive mission that seeks to truly listen to the needs of their communities. 

When thinking about needs that are in the forefront of the community, the list can be exhaustive. While New York is often seen as a city with a plethora of resources, access to these resources are where many residents get stuck, Andy Rodriguez, Executive Director of the Variety Boys and Girls club, explains. Not everyone has equal access to grocery stores, or governmental assistance is the same way, and this can be a way in which many residents will suffer.

“We don’t realize that there are some neighborhoods, even within this area, that don’t have a supermarket for 20 blocks,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez noticed through his day-to-day work that many families in the community did not have access to basic daily essentials like hygiene products and food. On top of that, with summer in full swing and schools shut down, some programs that feed children in the neighborhood become unavailable. One in four children across the five boroughs face food insecurity, according to a 2021 analysis by Feeding America, and unfortunately that is just the beginning. Many children that need access to free food programs have families that also would benefit from those same services. But in New York, the need outweighs the demand by a large number.  

This is where the newly developed food relief program took an active approach to address this very issue in the community. Rodriguez, along with Jonathan Forgash of Queens Together are the passionate faces behind this new program. 

Forgash, a chef of thirty years and an enthusiastic community-based leader, initially developed the idea at the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020. Realizing the drastic need for food security in his neighborhood during this period, he began working with local volunteers to donate food to its residents through food pantries and drop-off centers. The program was fully hands-on, without a location, or any resources of their own. 

Forgash led distribution of fresh produce through true community based kindness, from restaurants donating their time and space to help make meals, to strangers helping load and unload trucks from neighboring farms. As months went on, people began to notice his work in the community, having raised over 300,000 dollars in support.

The Variety Boys and Girls Club collecting food during the pandemic                                                         

On the other end of the spectrum, sits Rodriguez, who originally noticed through his club the urgent needs of his members and surrounding community. Rodriguez, as director and member for over seven years at The Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens, said he has always seen the value of community outreach programs, even participating in similar programs as a child growing up in the area. With his over 20 years in the nonprofit industry, it seems as though he truly recognizes the importance of valuing and listening to those directly affected. 

The whole premise of the program is to try a new approach to feeding the community that promotes community and humanity for everyone involved. The program will allow families of four to come into a restaurant and sit down for a free hot meal made by those working within the local restaurants. 

“Restaurants in some ways are the backbone of any small community. We’re a public meeting space. People come for good reasons and bad reasons, some sad reasons and joyous reasons. But who better?” Forgash explained. This idea to use the communal aspect of a sit-down restaurant is at the core of the program. 

Too often, even within other non-profit organizations, people are not given access to spaces that allow them to congregate and eat together with their fellow community members, Forgash explained. This idea of promoting enthusiastic humanity through food is essential to the program experience. 

 “We can actually give these people a place to sit together like human beings, and share a meal… And not only are we going to feed them a good meal, but we’re going to help a small business make money and keep employees working,” Forgash said. This full-circle program promotes human-centered growth at every-level, not only helping those that need food, but also helping the local businesses that are involved. 

The restaurants that will begin working with the program will not only be able to serve their community during their off-hours, earn extra cash flow, but also, gain valuable tools for growth. The program will provide these partnering restaurants with essential business promotion from a grassroots level, through press, community newsletters and an enhanced social media presence. 

“Helping mom and pop businesses survive and thrive is one of the three ways to the middle class,” said Forgash. “We are literally feeding the community engine, with dollars, with food, with resources.” As Forgash emphasizes, helping local restaurants thrive is essential for community building from all levels. 

The Bel Aire Diner, on 21st and Broadway, is at the forefront of this program’s mission and success. A family owned business for decades, currently run by Kal Dellaportas, was enthusiastic to join from the start. While they will get a small profit through participation in Queens Together, it won’t make up for all the labor and space they will provide, he said.

“We are going to provide an american-style meal, maybe meatballs or an open-faced hot turkey sandwich,” said Dellaportas. “We don’t want to do something like burgers and fries, where you could get anywhere,” he explained. The meals will start this July at the diner, Dellaportas noted. “I hope it’s a huge success.”

As both groups involved prepare for the opening of the program, community support will be essential on every level. Even though he is a member of the neighborhood, the program is new, and therefore from the beginning must establish itself as a reliable resource in order to thrive, Forgash said. 

“We want [the community] to trust us,” said Forgash. “This is your organization. We exist for you.”

 

Borough Hall Farmstand Returns With Locally Grown Produce

By Iryna Shkurhan | ishkurhan@queensledger.com

For the third year in a row, the Queens Borough Hall Farmstand will give local residents access to a variety of organic produce grown right in the borough.

“Nothing says summertime like fresh produce! The farmstand is always a welcome sight for our local community members and Borough Hall workers who have come to love the seasonal and delicious varieties of fruits, veggies and produce the Queens County Farm Museum offers,” said Borough President Donovan Richards in a press release.

Thursday, June 15 marked the first day that the farmstand was set up at 120-55 Queens Blvd. in Kew Gardens. Weather permitting, it will be open every Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. until November 2.

Dozens of fruits and vegetables, including turnips, loose spinach, potatoes, snap peas and apples were set up in the shade on the first day that the farm stand opened. All were grown directly at the 47-acre Queens County Farm Museum in Floral Park, Queens just seven miles away. Honey, eggs and various breads were also available for purchase.

As one of the leading sources of locally grown food in New York City, Queens County Farm Museum grows over 200 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.

A second farmstand will be available at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center’s Axel Building at 134-20 Jamaica Avenue in Jamaica. It will be open every Friday from June 16 to November 3 at the same times.

“Both of Queens County Farm Museum’s Community Farmstand locations were established to make farm-fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, eggs, honey and other New York State agricultural products accessible to Queens residents, expanding the reach of New York State agriculture more deeply into NYC’s urban communities,” said Queens County Farm Museum Executive Director Jennifer Weprin in an email to the Queens Ledger.

All products can be purchased with several nutrition assistance programs, including Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Farmer’s Market Nutrition (FMNP) Checks, Health Bucks and Fresh Connect Checks. Credit cards, debit cards and cash are also accepted.

“We are thrilled to be back. Fruits and vegetables are delicious, especially when they are picked fresh and travel less than eight miles to Queens Borough Hall!” said Weprin in a press release. “We thank Borough President Donovan Richards for his leadership in growing healthy communities.”

During the program, cooking demos, tastings and free recipes will also be offered at the farmstand alongside various health and wellness resources for the community. There will also be a designated area where visitors can drop off food scraps for composting, an initiative that began last year.

“As New York City grew, it lost its farms and access to hyper-locally grown food,” said Weprin. “Through Queens County Farm Museum’s community farmstand partnerships, the Queens Farm team is reconnecting communities to farm-fresh food to help improve health outcomes for communities in need.”

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