By Dustin Brown
Sometimes it's the aesthetic problems that get a neighborhood down: the stray pieces of litter that blow like tumbleweed down the road, the graffiti that layers upon itself across walls and garages.
But the aesthetics of Queens Plaza are catching the attention from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who Tuesday announced the start of a yearlong project to clean up the proverbial Gateway to Queens and render it more inviting to residents, visitors and businesses.
“We're sweeping off the stoop, we're bringing out a welcome mat and we're hanging a sign that says Queens is open for business,” City Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Woodside) said at a news conference in the lobby of MetLife's Queens Plaza offices in Long Island City.
The project, known as the “Queens Plaza Clean-Up,” will assemble crews of laborers in the neighborhood to clean up parks, clear litter, remove graffiti, sweep the streets and perform beautification projects.
“Problems like litter in the street and untended vacant lots supported the perception that Queens Plaza is unsafe,” Bloomberg said. “Such perceptions matter, and the Queens Plaza Clean-Up will change them.”
Much of the labor will be performed by low-level offenders sentenced to community service for crimes they committed in Long Island City.
“No matter where you go, community service in the area where you commit the crime has an impact,” said Capt. Douglas Rolston, the commanding officer of the 108th Precinct in Long Island City. “It sends the message that you're not going to be able to get away with it.”
The Salvation Army shelter for homeless veterans on Borden Avenue will assemble daily crews of 20 residents to sweep the streets, while community volunteers will conduct beautification projects such as painting murals, cleaning empty lots and planting trees. Members of Americorps, the corporation for National and Community Service, will reach out to the community to identify clean-up sites, coordinate crews and organize volunteer events.
The Center for Court Innovation, a public-private partnership dedicated to improving the courts, is running the yearlong program with $500,000 in funding from the city Economic Development Corp., which is collaborating with the Mayor's Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator.
“Over time you can wear down the graffiti problem, wear down the prostitution problem,” said Greg Berman, the director of the Center for Court Innovation, which has done similar programs in Times Square, Harlem and Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Bloomberg is touting the project as part of his plan to encourage the neighborhood's development as the city's next central business district.
“The Queens Plaza Clean-Up is one more step to make this neighborhood a vibrant gateway to Queens and an area welcoming to business,” Bloomberg said. “Our administration wants to encourage other companies to follow MetLife's lead.”
MetLife's journey across the East River from Manhattan to Queens is a success story that serves in many ways as a blueprint of city's vision for Long Island City. After moving 1,000 employees to the Queens Plaza office over the past year, the company broke ground on an addition that will make room for 800 more workers.
Meanwhile, Queens Plaza's grungy exterior is already the object of extensive attention from the city. The City Council rezoned the area to encourage the development of a central business district, and the city Department of City Planning is undertaking a number of projects to beautify the plaza, improve traffic flow and render it friendlier for pedestrians.
But the first step will be to clear the aesthetic problems such as litter and graffiti before they snowball into more serious criminal activity.
“It makes a difference to see someone on the street coming around to clean up. It gives people a good perception of the area,” Rolston said. “Anytime you show the community is vibrant and the community cares, you'll see people's perceptions change and with that, crime goes down.”
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.