By Calvin Prashad
South Queens often has difficulty attracting the attention of elected officials and city agencies.
While many of the area’s representatives engage in malfeasance, residents deride the quality of city services, including street cleaning, bus services and community space in South Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park as “poor to non-existent,” in the words of one such resident.
The commissioner for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Nisha Agarwal, as well as Community Integration Fellow Richard Andrè, visited Richmond Hill for a “community listening tour” of the concerns of local residents. There was also a subsequent town hall meeting with local activists and residents the offices of the Indo Caribbean Alliance at 131-12 Liberty Ave.
For many longtime residents, this was their first face-to-face with a representative of the city government, which reflected the wide array of concerns voiced at the meeting. “These conversations will inform my office’s engagement with other city agencies,” Agarwal said.
The town hall also served the purpose of informing the community of new city initiatives tailored to the needs of immigrant communities. Agrawal spoke on the Municipal ID card program, an effort to create a standardized form of identification for all city residents, regardless of legal status.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the program in the State of the City address and subsequently it signed into law on July 10. The program could potentially become the largest in the nation when it launches next year.
For undocumented immigrants and citizens alike, a lack of identification can complicate efforts to open a bank account, pick up their children from school or access vital government assistance. In addition, a form of identification is necessary to interact with law enforcement, as a summons requires ID and those without it would have to be taken to a police station.
Additional benefits from the Municipal ID card will include membership and discounts to a number of cultural institutions and other establishments in New York City, as well as prescription drug discounts. There will be a wide range of acceptable documentation to prove one’s identity.
In addition, for transgendered persons, the ID holder may choose the gender they identify with, or opt not to state a gender at all. The ID card also has room for an emergency contact on the reverse.
In addition to working on initiatives such as the Municipal ID initiative, the Office for Immigrant Affairs helps connect immigrants to educational and legal aid resources. The office also hosts citizenship workshops to aid legal residents to take the next step toward citizenship.
Agarwal noted that moving toward citizenship opens up economic opportunity by means of better paying jobs, home-ownership and education.
The audience was a mix of homeowners and renters and the issue of affordable housing came up often. Like many neighborhoods in Queens, there is an ongoing debate over the legality of basement apartments.
“The mayor said this was something that he was committed to; this a community that voted for that mayor because we are all hoping, as homeowners, for this to happen,” said one resident. “It’s a crazy system to think that it’s safer to live a hundred floors off the ground, than one level below ground.”
There was also a consensus that the quality of bus service for the area is universally poor. A younger resident spoke of the exceptional difficulty on getting to school while being unable to rely on a consistent bus schedule.
“Buses don’t come on time, or they’ll come back-to-back,” said another resident.
Other issues raised was a rising alcoholism rate, linked to a rise in homelessness in the area, but also linked by some residents to an inordinate law enforcement response against motorists, as well as club and bar goers in the neighborhood.
“There sounds like a theme of over service (like police targeting) of the things you don’t want and a lack of equity in terms of the services you do want,” said Agrawal.
“From City Hall’s perspective, if you put something in Jamaica, then it’s serving all of south Queens,” added one resident.
In all, the well-attended and relatively cathartic town hall meeting lasted about 90 minutes and every resident with a concern had his or her say.
“It was also a great opportunity for our community to interact with the new administration and build a relationship that will enhance the city we live in,” Acting ICA Director Padma Seemangal concluded.