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  GOTHAM GAZETTE: SEARCHLIGHT 2002: Queens Borough President

Opportunity in Diversity

By Helen Marshall

As a rapidly growing borough with immigrants from all over the world, Queens confronts a number of challenges. But our vitality and diversity also present us with unique opportunities to solve our problems.

One key area, of course, is education. Even though I will not be able to serve on the Board of Education as I had planned, because of legal obstacles to someone being both borough president and board member, there is much that I hope to do in education.

My old City Council district around East Elmhurst was the hub for immigration and so of overcrowded schools. Even with all the schools on the docket to be built throughout Queens, we're still short of seats.

With the city facing such a huge budget deficit, we have to make sure that nothing happens to the schools that are lined up and ready to go. We constantly monitor the schools that are planned or under construction to see how they're doing. My predecessor, Claire Schulman, had a "war room" on school construction that I am going to keep. It brings to the table the School Construction Authority, the school facilities people, Board of Education members, the district superintendents and any other people who are involved with the construction of schools. We stay on top of every project and push and push and push.

Along with focusing on school construction, I am going to add a task force on quality education that will have three components.

The first will empower parents to be good, positive activists in their children's public school. Right now many are not. More mothers are working -- and working when their children are younger. So we have fewer parents with time to participate in the schools.

We are going to bring groups of parents together and have principals as well as experts and district superintendents speak with them. These meetings will be at night to allow mothers and fathers to participate. We're going to provide the parents with information and help them feel comfortable participating in their children's education. From the other end, the district superintendents will work with the principals to ensure that they cooperate with this process.

The second component involves the business world. We are training the workforce for tomorrow, so it is in business's own best interest to help us.

What can businesses do? They can donate to the schools items such as laptop computers. We would like to have at least one school in each community school district where children take the laptops home -- their parents would have to agree to be responsible for them, of course -- and teach their parents how to use them.

The business community can also provide career development, testing and training. Bringing the worlds of business and education together is the only way to teach children skills needed for jobs in some growth industries.

The best of my three proposals uses our diversity as an asset. Right now, having students who speak so many different languages is viewed as a big burden on our schools. Let's turn it into the wonderful asset it should be.

When children from homes where no English is spoken come into the schools, they bring their families into America. Those children need all the help we can give them.

We can "buddy" these children with English speakers so they can do their homework together and their parents can get to know one another. The children will quickly learn each other's languages -- Korean, Chinese, Greek, Pakistani and Bengali. And the children will learn each others' cultures as well.

Partly because of our growing population, we desperately need affordable housing. We must add housing all over our borough, giving residents low down payments and low mortgages, situations that they can work with.

Queens has the space. But we can't build affordable housing without government subsidies. We had one development where 80 percent of the residents paid market value and the other 20 percent were poor. When you went there, you couldn't tell who paid what rent. That worked out very well, and we should be looking for other developers to take on similar projects. I also like intergenerational housing, with seniors and families living in the same development.

We have a huge housing shortage. If you look at the children in our schools you wonder where they all live. Many are cramped together in houses that are very dangerous for people to live in. People rent furnace rooms to families with children and cut up what were basically good two-story homes into little cubbies. In one house I saw the landlord had eight little cubbies on the second floor and was getting $100 a week rent for each one. The people who are being hurt by this are the immigrants.

But even if you were born in America and raised here, it can be difficult to get the down payment for home. We simply need more houses.

Transportation is another big issue in Queens. Metrocard and free transfers have been a big help, but you still have to get on one or two buses to get to almost every subway line.

We need new ideas like the air train to Kennedy Airport and the ferry. For example, a ferry can go from the Rockaways to Manhattan in 35 minutes, but now costs $15 roundtrip. The ferries need a subsidy, just like we subsidize our buses. With $300,000 a year, we could bring the cost of a round trip down to $5.

On Main Street in Flushing every block between Northern Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue has bus stops on it. People line up for those buses and so at peak hours you can hardly walk down the street. People struggle to get to their trains and buses and to do their shopping.

What I envision is building a bus terminal in the lower level of the big municipal parking garage in Flushing with parking spaces above it. That would pull those buses off Main Street. Some merchants are concerned that all the buses coming into the terminal could have an impact on air quality in the area. That is a legitimate concern but we could address it with cleaner buses. Of course, we have to consult everyone affected but, whatever we do, somehow we have to solve the problem on Main Street.

Transportation is linked to economic development. The air train, for example, will be a boon to the Jamaica area financially. The station will provide a hub for a hotel and cinema that we hope will bring a lot of financial help to that area.

Soon, you will see development on both sides of the East River. But on the Queens side, in Long Island City, it will be planned with green space, residences and businesses.

We are the most multi-ethnic borough in the city, if not the world and many of the immigrants are small businesspeople. We want to help them - and all our businesses - to make sure our commercial strips are strong, that they are getting the services they need and have the anchor stores. Those commercial areas are the lifelines of our community.

Some of these businesspeople could be involved in another project of mine. I want to call a Queens General Assembly to bring together representatives from every single ethnic group we have. It would meet on a monthly basis, and I would give them experts on housing, transportation, economic development and so on to work with. The members will share the assimilation problems that some immigrants have. And, above all, the General Assembly will allow all the people to share in the wealth and richness of each other's culture and appreciate the diversity of our borough.

Helen Marshall is Queens borough president.

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