Thursday, February 19, 2009

Trying Just Isn't Enought

By Steve Tiszenkel

Here's a fun experiment you can try at home: Start a blog dedicated to following and commenting on events in your neighborhood and see how long it takes for you to start getting endless press releases from organizations that have only the most tenuous connection — or none at all — to the neighborhood in question.

I'm guessing it won't be long before your inbox looks a little like mine. One day it's mayoral candidate Bill Thompson sending yet another harsh criticism of the Bloomberg administration; the next it's the Queens Public Library announcing that members of the Tuskegee Airmen will be giving a talk in Jamaica; the day after that it's the Willets Point chop shops writing to let me know they won't stand for their land being confiscated to build bars for rich people adjacent to Citi Field. None of it has anything to do with my stated coverage area of Rego Park, Forest Hills, Kew Gardens and Briarwood. When Anthony Weiner starts sending me harsh criticisms of the Bloomberg administration, then we can talk.

I remember exactly when all this started. It was back when Queens guru John Roleke encouraged me, at the time a novice neighborhood blogger, to get a free lunch by e-mailing the Forest Hills Community House and getting press credentials for its excellent annual Taste of Forest Hills event. I was skeptical that this would work, but lo and behold, the Taste was thrilled to have me. And apparently also thrilled to have me was The Shops at Atlas Park, the Glendale open-air mall and Taste sponsor, which proceeded to assume I was interested in everything going on at a shopping center not exactly in my coverage area, not just a Forest Hills food festival it was somehow involved in.

The Shops at Atlas Park wrote to let me know about gala store openings. It wrote to tell me about giant bears it hauled out on its central green to lure kids in for Christmas, and about musical performances by bands briefly popular 10 years ago. Every few days, like clockwork, there was The Shops at Atlas Park — or more specifically, its expensive Manhattan public relations firm that also lists the Yankees and the Guggenheim, among many others, as clients — informing me of some exciting new development at Queens' most innovative retail destination.

Yes, no doubt Atlas Park wanted me to publicize each of the events it had organized to bring in elusive new customers. But there was also an underlying theme to all its missives: We Are a Very Professional Operation. And it was more than just the by-the-book press releases that gave that impression — a simple visit to the place, with its animated fountain, immaculate buildings and high-end shops not found elsewhere in the borough, confirms it.

Or maybe I should say confirmed it. The future of Atlas Park is now very much in doubt. Last week two banks foreclosed on Atlas Park, and Atco Properties and Management, which developed the “lifestyle center,” is no longer in charge. According to The New York Times, the mall's stores recently got a letter stating that the banks would choose a new management company. But who that management company will be and what it will choose to do with the property is still a mystery. Will we still see the dedication Atco had to bringing a touch of class to a section of Queens just blocks from Archie Bunker's house? Will the quality of the retail drop significantly? Will it even continue as a mall? The possibilities are many, but improvement doesn't seem like one of them.

I've often suggested, in this space and elsewhere, that the only reason our area doesn't sport more consistently excellent retail, attractions and culture is simply a reluctance for forward-thinking people to try. But now the national economic crisis seems to have thrown the first major wrench into that theory.

True, Atlas Park had some obstacles to overcome. It was ill-accessible from public transportation, so much so that it was the subject of a controversy when the MTA—run by Atco chief and the father of Atlas Park mastermind Damon Hemmerdinger—rerouted a bus to serve the area. Maybe its traditionally blue-collar environs weren't ready for a shopping experience that looked like it dropped in from an upscale San Fernando Valley suburb. But you could never fault the place for trying.

So I suppose it's official: Trying just isn't enough anymore.

The writer, Steve Tiszenkel is the host of the Website, Queens Central. Log on to to read more about Forest Hills and surrounding neighborhoods.

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