A Tale Of Two Parties: De Blasio's District 32 Town Hall
On December 5th, 2017, Council Member Eric Ulrich hosted a Town Hall with Mayor Bill de Blasio for Council District 32 in Belle Harbor. Lasting a little under 3 hours, residents were given the opportunity to address their concerns directly to the mayor and his trusted team of city commissioners. This event was part of de Blasio’s commitment to attend a Town Hall in every City Council District during his tenure. Although Council District 32 includes several Southeast Queens neighborhoods, Rockaway-based issues received the most attention.
Fittingly, storm resiliency and Sandy recovery was by far the biggest topic addressed by community members and was the focus of over a quarter of the questions asked. As a frontline community facing climate change and a community that was decimated by Hurricane Sandy, Rockaway residents are especially sensitive to issues surrounding recovery and resiliency. Community members demanded that measures be taken to counter the evident beach erosion happening along the Rockaway waterfront, including more rock jetties, coral reefs, sand dunes, and natural wildlife barriers along the shorelines. De Blasio promised to specifically address Rockaway waterfront protections during his upcoming meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, DC in late January.
Transportation was also a major focus of the meeting, including questions about the proposed QueensRail line, which would connect the Rockaways directly to midtown Manhattan via a defunct LIRR line. De Blasio maintained that he must first see the data provided by the MTA’s feasibility study on the project, which is not yet complete, before making any decisions or giving an opinion one way or the other, and touted other initiatives the city has undertaken to address the problems with public transportation that plague southeast Queens, such as the new ferry and SBS Bus service. In his opening statements, de Blasio announced that because the ferry ridership exceeded expectations this past summer, they are building bigger boats that will be operational by spring of 2018. His discussion of the new Select Bus Service was met with boos, as many car-owning community members in District 32 dislike the fact that SBS takes up its own lane of traffic on Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards. De Blasio responded to the crowd by saying, “You can dislike it, but I guarantee you it helps.” And he’s right - there’s no doubt that SBS does help hundreds of people without car access who rely on these bus lines to access jobs, education, and shopping, even if it does understandably frustrate some car owners in the Howard Beach area and western ends of the Rockaway Peninsula.
The mayor also fielded questions about education. The public expressed a desire for more “gifted and talented” schools in the district and requested increased city investment in afterschool and STEM programs, especially for middle school students. The city has been relatively responsive to the community’s requests regarding education. In a 2016 town hall meeting in District 31, which includes Far Rockaway, a public school teacher asked what was being done to increase support for students at high risk of suspension. In response, de Blasio and the Deputy Chancellor for the DOE touted the $47 million in increased funding for restorative justice initiatives in NYC public schools.
Other topics brought up during the District 32 Town Hall included increasing healthcare access, improving cell phone service for the Rockaway Peninsula, containing the foul odor emanating from the Wastewater Treatment Plant on Beach Channel Drive, and increasing beach access. De Blasio pledged $200,000 in city funding to provide beach mats on every block between Beach 127th St to Beach 149th St to allow people with disabilities to access the beaches easier. However, as a few community members pointed out, residents who live in the area spanning from Beach 30th St to Beach 60th St still cannot access the beach due to long-standing wildlife protections. Joe Hartigan, a community advocate affectionately dubbed “the ferry guy” by locals, called this inequity in beach access “beach profiling” as the communities in these Far Rockaway areas are largely black and brown. As de Blasio enters his second term, the community can only hope that he has heard their concerns and will remember the many voices in Rockaway as he sets his priorities for the next four years.