Editorial: When bigots roar

By The Times/Ledger

Just days before the dawning of the 21st century, a shameful display of bigotry at a public hearing in Maspeth showed that the lessons of the last century have eluded some residents of Queens. These Archie Bunker clones opposed the building of a new public school on Grand Avenue because they “don't want children from other neighborhoods.”

One resident screamed, “We don't want 'em. Keep 'em over there!” Another person knocked over his chair toward the front of the room before storming out of the meeting called by Community Board 5.

The School Construction Authority has proposed building a new 900-seat elementary school on Grand Avenue at a site where Staples is already planning to open a new store. If the SCA plan is approved, Staples will have to look elsewhere.

The new school is desperately needed. Like almost all districts in Queens, the schools in District 24 are overcrowded. The new school would take students from PS 102 and PS 229, which are currently operating at 112 percent and 120 percent of capacity. If no new schools are built in the area, overcrowding in 10 years could reach as high as 170 percent. At that point it will be impossible to offer the children anything approaching a quality education.

Anyone in the community who cares about the welfare of the children of Maspeth should be giving their enthusiastic support to the SCA proposal. Most communities would welcome a modern new school. It's a no-brainer.

The argument offered at the meeting by some that the school will increase traffic in this part of Maspeth is nothing but a smokescreen. The real reason for the impassioned opposition to the school is rooted in racism and xenophobia. The Bunkerites are afraid that the district will bus in children of color and children of newly arrived immigrant families.

One woman who ran for the school board in District 24 and lost asked, “Where do these children come from?” Another chimed in, “These children will not represent Maspeth.” But it was school board member Frank Borzellieri, who went directly to the heart of the matter when he said, “We are being swamped with immigration in this district.” We want to remind Frank that there were no Borzellieris on the Mayflower. And there were none to welcome the ship. We all are the children or the descendants of immigrants.

Yes, immigrants can change the character of a community. In fact, New York changed with each new wave of immigrants, including the Italians and the Irish who also had to cope with the irrational fears of narrow-minded bigots. We believe that Queens draws its strength from its diversity. This borough is host to people of every conceivable ethnicity and nationality. No community has the right to close its doors to new immigrant families.

It is true that, over the last 10 years, the wave of immigrants has put considerable pressure on the school system in Queens. The overcrowding that Queens schools are experiencing today came about because the SCA was unable to deal with the population shift in its early stages. But it is also true that the immigrant families have helped to raise the academic expectations in some districts. The two districts which routinely top the city in reading and math scores – District 26 in Bayside and District 25 in Flushing – have experienced an influx of large numbers of Korean and Chinese families. (Perhaps it is the competition that the Bunkerites fear the most.)

As we watched the celebrations of the new millennium all around the world from Beijing to Paris to Times Square, it became unmistakably clear that in the 21st century we will live in a global community. The roaring, angry xenophobes must fade from public view. There is no room in the global village for such intolerance.