Thursday, June 17, 2010

This Week's Forum South and West

Railcar Causes Health Concerns Among Residents

By Tamara Best

Shortly after 5 a.m. as the night sky gives way to sunrise, residents in parts of Middle Village and Glendale receive their morning wake up call.

Garbage trucks rumble down residential streets and rail cars sit idling as they wait to be loaded with waste before heading to their final destination.

Though the sounds have become in some ways ambient noises to the morning routine, residents and local civic groups say the cars are not only a nuisance but pose a hazard to the quality of life. Over the last few months the battle has heated up, with discussions of waste routes taking center stage.

“We’ve always had the railroad but now they are using our backyards as rail yards and that’s what people in the community didn’t bank on,” said Bob Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association. “It affects peoples lives with the noise and pollution. These people can’t sleep and if you can’t sleep it affects your whole life.”

The trains, which operate using diesel fuel, create soot, mostly made of carbon and other gases including nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide among other pollutants. When combined, breathing them in can have adverse health impacts.

Health impacts from diesel soot in Middle Village “exceeds the risk of all other air toxics tracked by EPA combined,” for lifetime cancer risk, according to the Clean Air Task Force.

Criteria that increase the risk, according to CATF, include living near: highways and busy roadways; bus and truck depots; construction sites; major bridges, tunnels and ports, freight warehouses— and railroad yards and terminals.

“We’re not willing to compromise the effects of our health. Until someone can tell me breathing in that dust is good for me- I’m going to keep coming here,” said Laura Zimmer, Middle Village resident, during the Community Board 5 meeting last week.

Across the nation, Queens ranks in the 99th percentile for unhealthiest counties as it relates to diesel soot intake. According to a study done for CATF, approximately 21,000 people in the U.S. die prematurely each year from breathing diesel soot and 3,000 from lung cancer.

Seeking to counter the effects of the harmful emissions, New York & Atlantic Railway in April announced plans to invest $1 million to aid in emission reduction by one third and its carbon footprint by 35 percent.

In an October 2009 letter to Mary Arnold, a Glendale resident impacted by the trains, the Environmental Protection Agency touted “repowering,” replacing older engines with newer and cleaner certified engines, as the most effective way to reduce emissions.

While diesel emissions pose a hazard, odor and debris from the cars are also a cause of concern. There are primarily two types of rail cars: those that contain construction and demolition debris and those that contain solid waste.

Each type carries its own hazards, depending on how they are stored in the yards. The rail cars with solid waste, covered with solid lids, often emit foul odors during the sweltering temperatures of the summer while sitting in the yard before leaving.

“They shouldn’t leave the trains for hours on end, cooking in the hot sun, stinking up
the entire neighborhood,” Holden said.

However, Holden admitted adding that trying to contain the odor can be difficult. “No matter what you are going to do with these rail cars, the trash is going to stink.” Sealing the lids would trap methane and cause the cars to explode, Holden said.

Though solid waste cars give off pungent fumes, uncovered construction cars can be just as damaging. Though most construction cars have black netting across them, civic groups say it isn’t enough to keep dust and debris from becoming airborne.

Mary Parison, co-chair of Civics United for Railroad Environmental Solutions, said she has stood on porches and see a cloud of white smoke coming from the cars. “There’s plenty of times that there haven’t been netting on them,” she said of the rail cars carrying construction and demolition debris.

CURES along with other groups are pushing local officials to propose legislation that would require railroad companies to utilize a tarp to cover the construction rail cars, as opposed to the netting.

Holden and Parison admit that although seeing change happen in an uphill battle, they are committed to fighting for the communities. Although there are different approaches and ideas to how to improve the situation, Parison said ultimately requires a change in mindset.

“We need to get the railroads to think differently and realize that they are going through the most densely populated areas in New York and there are changes that have to be made,” Parsion asserted.

Trial Begins in Fatal MV Arson

The Forum

The trial of the former Middle Village woman accused of setting a fatal fire during an argument with her boyfriend on Father’s Day 2008 has begun in Queens Criminal Court.

Agnes Bermudez, 48, of Newburgh, is charged with multiple counts of murder, arson, reckless endangerment and assault in connection with the fire in an apartment building at 69th Street and Metropolitan Avenue that killed her boyfriend, William Salazar, and a family of three that lived above the couple. The trial began last Friday.

This week, jurors saw raw footage of the aftermath of the fire that showed Salazar running into the ground floor deli while flames engulfed his body. They also heard a witness recount the death of upstairs resident Flor Sandoval, 48, who fell from the top floor before firefighters were able to reach the scene.

Also killed in the blaze were Sandoval’s husband, Heriberto Garcia- Vera, 68, and son Felipe Garcia, 20. Salazar died four days after the fire.

Police say the fire began after an enraged Bermudez doused Salazar with carpet cleaning fluid before setting him ablaze. The fire quickly spread to the hall and stairs leading to the upstairs family, dooming Sandoval, Garcia-Vera and Garcia. The video was taken from the Z-Star Deli, where employees doused him with gallons of water.

As jurors watched the gruesome surveillance video on Monday, Bermudez “hunched her shoulders and wept,” according to a report in the New York Post.

Her attorney refuted the authorities’ version of events and said that Salazar had actually torched Bermudez during the confrontation.

“The two people from the apartment upstairs came into the store. They were on fire – their hair and their clothes,” Mohammed Al- Matari told The Forum shortly after the fire. “We got them outside of the store and started to pour cold water on them. It was the only thing I could think to do.”

If convicted, Bermudez faces 25 years in prison.

Traffic and Crime Highlight CB5 Meeting

The Forum

Area crime, transit issues and executive committee elections were among the key issues discussed at the June meeting of Community Board 5.

Troutman Street Woes Several residents attended last Wednesday’s session at Christ the King High School to express concern over traffic on Troutman Street. Despite a “no left turn” sign at the intersection of Troutman Street and Metropolitan Avenue, residents noted that drivers
constantly make illegal turns at high speeds.

One resident suggested that traffic be rerouted to become one-way or that a barrier be erected to force drivers to Flushing Avenue.

Board District Manager Gary Giordano said that while measures are needed to ease the situation, they need to be implemented in a way that doesn’t adversely impact other nearby streets.

“While we understand that Troutman Street is a dilemma, the feeling is that the adjacent streets are very much residential and could cause just as great of a problem,” he said.

However, Giordano noted that plans have been drawn to create a traffic island at the intersection and to increase police presence in the area.

***Area Crime***

The board’s Public Safety Committee reported that felony assaults are up 62 percent so far this year across the 104th Precinct. In addition, auto theft is up 25 percent, with Toyotas and Hondas among the most popular models.

However, sting operations targeting underage alcohol sales and prostitution have been successful, Undercover officers visited 37 local bars and delis and issued a total of 39 summonses. In addition, prostitution stings along Starr Street in Ridgewood have also been effective. Residents have long complained about prostitution activity in that area.

Still, board members expressed concern that there aren’t enough patrol cars on the streets
between 4 p.m. and midnight. While response time for emergencies has hovered around six minutes, members say the number of patrol cars still needs to increase.

***Car Sharing and Transit Changes***

There was also a discussion on implementing car sharing programs in the area in an effort
to ease traffic and parking issues. The city Department of City Planning is currently considering a zone text amendment that would allow for parking spaces to be set aside for car sharing services such as ZipCar.

While some residents spoke in favor of the plan, others expressed concern that some cars are already violating the zoning rules in place, particularly in residential neighborhoods.

The board voted to recommend that parking for car sharing services mainly be limited to commercial areas instead of residential areas.

Beginning on June 28th the V and M trains will be merged, with the new line retaining the M line designation. The new route will run between Forest Hills and Metropolitan Avenue, with service to midtown Manhattan instead of downtown. Beginning on September 12, the Q58 bus will begin making limited stops.

The Transportation Committee also noted that it is seeking to have Flushing Avenue resurfaced at night so that necessary improvement can be made without disrupting traffic in the area.

Local Martial Arts Instructor Helps Area Special Needs Children

By Tamara Best

Almost every Sunday for the last five years, Tim Bevan has spent his mornings at All the Buzz dance studio on Myrtle Avenue.

There in a room accented with bright green and purple walls, Mr. Tim as he is known at the studio, teaches autistic children tae kwon do.

“I try to cater to each kids individual needs,” said, Bevan, adding that the children ranging from being almost non-verbal to having advanced communication skills.

But regardless of level, he said each student has potential to grow.

“We always start with baby steps, everything is progression.”

The idea for the classes began with owner Sandra Olenick, whose friend had an autistic son and was looking for physical activities to strengthen and challenge her child.

“All kids should be able to take whatever they want, they all have the right to enjoy different things,” Olenick said.

Physical activities, such as martial arts, can help promote increased attention, calming, improve motor planning, decrease stereotypical behaviors and body awareness in autistic children, according to Deborah Riccardi, of Association for the Help of Retarded Children, a local group offering services to those with developmental disabilities.

Louise Marchini, with AHRC, said that inclusion in physical activity is important for children with special needs and teaching children tolerance.

“Kids with autism are no different than the next kid—they experience both the mental and physical health benefits of fitness just like everyone else,” she said. “Too often, people with developmental disabilities are segregated within the community, even at school or other extra curricular activities.”

And area parents say they are thankful for the outlet.

“It’s so hard tough to find classes for special needs children,” said Nelli Muller, whose 10-year old son Paul, attends the class. “When he came it was impossible to get him to sit on the floor. He has changed dramatically,” she said. Joe Sasso, who often accompanies his 10-year-old grandson

Joe to the class, said Bevan’s background helps the students make progress.

“The teacher is unbelievable, he’s worth his weight in gold,” he said with a smile.

Bevan, who caps each of the classes at five students, said smaller size classes helps students from getting “lost in the shuffle.”

Students go through a series of exercises such as the superman stretch, where they lay on the floor with their arms and legs in the air, imitating the flying motion of Superman, to help them warm up and focus.

And then the work begins.

Legs and fists fly in the air as they hit a punching bag as they track their progress via full length mirrors at the front of the room. And after all the jumps, kicks and punches, students prepare for the “Four Way Punch.”

“Jumbie… cross… step back…low block… target… step…punch!” Bevan calls out to students, who repeat the routine turning 90 degrees each time, until they have completed a circle. “They learn initially through imitating me, then it’s something they do on their own,” he said.

At 2 p.m., Bevan leaves after completing another day of training. And his assessment of progress made is based on a simple formula.

“I measure success by if a kid wants to come back.”

Gillibrand Announces Proposed Anti-Gang Legislation

The Forum

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in a conference call Tuesday emphasized the need to crackdown on gang activity as a way to curb substance abuse and violence throughout New York.

“We can never allow the lure of gangs to surpass opportunities for our children to grow and achieve their full potential,” Senator Gillibrand said. “Too many communities are seeing increasing gang activity and the violent crime that comes with it. It’s time to fight back with better resources for our law enforcement, tougher penalties to lock up offenders, positive role models to guide our children to success, and unite communities to keep our families safe.”

According to statistics provided by the Senator, there are more than 22,000 gang members in New York City with more than 670,000 suffering from substance abuse as a result of gang trafficking. It is estimated that there are between 2,500 and 3,499 gang members in Queens.

In an effort to help combat the issue Gillibrand is introducing legislation which she says would combat gang activity, keep at-risk youth out of gangs, and keep our communities safe and economy growing.

On Long Island, there are as many as 5,000 gang members and more than 335,000 people suffering from substance abuse fueled in part by gangs trafficking drugs.

Gillibrand is cosponsoring the Youth PROMISE Act, aimed at preventing children from joining gangs through policy development.

In addition to prevention, Gillibrand said it is also important to have access to youth mentoring and is cosponsoring the JUMP Act. It would also authorize the Department of Justice to continue funding for quality mentoring services. The program implements one-on-one mentoring between responsible adults and youth.

While, reaching youth is important. Gillibrand is also hoping to give law enforcement agencies more resources to combat gang related crime. Co-sponsoring the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act of 2009, the legislation creates tougher penalties for gang related offenses in addition to authorizing the Attorney General to expand the Project Safe Neighborhoods Program and the Safe Streets Program.

A media campaign would also be launched to help inform people on the dangers of heroine.

Gillibrand is also working to restore funding cuts to state grants administered through the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools that were eliminated in budget cuts.

Queens Couple Benefits from Free CityParks Seniors Fitness Classes

The Forum

Queens residents, Richard, age 87, and Erma Hill, age 86, hit the tennis courts at least twice a week to practice their serves, work on their volley skills and socialize with friends at CityParks Seniors Fitness free tennis classes at Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

For the couple, who met while attending George Washington High School in Manhattan, City Parks Foundation’s exercise program provides an outlet for them to stay activein their golden years. The two, who have been playing tennis since they were 18, have been participating in CityParks Seniors Fitness program since it began in 2006 and credit the classes to keeping them going everyday.

“There is no excuse for seniors not being able to get active with the free program City Parks Foundation offers,” said Ms. Hill. “Over 35 years ago I was diagnosed with leukemia and given six months to live. Now I’m on the tennis court multiple times a week, thanks to our tennis classes. The more you stay active, the more you can do.”

Mr. and Mrs. Hill are just two of the seniors who are currently participating in CityParks Seniors Fitness. The spring program offers free tennis, yoga and fitness walking instruction to adults over 60 in 11 parks across the five boroughs.

In Queens, classes are offered at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Astoria Park, Cunningham Park and Roy Wilkins Park. Each fitness class, including free use of equipment, is offered twice a week for one hour and encourages participants to maintain regular attendance to maximize the health benefits.

CityParks Seniors Fitness, which has served over 3,400 participants since it began in 2006, provides older adults the opportunity to learn a new activity and make new friends, while aiming to promote neighborhood parks as a great place for community activity.

The program also encourages seniors to stay active, as exercise, even in moderate amounts, can help participants feel and look better, maintain or lose weight, reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes,
and minimize the symptoms of arthritis.

CityParks Seniors Fitness Spring Program runs through June 25th. For more information, please call the Sports Department at 718-760-6999.

Founded in 1989, City Parks Foundation (CPF) is the only independent, nonprofit organization to offer park programs throughout the five boroughs of New York City. CPF works in over 750 parks citywide, presenting a broad range of free arts, sports, and education programs, and empowering citizens to support their parks on a local level.

CPF’s programs and community building initiatives reach more than 600,000 people each year, contributing to the revitalization of neighborhoods throughout New York City.

For more details, please visit

Seniors Under Siege

Budget Cuts Threaten Local Centers

By Patricia Adams

Among the many casualties of proposed spending cuts by the Bloomberg administration is $44 million slated to be slashed from the Department for the Aging (DFTA). The result of such a cut will be the shuttering of 50 senior centers throughout the city by the end of June. The closures are expected to save the city $4.2 million.

The Wakefield Senior Center in South Ozone Park is one of 10 centers in Queens that could face the budget axe, and members of the center say they are devastated.Rose McGreevy, 78 is one of dozens of seniors who says she doesn’t know what to do about the possible closing.

“This is like our home away from home. If we don’t have this, there is really nothing. I guess we
would have to stay home and watch television if we can’t come here.”

But television, alone and at home, is hardly a suitable replacement for the joy and companionship so many seniors rely upon. Card games, bingo, trips to concerts and parks, parties, exercise and fitness, movie nights—not to mention the friendships forged and the company of peers. There is even some romance floating through the air between some of the seniors at Wakefield.

On Friday, about four dozen of the Wakefield seniors joined State Senator Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), outside the center on Lefferts Boulevard at a rally to halt the cuts. Also on hand with Addabbo were Assemblywoman Michele Titus (D-South Ozone Park) and chair of Community Board 10, Betty Braton.

“Four million dollars will be saved, but in a budget of over $65 billion, surely he can find ways to save money without cutting senior centers,” the senator said. “Today, we are fighting for our seniors — seniors who saw no increase in their Social Security and who are so concerned about the future of their health care programs; seniors who are now facing locked doors on their local centers.”

According to Assemblywoman Titus, there is much more to the center than fun and games. She says considering some of the crucial “hidden” factors is essential. “These particular seniors are living in an area that has one of the highest foreclosure rates and predatory lending in the city,” said Titus.

“Wakefield, like so many other centers offers free programs and services that help the seniors understand the legal process and how they can be defrauded as victims of scams.” The centers “serve as a lifeline for thousands of seniors throughout the city and help them lead safe, successful and independent lives.”

Presently, there are more than 21,000 senior residents in the neighborhoods of South Ozone Park, Ozone Park and Howard Beach with only three centers available to them. It is estimated by Plan NYC 2030 that the senior population will grow by approximately 10,000 more within the next 20 years, in those communities alone.

Yet another key factor in maintaining the centers has been overlooked by the Bloomberg administration, according to CB 10 chair Betty Braton who notes, “The city’s criteria for judging the need for a center is the number of meals served.” According to Braton such criteria is faulty because most of the seniors, especially in Queens are not impoverished.

“While they may enjoy their meals here,” she says, “that is not what they are coming here for. These people are coming for the activities offered and to share times with their friends. That simply cannot be overlooked.”

And she is quick to point out that adding up all the seniors in the area clearly demonstrates an already severe shortage of centers without closing any. Although the city’s fiscal crisis and the uncertainty of the proposed cuts have been highly publicized, some seniors were still under the impression that a final decision had already been reached. Addabbo offered assurance that there was still time to make a difference.

“We are going to continue to fight for you and you can help by calling 311 and complaining about the cuts.”

“We have to speak up for our rights,” said 72-year-old Alexandra Kartsimabis, “good times are important for older people — if they get depressed they can get sick and have to spend more money on medicine and hospitals.”

In an effort to explore possible funding sources to keep the senior centers open, Addabbo is asking the Bloomberg administration to take a close look at city spending— especially on people who work for the city.

“Take for example city marshals who do the same work as the city sheriffs,” said Addabbo, “in 2008 they earned $43 million yet they only paid the city $2 million.”

The senator also brought up the fact that philanthropists should be allowed to sponsor the senior centers much like the agreement for charter schools. Ultimately he said, “The mayor and others can point fingers at the state, but that’s politics and right now our people are being victimized by politics.”

Should the Wakefield facility actually close, seniors from there would have to consider using the nearest open center in Howard Beach. But that is still miles away and for many, traveling there would require using public transportation.

“Even for seniors who don’t have a problem with their health the travel would cause disruption to their routines and bring on unnecessary stress,” said Betty Braton.

Albany lawmakers have also proposed cuts to funding for seniors and they are still trying to work out their final numbers, more than 10 weeks after the original budget was due.

If the cuts do go through, in addition to Wakefield, other Queens closures are the Woodhaven Senior Center, St. Mary’s Senior Center in Long Island City, Jackson Heights Senior Center, Astoria Senior Center, Whitestone Senior Center, Conlon in Jamaica, Foster Laurie Senior Center in St. Albans, Holliswood Senior Center, and South Jamaica Senior Center.