Southeast Queens is moving into the 21st century with better roads, news schools, a new precinct, more affordable housing and a revitalized downtown Far Rockaway.
For Black History Month, the PRESS of Southeast Queens spoke to two people who have been stewards of the community.
Councilman Donovan Richards, (D-Laurelton) said that he is honored to continue the legacy of such Southeast Queens leaders as former City Councilmen Archie Spigner and state Sen. James Sanders (D-South Ozone Park.
“On many issues, they helped pave the way for me,” said Richards, who once interned for Sanders.
Richards cited problems that have plagued the area for years, such as sewer infrastructure that has ebbed the tide of flooding in the area and the four-decade attempt to get another precinct in Southeast Queens. With Richards’s help, the site for the new 116th Precinct has been chosen and is currently in the city planning process.
Richards and Spigner both said that Southeast Queens still has its share of issues. Richards cited its problems with home foreclosures, but noted that it has remained a middle class community. Spigner said that he grew up in the Bronx and, as a young man, saved his money to move to Southeast Queens because it was viewed as a better place to live, work and raise a family.
“We’ve been keep the identity of a black stronghold. When times get challenging, the foundation didn’t change. It holds weight in the political world,” Richards said.
During his adolescence in Southeast Queens, Richards said that he never thought he would become a politician, but fate had other plans for him. In his teens, Richards’ friend was shot and killed. He said that incident motivated him to go to a gun control seminar, where he met Sanders, who was a councilman at the time.
“I was in mock City Council in fourth grade. I thought that was the furthest I would go,” said Richards. “That’s a testament to the work that Southeast Queens does. I was saddened by the murder of a friend and ended up at that meeting by chance.”
Richards encourages young people of the community to “chase [their] calling.” He pointed out that civic engagement in Southeast Queens is a powerful force.
“Every night there is a meeting,” he said. “It’s very unusual. We’re one of the most engaged communities. It is a testimony to the organizing bodies.”
Richards noted that Far Rockaway was “desolate and unsafe” for 40 years, and that public servants such as Spigner, Sanders, Cynthia Jenkins and Juanita Watkins saw the potential and “pushed the city to focus it, rezone it and revitalize.”
Spigner, who was a councilman in from 1971 to 2001, has been civically involved in the community since the early 1960s. He recalled protesting outside of a White Castle that opened on Francis Lewis Boulevard in the early 1960s that refused to hire black people. Spigner said that residents protested outside every day until the White Castle closed.
“They wouldn’t concede. They just took the building down and moved elsewhere,” Spigner said.
In 1968, Spigner was elected a Democratic district leader and then became a councilman in 1974. Spigner remembers that he was able to get Merrick Boulevard repaved in the early 1980s.
“It was one of the worst streets in the area in the 1980s, a very challenging street to ride on,” he said. “We had flooding problems from ground water. We lacked sewers and impressed upon the city the need for them in Southeast Queens. We got them. Flooding problems have increased. Still dealing with ground water issues.”
Spigner also recalls fighting to bring York College to Southeast Queens.
“York is fulfilling its potential under current leadership,” Spigner said. “It is a major benefit to Southeast Queens.”
Today, he notes that the tremendous development in Jamaica is imperative to its economic growth and diversity.
“It makes some people uncomfortable, but it brings diversity and improves the quality of life for the residents and the economy,” he said.
Spigner encourages young people to become more civically active in their communities.
“I encourage young people, but they have an obligation first to themselves and their family,” he said. “They need to establish themselves where they can take on their own needs. Graduate high school, get a college degree, get a job and then get become involved civically. Young people have an obligation to lead a clean and productive life, then let’s talk politics. Not everyone may agree with me on that. Some can do both but not all.”