Faith Leaders Collaborate For JFK Airport Plans

BY TRONE DOWD

Amid the state’s multi-billion dollar investment for the revitalization of John F. Kennedy International Airport, Southeast Queens faith leaders said that they are uniting to ensure that the plans are more of a vessel for opportunity for the surrounding neighborhoods than a takeover.

(Left to right): Robert Lowe, Phil Craig and Caesar Cabiness

(Left to right): Robert Lowe, Phil Craig and Caesar Cabiness

Queens pastors—including Robert Lowe of Cambria Heights’ Mt. Moriah AME in, Phil Craig of Jamaica’s Greater Springfield Community Church, Floyd Flake of Jamaica’s Greater Allen AME Church, Henry Simmons of the St. Albans Congregational Church and Caesar Cabiness of Jamaica’s Praise Tabernacle—have created an alliance to push for a community agreement for the airport revitalization. Their goal is to ensure community employment, high wages and local contractor and business participation in both the pre- and post-construction process of the upgraded airport.

On Friday, the five congregations organized a public forum to discuss the practicalities of such a plan with Southeast Queens residents. More than 100 people attended the meeting at Mt. Moriah. Supporters of the effort included state Sens. James Sanders Jr. (D-South Ozone Park) and Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), Assemblyman Clyde Vanel (D-Queens Village) and former councilman Archie Spigner.

As explained by Craig at the meeting, the coalition is “not about bashing the airport” plans, but empowering the people who will be affected by development if certain steps aren’t taken.

“Historically, with things like the Airtrain and other developments in Southeast Queens, we never really saw the promised benefits that came out of it,” Craig said.

According to Kyle Bragg, the treasurer of the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ and a Community Board 13 member, told the leaders that airports often neglect to spread the wealth to the community.

“While 95 percent of the workers are African Americans coming from our community, many of them still find themselves living in poverty,” Craig said.

Lowe said that while the average employee makes $11 an hour, he hopes to see pay go up as high as $20 for appropriate positions.

“There’s inequity in our community,” Lowe said. “This billion-dollar state investment should transcend to the entire community.”

Using the example of Atlantic City, where rampant development in the 1980s negatively impacted the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods of color, the pastors said they fear that a lack of caution could reap the same results in Queens.

The faith leaders are not the only local leaders who are wary of the project. Last month, Community Board 12 motioned to begin work on a resolution on the topic. The board said that it would look at cities such as Los Angeles and Atlanta—where communities of color subjected to airport development were able to create a successful agreement—as inspiration for the resolution.

The pastors said that while the community boards work on the resolution, they hope that congregations can help spread awareness to local residents. They hope that getting faith leaders, elected officials, community boards and residents involved will create unity in Southeast Queens as well as a system of checks and balances on the airport upgrade project.

“We want to engage the entire faith community in Queens,” Craig said, urging others to reach out and take part in the efforts. “We are looking to add even more of our community’s leaders to join in on this effort.”

Although the pastors have yet to finalize a date for the next community meeting, they expect it to be within the next two months. During those meetings, they will research how other communities of color have been affected by large-scale projects, such as Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center.

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