There is never a dull moment when Oswaldo Gomez is around.
Take one Saturday in April at Coney Island, for instance. Gomez, 66, danced to electronic music and flaunted his getup for groups of wide-eyed tourists at the Astroland Pavilion.
He wore silver shoes; a pink ruffled prom dress, rainbow-colored sequined jacket and tattered blue cape; neon bangles and turquoise rings; and a police cap decorated with green feathers, a gold Chinese ornament, small Irish flag; and his parrot, Rosita, who was perched atop his head. His bushy beard was red, orange and yellow, like a flame, and he combed it with a white plastic fork he pulled from his purse. It matched the splotches of color on the ears and paws of his miniature poodle, Carino.
Gomez always wears ball gowns made of sequins and lace, dyes his beard florescent colors, and travels everywhere with his pets, which he carts around in a baby carriage. He refers to himself as Ms. Colombia, a tribute to his namesake country. Others refer to him as Jennifer Lopez’s Grandmother, La Paisa, Luz Clarita, Christopher Columbus’s Grandmother, The Queen of Queens, Monica Lewinsky or Michelle Obama.
Gomez travels to tourist destinations across New York City where he always makes a scene, and Coney Island was no exception. He gallivanted around the pavilion for two hours, stopping often to add layers of clothing, feed his pets and pose for photos. He arbitrarily charged some onlookers $1 for his picture.
“I think his costume is crazy,” said tourist Sandra Maldonavo, after she paid up. She laughed at him and shook her head as she walked away.
On first glance, it is easy to dismiss Gomez as nothing more than a sideshow performer, one-man circus or even as certifiably insane. But there is a method to his madness, and it’s saner than most bewildered passersby could even imagine.
Gomez has AIDS. And his colorful persona helps him cope with the disease.
“People think I’m crazy, but they don’t know what happened to me,” he said. “This is my strategy to stay alive.”
Gomez was diagnosed 22 years ago during a routine checkup. Doctors told him it was full blown AIDS, not even HIV, which is the precursor to AIDS.
He was in complete shock when he received the diagnosis because he had no symptoms — no fatigue, no weight loss, no fever, no lesions.
“I was destroyed, completely,” he said. “I never expected it even though I’m gay and (was) promiscuous.”
Gomez suspects he contracted the disease while studying abroad in Spain, a time when he took many sexual partners. While he had the support of his family, his mother was quick to assume he acquired AIDS because of his lifestyle.
He recalled his mother telling him, “God don’t like you because you are gay. That’s why you get the disease. If you were normal, you would never get the disease.”
Knowledge about effective AIDS treatment was limited in 1988. Gomez’s doctors prescribed AZT, the drug used to fight HIV, but told him death was inevitable. They gave him a year to live.
Gomez went numb. For weeks he stewed in misery, asking God, “Why me?”
After processing his diagnosis he decided he should enjoy what little time he had left. So he put on a costume.
“And I’ve been doing this for 22 years,” he said.
Gomez admits it is not easy all the time. He takes more than 20 medicines a day to suppress the disease and combat other ailments he has developed as a result of his weak immune system. He has osteoporosis, arthritis, neuropathy, diabetes and now he’s losing his eyesight. He makes trips to various doctors every two weeks.
Over the past two decades, Gomez has watched dozens of friends die from AIDS, and has attended more than 75 memorial services. Health providers say it is rare for AIDS patients to live more than 25 years with the disease.
Although he knows his days are numbered, Gomez refuses to give into depression. His outrageous outfits keep his spirits up and act as a distraction from reality. He is engaged in a game of mind control with the disease, and right now, he’s winning. If he sheds his costumes, he gives up control and the disease takes the upper hand.
“My personality is so strong and my mind is so powerful,” Gomez said. “Without my mind, I think I wouldn’t survive.”
AIDS organizations say positivity and self-expression are two key ingredients in keeping infected patients healthy. Many groups provide creative outlets for clients to cope with the disease. AIDS Service Center NYC in Manhattan offers weekly creative-writing workshops where clients are encouraged to write poetry. Their work is often published in the organization’s magazine, Situations.
“When you feel better about yourself, you take better care of yourself,” said ASC Executive Director Sharen Duke.
According to Duke, the better patients take care of themselves, the longer they live. Duke says organizations across New York City are now faced with an aging population of AIDS patients, many of whom are older than 50. She says 30 percent of ASC clients have lived with HIV/AIDS for at least 20 years.
She says medical advancements have helped people keep their T-cell count up, which is essential to maintaining a healthy immune system. She says patients are able to do this by taking fewer medications than in the past, which makes treatment more manageable day to day.
Even after three decades, the AIDS epidemic is still growing, especially among young gay men in their 20s, and women. According to the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, New York City remains the epicenter of the AIDS crisis. It has the highest HIV/AIDS case rate in the country, more than Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and Washington, D.C. combined.
More than 1 million people who live in the city are infected with HIV. Even though the disease affects so many New Yorkers, Duke says there is still a stigma associated with it.
“It goes along with homophobia,” she said. “There is a perception that people with AIDS deserve what they get.”
Gomez does not let AIDS or his sexuality define him. Instead, he wants to be known for his ubiquity in New York City.
He has carved out a piece of local fame by having marched in every New York City parade including Manhattan’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, which doesn’t allow gay participation. This year he dodged police every five or 10 blocks, hopped the barricade, and danced up the parade route next to proud bagpipers and freckled schoolgirls.
“And every five, ten blocks they threw me out,” he said. “You see my personality? I don’t care.”
He calls 311 every night for an accurate schedule of the next day’s events, a method effective at keeping him in the limelight at locations across the city. When the events calendar is lean, he ventures to his favorite locations — Prospect Park, Central Park and Jacob Riis Park — to dance with the usual drummers, roller skaters and beach bums.
Gomez often visits three or four tourist attractions in one day. He is always in a hurry, charging up and down the streets he so easily makes his own. He is rarely at his Elmhurst, Queens, home. When he does return after his daily escapades, it is usually well past what people would characterize as a normal bedtime. And when his sister and 98-year-old father urge him to slow down and rest, he refuses.
“I do in one day what most people do in a week,” he said.
It is his attempt to make the most of the life he has left.
Everywhere he goes, someone recognizes him. Three teenage girls greeted him with, “Hello Ms. Colombia!” when they saw him on the Coney Island boardwalk. They stopped him and insisted on a photo. They giggled when Gomez put his parrot on one’s head and Carino in another’s arms.
Gomez has a habit of making strangers smile, and those who know him well say his mission is to make other people happy.
“He livens up everybody’s life,” said Minerva Figueroa, a friend for more than 30 years. “I’ve never seen him angry or upset. You have those negative people that give him a hard time, but he brightens everybody’s day.”
But once in a while, Gomez runs into people who disapprove of his colorful antics.
He says those familiar with his professional background are stunned and embarrassed by his behavior. Gomez was a lawyer in Colombia and earned a master’s degree in art from New York University. He was pursuing his Ph.D. in Spanish literature when he was diagnosed with AIDS.
“People ask me, ‘If you are so educated, why do you (dress like) this?’ ” he said. “It’s my attitude, my life choice, my decision.”
On Fifth Avenue in Manhattan recently, a woman rolled her eyes and clutched her young children’s hands as Gomez barreled past her with the baby carriage. The sideways look didn’t bother him, though. He makes a point to channel all negativity and express positivity instead. He grinned at the woman and swished his skirt back and forth like a 5-year-old girl showing off her party dress.
“Mamacita,” he crooned, “I don’t bother you; you don’t bother me.”
When each day is done and the costumes come off, the crowds disappear and the distractions are gone, Gomez is left in solitude. During these times, Gomez said, he fights the urge to think about the future.
“There is no tomorrow,” he said. “I live day by day. And I enjoy my days like it’s the last day of my life.”
Anna Mollah wept uncontrollably in her Glen Oaks, Queens, home as she remembered how her husband used to beat her.
He punched her stomach when she was pregnant with their first son, kicked her when she was carrying their daughter and did it again during the third pregnancy. He hit her when they disagreed over the Con Edison bill, or when he had headaches, or when he disapproved of school supplies she bought the kids. He repeatedly called her “worthless,” “garbage” and “good for nothing,” and made her believe it.
One day she used the family car to run errands without his permission and he got mad. They argued and he grew madder. Then he flew into a rage, wrapped his hands around her neck and squeezed. She tried to scream for help as he strangled her. She was able to utter, “I’ll call the police.” Then he shoved her to the ground.
She buried her face in her small hands and sobbed as she recalled her fear and the horror in her children’s eyes as they watched.
Mollah was a victim of domestic violence for two decades. As a Muslim immigrant from Indonesia, she knew no one in New York City she could turn to for help.
“You are hopeless,” she said. “You don’t know what to do.”
Anna Mollah describes the domestic abuse she faced for years.
So Mollah remained silent for 20 years, divulging her secret to God only.
For Mollah, and thousands of battered immigrant women like her, breaking the silence proves to be excruciatingly difficult. Foreign-born women fail to report abuse more than American women for a number of reasons: language barriers, the fear of deportation and cultural taboos about discussing marital problems, according to New York City’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence.
Mollah hid the abuse for years and was even too embarrassed about it to confide in her mother and sister when they later moved to Queens.
“I felt ashamed. I felt embarrassed,” she said. “You chose the person yourself. We agreed to get married, and now I failed. So I couldn’t tell anyone. I never told anyone.”
Hundreds of non-profit organizations in New York City provide support for abused women. The OCDV operates facilities that direct victims to the various support groups, shelters and legal resources. Staff members speak more than 20 languages collectively and have capabilities to communicate in 150 languages.
“If we are talking about support to victims, it’s there,” said OCDV spokeswoman Ruth Villalonga. “The services are right there and they are free.”
But some anti-abuse advocates say many organizations aren’t able to cater to specific immigrant groups, which are newer to New York City. They say victims often prefer to seek help among people of their own ethnicity or religion.
Robina Niaz, director of Turning Point for Women and Families, said the most recent immigrants to arrive, such as South Asians and Muslims — like Mollah — are still struggling to create their own resources.
Niaz founded the Flushing-based group in 2004 to address the needs of Muslim women. It remains the only Muslim-based abuse support organization in the city today.
“If you feel you belong then you can overcome some of the challenges,” said Niaz, a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan. “Abuse isolates you. How do you break isolation? Create organizations. The sense of safety is key.”
Niaz believes many agencies cannot meet the needs of Muslim women and subsequently fail to create that safety zone. For instance, Niaz says few shelters have extra space where devout Muslims can pray. She also mentioned many safe houses do not take fasting and dietary needs into consideration when preparing meals; Muslims do not eat pork, for example.
Niaz added Muslim women are traditionally reticent in discussing personal hardships. She admitted she kept secret the verbal abuse waged against her by her husband.
“Our women often come from cultures where they wait for someone else to ask what’s wrong,” she said. “The onus is on families to step up and see if someone needs help. Here in America people (ask), ‘How was I supposed to know that you needed help if you didn’t say anything?’ And Muslim women will say, ‘Well, you never asked.’ ”
Niaz believes if Muslim organizations become more visible, domestic violence will become less of a stigma. New York City is home to the second largest Muslim population in the United States, and Niaz expects to see an increase in the number of Muslim victims seeking help.
Keeping up with the demand has proved challenging. Turning Point has counseled more than 250 women since the group’s inception, but Niaz believes she could provide more help with more employees and money. Niaz has a fulltime staff of two, with just three more part-time workers. Office space is limited and consists of one small counseling room. And she is short on funding. A large grant given to the non-profit by its main funder will sunset in June.
Money is not exactly pouring into Muslim groups. Islamic organizations including Turning Point still face post-9/11 hostility.
“The anti-Muslim sentiments are going strong,” said Adem Carroll, chairman of New York City’s Muslim Consultative Network. Carroll said Americans are growing increasingly cautious about having their names affiliated with Muslim organizations and refuse to donate to Islamic charities.
Niaz credits city, state and federal agencies for being aware that immigrant-based abuse organizations need aid. But she is discouraged that the government is not making such assistance a priority.
“Saying we’re in touch with the problems is not the same thing as physically making sure needs are met,” Niaz said.
Until city agencies step in with funding, Niaz encourages the Muslim community to build its own arsenal of resources. She warns there is a severe lack of Muslim social workers and attorneys.
While New York City’s Muslim community strives to establish more anti-abuse organizations, people like Mollah still agonize over their own fractured support webs. She finally visited a few organizations after her husband choked her. While the groups provided emotional support, few offered the help she needs to combat a series of legal and financial problems.
In February 2007, Mollah filed for divorce and her husband moved out. She said he still refuses to pay child support and make mortgage payments because he has a “good lawyer” who can “get him out of it.” Mollah’s lawyer quit when she couldn’t afford to pay $2,000 she owed him.
She desperately is seeking employment since being terminated from her computer-related job after a car accident left her in the hospital and unable to work for months. A social worker dropped her case when she missed appointments, opting instead to attend technology classes and job interviews.
She admitted every day it’s a challenge to feed her teenage son who still lives at home. Her other two children are at college living on financial aid and scholarships. She doesn’t know where to turn for a new attorney, food stamps or temporary assistance to pay medical bills and mounting debt. And, she said, she has exhausted her options.
“I really don’t know anymore what to expect and how to get help because if you name any organization that could help me, I’ve already been there,” she said. “It’s a long, lonely process when you need help but nobody helps.”
Her gaze wandered to a window in the family room where she watched rain pound the glass for a while. A dim glow peaked through the blinds, which were half-drawn. It was the only light in the house. Then she turned back around, wiped her tear-stained cheek and asked, “Where is my justice?”
The uncertainty has caused Mollah to unravel emotionally and physically. She has little time to maintain her appearance or the appearance of her home. Black makeup caked under her eyes thanks to dried tears — she looked tired from all the stress. She kept apologizing for the overflowing boxes of divorce paperwork and piles of clothing on the living room floor.
“I’m so embarrassed,” she said
Mollah manages to hold herself together for the sake of her children. She said she still prays every night, and she is comforted by her belief that the worst is behind her.
But Mollah still needs help and isn’t ashamed to speak up this time.
“I am as American as anybody else,” she said. “I pay my taxes. I pay my duty. So now when I need help, who helps me?”
Ahmed Rahat explains the day he received his test scores
Ahmed Rahat explains the day he received his test scores
It’s all thanks to Muhammad Rashid
Muhammad Rashid’s brown eyes lit up when someone mentioned the topic of education during a recent neighborhood basketball practice at the St. Joan of Arc Catholic School gym in Jackson Heights. He lowered his voice, spoke slowly and gesticulated emphatically as he explained his philosophy that every child can excel if pushed.
“Every kid is brilliant,” he said. “You just have to remind them they can do it.”
He was referring to the junior-high-school students shooting hoops on the court. He knows many of them through his work in his community. The words erupted like fireworks from his body and through the top of his balding head, as if he has just unearthed the secret to success.
To say Rashid has a passion for education is an understatement. It is his obsession. He’s made it his mission to mentor students. In doing so, the 55-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant has made himself a standout in Jackson Heights.
When his idea for a telemedicine company failed in the United States in 2005, he decided to give it up completely and devote his time preparing eighth-grade students for New York City’s Specialized High School Exam. The test determines admission into the city’s eight elite public high schools, such as Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, The Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School. He tutored 15 students from his neighborhood last year, for free. His wife’s physician salary supports the family, so Rashid figured he didn’t have to charge. Each of his mentees secured spots at the city’s top institutions.
Rashid’s success rate is impressive considering 80 percent of students don’t pass the exam. More than 27,000 New York City eighth- and ninth-graders took the test last year, and only 5,000 were granted admission, the Department of Education reported.
The test is “difficult to pass” unless students “have been trained,” according to Sharon Terry, the principal of I.S. 230 in Jackson Heights. Her teachers provide test overview classes in September, but they are not comprehensive enough to be very effective, she said.
Dolores Beckham, principal of neighboring I.S. 145, is so enthused by Rashid’s results, she arranged a meeting with him to discuss why he was so successful.
“He came in two weeks before the test results came back and said, ‘I guarantee all my students made it,’ and they did,” Beckham said.
Rashid’s desire to push his students is colored by his past. He witnessed the horrors of the Bangladesh Liberation war and lived through periods of oppression at the hands of the military in West Pakistan. He has also peddled his telemedicine products in more than 20 developing countries and has witnessed how limited educational opportunities are in most places.
For Rashid and his family, America represents opportunity and fulfillment. His wife is a successful doctor at Interfaith Hospital in Brooklyn. His daughter is a freshman at Stuyvesant High School, and his son is headed there in the fall. Ultimately, he has his eyes on Harvard University for his children. He is certain degrees from American universities will launch them further than where he even landed.
“I owe to this country to (produce) good leaders,” he said. “I owe to this country to have good kids. Each of us owes. This country has given us so much.”
Nobody stops you here
Rashid Audio 1
Muhammad Rashid’s views on life in America
Rashid sought to fill his debt of gratitude to the United States by grooming students into smart future leaders. Rashid controlled what his students learned and compiled exam study-guides himself.
He scoured public libraries for vocabulary and English textbooks. He photocopied thousands of pages of geometry, probability, algebra and statistics problems — the type of math covered on the test but not taught in New York City public middle schools. He organized teaching sessions with professional instructors from Kaplan — the renowned and pricey test-preparation company — and proctored dozens of timed practice tests.
Rashid ran the whole operation like a boot camp.
He started in February and met with the students for two hours on one school night and up to seven hours on Saturday or Sunday. From the summer on, he demanded three-hour sessions five days a week.
“It was really a lot of studying,” said Bronx Science-bound eighth-grader Ahmed Rahat. “In the first weeks I was going to Mr. Rashid, we left at like 12 or 1 in the morning.”
With no formal classroom, Rashid conducted lessons from his home, at a park or in the St. Joan of Arc gym during Youth Council basketball practice.
Sometimes parents of his students would offer up space in their businesses. One parent allowed Rashid to utilize the waiting room of an outpatient clinic.
Rashid also required his students to participate in extra-curricular activities. Rashid would cart them off to swim and basketball practices, tae kwon do lessons, drawing classes at the Jackson Heights Art Club, music rehearsals, and seminars at the Ethical Humanist Society in Queens. He encouraged them to learn different languages such as Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew, as well.
Some weeks in the summer, he would hold all-day clinics. He’d watch the children run a few miles in the morning, oversee their study sessions during the day and accompany them to enrichment activities at night. He’d separate the activities with lunch and dinner, which he provided.
Three days before the November test, Rashid visited the children in their homes and didn’t leave until each persuaded him they were prepared.
“I’d go to them and they would have to say to me, ‘I am ready,’ ” he recalled with a toothy smile. “And they all said, ‘Uncle Rashid, I am ready to win.’ ”
Ahmed Rahat’s father is still touched by Rashid’s generosity.
“We are grateful to him, and he never charged anything,” said Jamal Ahmed. “We tried to give him something. … (He said,) ‘If you want to pay something you can take your kids to other places. I am not working for the money. I just want to see our kids … be bright physically, mentally and educationally. All the things they have to get to make their lives in the top level.’ ”
Rahat wouldn’t have gotten into a top school without Rashid’s help. He isn’t taking any honors classes, and his teachers did not cover the most of the math material contained in the exam. The first time he took a practice test he scored 32 percent.
Rahat said Rashid took his parents under his wing when they moved to Queens and educated them about the workings of the New York City school system. Rahat’s family emigrated from Bangladesh in 2000 after waiting for years to win the country’s immigration lottery, which allows just 3,000 people out of the region annually. They moved to give Rahat and his younger brother a better education.
Ahmed’s father on embracing opportunity
Many of Rashid’s students are from Bangladesh, but he also teaches students who are Latino, Chinese, Korean, Tibetan and white.
“Everybody, whatever one wants to become can become,” he said recently at his former students’ basketball practice. “Irrespective of color, class, beliefs, religion, nobody stops you. … No one is going to stop you from reaching for the sky.”
Rashid Audio 2
Rashid explains what his students mean to him
“I love each kid like my sons, no difference. I want them to succeed.”
People who know Rashid — and there are many of them — are quick to point out his public service extends beyond the educational realm.
“He’s totally dedicated to the community,” said Robert May, coordinator of the Jackson Heights Youth Council’s basketball program. “He’s everywhere.”
May describes Rashid as one of those rare individuals who acts as a connector and brings together people whose paths would never otherwise cross.
Three mothers from Colombia, Pakistan and Ireland chatted near the cafeteria tables in the gym where their kids were dribbling basketballs and practicing layups — friends now because of their children’s involvement in Rashid’s tutoring program. One of them gushed, “I love Mr. Rashid,” when she noticed him wave enthusiastically to the kids as they sunk three-pointers.
Rashid hates the accolades and is reluctant to talk about the motivation behind his volunteerism. He’d rather focus on his next batch of mentees and his new goals for them.
He wants to help one of his future students achieve a perfect score on the Specialized High School Exam, which has never been accomplished anywhere in New York City. He also plans to train a future spelling bee champion and coach two swimmers from his neighborhood to the Olympics.
“If one guy can make it from Jackson Heights, can’t we all make it?” Rashid asked, as if he already knew the answer.
On an Upper East Side street — occupied by neatly manicured brownstones where planter boxes are as common as little dogs on leashes and where children who attend P.S. 6 frolic after school — stands a white, 3-foot plaster statute of a foot.
The foot is anchored to the top of a big white wooden box, apparently used to conceal garbage bins, outside of 54 East 81st St., a white five-story apartment building between Madison and Park avenues.
The foot is a right one. It has all five of its toes and part of an ankle. It’s covered in bird droppings, which could be considered some sort of unfortunate foot fungus.
“This thing is so cool,” a little girl told her buddy, as if she were the expert on the thing. “Around Halloween time, I found streamers and stuff on it.”
Other neighbors and regular passersby consider the foot some sort of art installation, but no one knows exactly why it was erected or what it signifies.
“I just assumed it was a podiatrist’s office,” said Bob Robbins, who lives a few brownstones down.
Anna Fernandez, a teacher’s aid across the street at Lillie Devereaux Blake, P.S. 6, had a different take.
“I thought it was part of a tree trunk that didn’t get cut down,” she said.
It seems everyone has a guess.
Some heard the foot is a companion piece to a hand hiding somewhere on the Upper East Side. Others mentioned that it’s probably a replica of the Colossus of Constantine, which resides in the Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in the Musei Capitolini in Rome.
A mother walking her daughter home from school said it’s been there for seven years, as long as her daughter has attended P.S. 6. Two women who frequent Madison Avenue to shop said it’s new and they’d never seen it before.
One man swore a Spanish sculptor made the foot. Another man said the foot rotates and sometimes faces south instead of north.
Even people who live in the building don’t know its purpose. A fourth-floor tenant, Francesca Miste, said the owner of the building might know the person who made it, but she doesn’t. Miste said she just gets a kick out of telling her friends she lives next to a unique landmark.
“They all know where I live,” she said. “It feels good. It’s nice to have something different. Some people like it. Some people don’t.”
Among those who like it is neighbor Susan Bahary.
“It makes me smile every time I pass it,” she said.
Among those who don’t is a woman who goes by the name Dee. She said she doesn’t see the value in the piece of “art.”
“I don’t see the meaning of it,” she said as she laughed and shrugged her shoulders. “It’s a foot.”
The foot is a block away from New York City’s famed Metropolitan Museum of Art on 81st Street and Fifth Avenue. The museum is visible from the foot’s location. Manhattanite Dan Caspe was headed there when he encountered the statue.
“I think it’s a bold statement to put it near The Met,” Caspe said. “You’ve got to be brave to do that.”
The foot is undoubtedly a conversation piece, or at least something that brings attention to the area.
The tenant who lives in the brownstone adjacent to the statue is moving out, according construction worker Patrick Prendergast, whose company, RD Rice Construction, is remodeling the inside. He joked maybe all the attention from the foot ran the tenant out.
As for Prendergast, he is fan of the big foot.
“I think its just cool,” he said.
On a Sunday morning in February, inside Jackson Heights’ only Starbucks, a young Filipino couple cuddled on the café’s couch and skimmed headlines on the front page of the Daily News. Three elderly ladies occupying a table near the front of the place chatted in Russian and picked at a pastry. A white man in a blue suit fiddled with his paper coffee cup and yammered into a cell phone, while a college-aged Indian student seated at the next table highlighted a passage in a textbook. Next to her, a group of Latino teenagers in baseball caps joked and laughed in Spanish.
Jackson Heights, a middle-class neighborhood in northwest Queens, is touted as New York City’s most diverse neighborhood. Residents relish the distinction, but some admit the community is not as integrated as it could be.
“What we want to see more of is assimilation of cultures,” said longtime resident Edwin Westley. “It’s difficult to accomplish. We made some progress but not enough.”
Westley is the president of the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, which oversees the preservation of the area’s historic district. The group prides itself on welcoming participation from residents of all ethnic backgrounds. Members have elected a Latino director in the past and the organization currently has gay representation, but Westley admits that one of its “shortfalls” is that it’s “primarily white.”[flv:http://pavementpieces.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Final.flv http://pavementpieces.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Final.jpg 420 280]
Boundaries, but no racial tension
At first glance, Jackson Heights looks as if it is sectioned off into various ethnic enclaves. Indian and Bangladeshi business owners dominate 74th Street, informally dubbed “Little India” by residents because of the street’s numerous sari shops and Hindi movie stores.
Many South Americans and Latino businesses occupy Roosevelt Avenue where taco stands, Spanish-language store signs and advertisements for adult English classes are ubiquitous.
Asians generally live closer to Northern Boulevard, Jackson Heights’ northern border.
Jackson Heights was originally built as a haven for upper-class, white working families who wanted to get away from an increasingly crowded Manhattan but still be a 10-minute subway ride away from the center of the city. By the 1970s, a significant Colombian population had arrived in Jackson Heights, and scores of immigrants from all over the world have since moved to northwest Queens.
Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Argentineans, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Bolivians, Jews, Italians, Russians and generations of white Americans call Jackson Heights home today. By many accounts the groups coexist well but not necessarily as one.
“There is very little racial tension,” Westley said. “The reason the neighborhood works is that no one is in the majority.”
Immigrant groups struggle for clout
Recent immigrants are still struggling to make their voices heard in Jackson Heights. Some say they receive little help from community leaders and other more-established immigrant groups.
“It’s a challenge to get the city to understand the needs of the (immigrant) community,” said Martha Chavez, advocacy coordinator of the New Immigrant Community Empowerment program.
The organization represents mostly South American, Mexican and Caribbean immigrants who have flocked to Jackson Heights to live with relatives or to take advantage of cheap rent, which is half the price of rent in Brooklyn and a quarter of the price of rent in Manhattan. Chavez said many of them are undocumented, do not speak English, and have little knowledge of their work and medical rights.
Chavez says the organization’s goal is to empower immigrant groups to speak up for themselves instead of allowing advocates from outside agencies to communicate with city leaders on their behalf. She says the movement has been slow because different ethnic groups tend not to help one another.
“That’s something we face, too, that I don’t think there is a lot of unity,” Chavez said.
Sometimes second- and third-generation immigrant groups refuse to help new immigrants and often take advantage of their naïveté, according to Chavez, who emigrated from Mexico to the United States.
Parishioners worship the same, but separately
The Community United Methodist Church, located at the geographic center of the community, draws worshipers from virtually every ethnic group represented in Jackson Heights — and 18 different languages are spoken among parishioners. Banners that hang outside the historic-looking, stone building exemplify the diversity of the congregation. One poster advertises the meeting time of an Indonesian group, and another welcomes a Catholic congregation. The church even houses 82nd Street Academics, one of Jackson Height’s largest schools, which was originally established for Chinese students in 1985.
“We are representatives of community,” said the church’s senior pastor Enrique Lebron, who is Puerto Rican. “You will see Little Colombia and Little India. We have a lot of Hispanics, and even (people) from Russia, so I believe the church represents what is in the community.”
Community United Methodist offers three Sunday church services in English, Spanish and Mandarin, and provides space for many ethnic groups to worship in their own languages.
Lebron acknowledges that providing three separate services for parishioners could be viewed as segregation, but says doing so is the best way to give parishioners what they want.
“The reason we do things separate is because there is a need for people to celebrate faith in their own culture, and you have to respect that,” he said.
He added that it is a blessing for his parishioners to “celebrate their differences.”
On the brink of gentrification
Jeff Maskovsky, a sociologist and Queens College professor, argues that celebrating cultural differences is a far cry from integration.
He has seen that Jackson Heights is socially, but not spatially integrated.
“Residential integration is nonexistent,” said Maskovsky, who moved to Jackson Heights five years ago.
He says residents themselves are not to blame and contends Realtors and banks across the United States restrict residential integration. He argues that this is the case in Jackson Heights.
Maskovsky says the community is on its way to forfeiting diversity altogether because of gentrification.
He says developers are targeting a specific new group of people that could potentially price out existing renters and homeowners — young white families.
“(Developers are) targeting Jackson Heights as the new Brooklyn,” Maskovsky said. “The white hipster crowd.”
His evidence is a billboard on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that advertized the abundance of refurbished pre-war garden co-ops managed by Jackson Heights property firm MPC Properties. It’s gone now, but was up for nearly a year.
According to MPC Properties, 70 percent of people who have recently moved to into MPC buildings are from Brooklyn. The other 30 percent come from Manhattan or other parts of northwest Queens, such as Astoria.
The owner of MPC Properties, Michael Carfagna, says there is “no dominant group of people” that move into Jackson Heights and that he has sold co-ops to people of all “backgrounds and professions.”
Carfagna says Jackson Heights is just a microcosm of New York City, but Maskovsky argues Jackson Heights is becoming a microcosm of a wealthy New York City and points to real-estate stickers as proof.
According to the most recent Jackson Heights Real Estate Report, the median price of a single-family home rose to $800,000 at the end of 2007, though prices have dropped in the recession. The median household income hovers around $40,000, according to numerous demographic databases.
Maskovsky says Jackson Heights is now in a precarious situation, as similar diverse communities have either “flipped and turned into one minority population” or “become gentrified.”
He believes it is Jackson Heights’ diversity — the community’s self-proclaimed strength — that is attracting a wealthier, whiter population, which craves the multicultural lifestyle.
“The diversity is exactly what may de-diversify it,” he said.
Two days after the earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince a mother scoured a makeshift morgue desperate to locate her four children who died when her house caved in. Families scanned thousands of bodies stacked on the streets hopelessly trying to identify their loved ones. Machines scooped up corpses and dumped them into bins like garbage, limp limbs flailing everywhere, and hauled them to mass grave sites.
It was sheer devastation, and USA Today national reporter Marisol Bello witnessed it all.
As the newspaper’s disaster reporter, Bello, 38, has covered numerous national catastrophes, including 9/11, but she said nothing compared to Haiti.
“It was the singular most amazing story I have ever covered,” she said to a group of New York University journalism students on Feb. 9.
Her nine-day stint in Haiti proved to be a profoundly emotional endeavor.
Bello was embedded with the relief organization World Vision, which was immediately dispatched to one of Haiti’s largest hospitals. On the way to her post, she saw a succession of collapsed buildings. The closer she got to the rubble, the more mutilated bodies she saw.
“As we got into downtown the bodies started piling up,” Bello said. “Then you start seeing rows. Closer to the hospital the entire streets were lined with bodies. At that point they were not covered because it just happened. They were just there and they began to bloat.”
She said the injured, barely-alive victims lingered right next to the dead. Most were bleeding badly and the smell was unbearable.
“It was a putrid-smelling, visually-shocking thing to see,” she said. “Mingled in all the dead bodies are all the injured people desperate for care. Everybody was in an unbelievable collective state of shock.”
Later Bello headed away from cacophony in the streets and into what was left of a nursing school where it was “eerily quiet.”
Bello said she immediately came across a twisted woman with a black skirt hiked up past her legs, but she couldn’t bring herself to look at her face. She backed away from the flattened building, which was really a big pile of rubble, and experienced a “very personal moment.”
Bello confessed that it still haunts her.
There was no shortage of stories in Haiti, and Bello said she focused on how to best tell those stories. She didn’t allow herself to process the horror until she had quiet, private moments.
That’s when she “got really choked up and really emotional.”
Most of the time, though, Bello put aside her feelings and concentrated on the storytelling. She said the logistics on the ground made the reporting process extremely difficult.
Bello didn’t speak Creole or French. Her cell phone didn’t work. She wrote many of her dispatches on her Blackberry. She stayed in a bordello with no electricity. She only had $800, which she admitted was not nearly enough to last nine days. She arrived with nothing more than a few pieces of electronic equipment — a satellite phone, laptop and video camera — and the clothes on her back.
Bello experienced the severe aftershock that struck a week after she arrived in Haiti.
It was early. Bello was asleep in her hotel room when she felt rumbling. She bolted for the door and tried to open it, but it was stuck. She said she could hear a security guard frantically scream at people to run. Before she escaped, she feared she was going to be one more mangled body lost in the enormity of the disaster. She described it as “sheer panic.”
Despite her absorption in the horror, Bello said she had no interest in becoming part of the story like some journalists, namely CNN anchors Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta who helped rescue children and perform surgery, respectively.
“I just feel like we should never be part of the story,” Bello said. “In this way I can be old-school. If you want to be an actor in that and if you need to be an advocate or aid worker, do that so then you get interviewed.”
Bello began her reporting career 17 years ago and worked in Dayton, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Detroit before moving to Washington, D.C., three years ago.
Bello is an experienced beat reporter having covered Detroit city hall and currently specializing in national civil rights issues. While she enjoys being a so-called expert in certain areas, Bello said nothing compares to being a general assignment reporter especially when it comes to stories like the Haiti earthquake.
She said the best part is getting to experience “amazing, fascinating places” and to be “a witness to history.”
Bello’s talk inspired the future journalists.
“It convinced me that urban reporting is the most fundamental form of journalism,” said Darren Tobia, whose beat is Jersey City. “The same skills she uses in covering disasters, she acquired as a metro reporter in Philadelphia and Detroit.”
Student Simon McCormack took to Bello’s softer side.
“She is simultaneously a hardened news reporter and a deeply empathetic human being,” said McCormack. “That’s a rare mix in the news business.”
Gaspard Lynch, a Haitian-American radio DJ in Flatbush, lost family and friends in Haiti’s massive earthquake. This is on the heels of losing his wife to diabetes.
Lynch’s station, Radyo Pa Nou, is accepting donations for Haiti’s earthquake victims. The number is 718-940-3861
As the Second Avenue subway inches toward completion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, it continues to devastate tenants and businesses in its path.
Residents are losing their homes and stores are losing business to the $4.5-billion subway, which will run along Second Avenue from 96th Street to 63rd Street and open in 2017.
By most accounts, it has all been a nightmare.
Ann and Conrad Riedi found out three years ago that under the Metropolitan Transit Authority had planned to seize their apartment on the corner of Second Avenue and 83rd Street — and 48 others on the Upper East Side — to make way for the subway.
The MTA bought the Riedis’ building in October, and the couple expects to be gone by April.
“How many times have we cried?” asked Ann Riedi, 65. “How many times have we said, ‘They are taking away our home’?”
The Riedis moved into their third-floor walk-up in 1967. They lost their first child and raised two daughters in the apartment. Conrad Riedi, 76, recovered from triple bypass surgery in their home.
Ann recalled the day her girls tried to flush the family cat down the toilet and the time her father-in-law — in his old age — walked across Central Park from his Upper West Side retirement home and showed up at their door in the middle of the night.
“How do you replace 42 years of marriage and memories?” Ann said.[flv:http://pavementpieces.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/wagnervideo.flv http://pavementpieces.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/wagnervideo.jpg 320 230]
Most of the couple’s belongings are in boxes. Bookshelves are empty. Walls are bare. Christmas decorations the Riedis usually would have on display are packed.
Where the Riedis will unpack remains a mystery.
“It is kind of scary because we don’t know,” Ann said.
The MTA hired a relocation agency to help nearly 150 residents find new homes. Half of them are already in new places, according to MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz. Others like the Riedis have not found apartments comparable in price or size.
The Riedis’ place is old — the paint is peeling, the walls are smudged and the floors are creaky — but it is cheap and big. They pay $1,120 a month for a three-bedroom apartment. Conrad’s social security payments cover most of the rent, and the money he makes answering phones part-time at a nearby church covers the rest.
The couple’s relocation agent referred them to a $2,500 a month, two-bedroom apartment on 75th Street and York Avenue. The Riedis were not impressed.
Under the 1970 Federal Uniform Act, the MTA is only required to provide displaced renters $5,250 over three and a half years. Ortiz said the MTA has provided “much more compensation” than that. He said the MTA set aside $10 million for relocation expenses. How much money each tenant receives varies from case to case, according to Ortiz.
The Riedis would not divulge how much money the MTA offered them, but their lawyer said it is hardly enough for the Riedis to live comfortably for the rest of their lives.
“We don’t believe the MTA is operating in good faith, period,” said George Locker, the couple’s attorney. “They don’t care about rent-regulated people.”
Locker said he has taken the MTA to court twice to appeal the amount the agency offered his clients.
The Riedis want to stay in the Upper East Side — now one of the wealthiest residential areas in New York City — if money will allow. Ann said leaving the neighborhood would be like “getting used to a whole new routine.”
A new routine is exactly what 88-year-old Madelaine Andrews is hoping for. In the spring she will have to leave her studio apartment on Second Avenue and 72nd Street, where she has lived for 45 years, to make way for a new subway entrance.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Andrews said. “At least I’ll be out. I’ve been cooped up here for one year.”
Andrews’ legs gave out unexpectedly almost a year ago. She hasn’t been outside the building since because she can’t walk down the stairs.
That has made apartment-hunting a challenge.
Andrews said the relocation agency promised to help her find new places to live but that they aren’t as involved as she had hoped.
“They are (helping) a little bit,” she said. “But they depend on us to find them. It’s tough when you can’t walk.”
Andrews said the agency found a studio apartment in a building with an elevator on Third Avenue and 86th Street that is half the size and nearly four times the rent. Andrews currently pays $300 a month. Rent at the new place is $1,120. She called that “beyond unsatisfactory.”
Andrews lives alone. Her second husband died 10 years ago and she does not have family in New York City. Andrews relies on her personal care attendant to run errands and finish household chores, but she is navigating the moving process on her own.
“I’ve been sitting here so long, anxious and nervous,” Andrews said. “It’s the kind of thing you can’t help. I sit here and wait. When they say waiting is the hardest part, it’s true.”
Shop owners on Second Avenue know a thing or two about waiting. Those between 96th Street and 90th Street have endured two and a half years of subway construction.
And it continues.
The area outside their stores looks and sounds like an amusement park. The cranes and cement trucks are the rides and the construction workers are the costumed characters. The passersby who dodge open pits in the street are the park-goers. Sounds of metal grinding on metal are the clicks of carts climbing the peaks of roller coasters. The yells from site managers are the excited voices of young girls and boys.
But unlike a real amusement park, the one on Second Avenue is not fun.
The construction continues to have a major impact on businesses already suffering in the midst of a recession. Scaffolding obscures storefronts, fences block doors and loud noises deter customers.
JP Chung, the owner of Normandie Wines Inc. on Second Avenue and 94th Street said his profits are down 30 percent since construction began.
“Everywhere is down, down, down,” Chung said. “No foot traffic. They say, ‘Sorry, I can’t use your store anymore.’ ”
Construction is causing multiple problems for Carnegie East House — an enriched living facility for the elderly on Second Avenue and 95th Street. Executive Director Joseph Girven said his senior residents can’t navigate through the detours. He said once winter weather comes into play, it will be twice as difficult for them to get around. He also said the place is losing money because people are moving out.
“The vacancy rate is higher than we’d like it to be, and that’s mostly because of construction,” Girven said.
Fifteen businesses have closed since construction began, according to Second Avenue shop owners. Employees who work at stores next to new construction sites admit their stores probably won’t last, either.
Construction began near Robert Ha’s fruit market on the corner of Second Avenue and 86th Street two months ago.
“If it stays for a year, we’ll have to close,” Ha said.
In 2008, Giuseppe Pecora, owner of the restaurant Delizia on Second Avenue and 92nd Street, formed a coalition called Save Our Stores. He hosted forums for frustrated business owners to air their concerns to city leaders.
Now Pecora is losing faith elected officials can do anything to help.
“I’m disgusted at meetings because they talk so much and do so little,” Pecora said. “All the businesses have given up. Not enough is being done.”
Community leaders have acknowledged the hardships Second Avenue stores are facing. Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, Assemblyman Micah Kellner, State Senator Liz Krueger and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney have requested aid for the businesses. But proposals to provide tax abatement for struggling shops have failed in Albany and Washington.
The MTA launched a campaign called “Shop Second Avenue” to remind customers that businesses along the construction zone are still open. The campaign consists of signs that hang on fences outside the affected stores and pamphlets that list open shops.
Ortiz said the MTA understands business owners are being inconvenienced by the construction but that long-term benefits will outweigh the current difficulties.
“Increasing the number of people who travel through Second Avenue will certainly help draw customers to businesses along Second Avenue and help grow their businesses upon completion of construction,” Ortiz said.
Business owners don’t see that happening anytime soon.
When crews broke ground in April 2007, the MTA estimated the subway would be open by 2012. The MTA quickly pushed the date back five years to 2017. Now many people doubt the MTA will meet that deadline. Too many memories linger about the MTA’s botched attempts to build the subway in the 1970s.
“One guy told me, ‘You won’t even be here when it’s finished,’ ” said 54-year-old John Diaz, a landlord on Second Avenue.
The uncertainty over the MTA’s completion date is confusing the dozen business owners whose stores have to be demolished for the subway.
Perry Falk said the MTA bought his store Falk Surgical in October, but the agency has not given him a move-out date.
“At first you get no answers, and then when you go further you realize there are no answers,” Falk said.
Falk Surgical opened on Second Avenue and 72nd Street in 1959. Falk said customers commute from Brooklyn and Queens to buy products like back braces, canes and wheelchairs. Falk is frustrated that he can’t update loyal patrons on a new location.
“They are asking me where I’m moving,” Falk said. “(I tell them) I don’t know. When I do know, believe me it will not be a secret.”
Employees who work at other stores slated for demolition like Nick’s, Patsy’s and Da Filippio don’t know their eviction dates either.
Ortiz admitted the MTA has not determined when those businesses will have to leave.
The MTA eventually plans to add on to the Second Avenue subway by building stops from 125th Street to the southern tip of Manhattan. According to Ortiz, “there is no money” in place for subway expansion.
Now business owners in Harlem and Lower Manhattan who are on the MTA’s list wonder if their stores will actually be affected.
“A lot of people are saying the subway is coming, but I don’t have anything concrete,” said Nikoloa Nicaj, owner of Eagle Home Center on Second Avenue and 116th Street. “It’s not good. If it’s going to happen soon, we should have known.”
As the subway inches closer to completion the MTA continues to tout its benefits — it will carry more than 200,000 passengers a day, reduce overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue line and provide better access to mass transit for residents on the East Side.
Ortiz said the project is an “economic driver” during the recession and has already created thousands of construction jobs. He said the subway is an investment that will yield significant returns for New York City.
In a city of 8 million people, only a fraction continue to be burdened by the Second Avenue subway. That is not a justification Ann Riedi can condone.
“Its only 40, 50, 60 apartments — how do you say that?” she said with tears in her eyes. “People are losing their homes.”