BY JORDAN GIBBONS
Growing up as a teenager in the small city of Alexander City, Ala., Carlisle Towery did not notice any overt racism during the era of Jim Crow until he was a student at Auburn University.
He attended a speech by George Wallace, who became the Governor of Alabama a few years later, where the politician spouted his segregationist views to the cheers of Towery’s fellow classmates.
Towery said that this was when he knew he had to get out of the South.
He graduated in 1961 and applied to Columbia University, where there was a graduate school of planning and architecture with a focus on urban design. The school had a program focused on admitting applicants from geographically diverse areas.
“New York for me was an escape,” he said. “A lot of the Southern world was delusional.”
After one year in the program, he responded to the Army ROTC call that he delayed to start at Columbia. Once he completed more than two years of service in Germany, where he served as a Post engineer, he returned to Columbia to get his master’s degree in architecture in 1966.
Towery was offered a job at the Regional Plan Association shortly after graduating. His second assignment at the agency was to analyze Jamaica as a regional sub center.
This analysis led to the creation of what is now known as Jamaica Center and also called for the creation of Greater Jamaica Development Corporation.
At this time, amid severe racial tensions in the City, Jamaica “suffered two simultaneous forces that we had to overcome,” Towery said.
The once-thriving downtown area was experiencing private-sector disinvestment as the three major department stores and two major banks had expiring leases around the same time and all fled the area. The two major banks, Jamaica Savings Bank and Reliance Bank, both moved their headquarters to Long Island.
“They could have built here, but they wanted out and I think they wanted out in part because of the other big force, which was demographic change,” Towery said.
Towery said that the “white flight” was not just natural flow, it was exacerbated by illegal blockbusting tactics. Towery said real estate brokers were “going into Southeast Queens and knocking on doors of white folks and saying the Black folks are coming, I’ll buy your house.” Many of those brokers had their licenses taken away.
He also added that after the demographic change in the neighborhood, it was discovered that the perception of the banks and businesses was misguided since the Black community moving in actually had two breadwinners in each household compared to the 1.4 represented in the previous homeowners.
To set up Jamaica Center, the City used its urban renewal program, which had previously been used to relocate minority populations in other areas, but Towery said the administration used a more responsible approach this time.
“People are still afraid of urban renewal because they hear Black removal, which it was; it was clearly that,” he said. “But it wasn’t here. It was the salvation and used by the City of New York, beginning with Mayor John Lindsey, sensibly and sensitively.”
Towery said that his experience as an anomaly in the “delusional” South made him a great fit to help revitalize the community that was undergoing a vast transformation.
“My experience in the South has served me well with this population here, because they tend to trust me,” he said.
The first major battle that Greater Jamaica took on with the help of Towery and other entities in Jamaica was moving the Queens Civil Court from Borough Hall to Sutphin Bouelvard.
Towery said that all the interested parties argued that the civil court and criminal court did not need to be housed in the same building.
“You’d go see shackled criminals in the elevator with people having marital problems,” he said. “We got the decision makers to agree to consolidate the civil court for Queens County.”
Towery was then hired full-time at Greater Jamaica in 1971. Helping to land the courthouse was one of the first achievements he gained for Jamaica, but many more piled up as the years passed.
Towery was no stranger to taking on tough challenges thanks to his time in Alabama. He wrote a column in Auburn’s school newspaper, The Plainsman. One column, which spoke out against police brutality towards a Black man in a separate Alabama community, got the attention of the Dean. Towery was called into his office and threatened for voicing his unpopular opinions.
Fortunately for him, he was able to earn his degree and move to the City before he could be reprimanded.
One of the most significant additions to Jamaica was moving York College to Downtown Jamaica, Towery said.
York College has 50 acres, and half of that is unused. One of Towery’s proudest accomplishments was working to put the Food and Drug Administration on York’s campus.
Previously, the agency was inspecting drugs and food that came in by boat. It announced they would move near Kennedy Airport since the products that needed to be inspected were coming through the air now instead of the water.
York aspired to have a food science program and eventually a pharmaceutical program, he said.
“I dedicated 10 years of my life, maybe longer if you add up the schmoozing around, to getting the FDA to build it,” he said. “It wouldn’t be there if we hadn’t done it, that’s for sure.”
Towery makes sure to point out that he does not forget all the partners he has had throughout the years and said he is aware that Greater Jamaica cannot accomplish anything on its own.
“Every time I say we, it’s an aggregate we, it doesn’t mean me and my staff, or we Greater Jamaica, it means whoever was addressing it at the time,” he said. “We might have led or we might have participated or might have just applauded. A lot of people misunderstand that I’m trying to take credit for stuff as if we did it, when we didn’t. We’ve never done anything unilaterally, never.”
He said that Greater Jamaica is a group of “action-oriented and make-it-happen types.” It always tries to get the decision makers involved in any planning that it participates in, he said.
“We don’t have capacity or authority to do anything unilaterally. We have to get consensus for things or partnerships so that’s why you have to plan and develop,” he said.
In 2015, Towery will embark on his next escape, but this time he is not running from anything. He is handing the reigns off to a successor to take Jamaica to that next level. He said is comfortable with the way Jamaica is and can be as the current administration has its sights set on implementing a full-fledged action plan in the new year.
Reach Reporter Jordan Gibbons at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 123, firstname.lastname@example.org or @jgibbons2.