By Bill Parry
Queens experienced extraordinary growth under the leadership of Claire Shulman, the first female borough president, from 1986 to 2001. During that time, dozens of neighborhoods were rezoned, generating development which led to the economic revitalization of downtown Jamaica, Flushing and Long Island City.
Shulman was pivotal in ensuring the progress of a number of cultural institutions, including the Queens Museum of Art, the New York Hall of Science, Queens Theatre in the Park and the Museum of the Moving Image. She played a major role in securing funding for 35,000 additional school seats and the completion of the Queens Hospital Center, a $170 million complex serving 400,000 patients annually that is the largest health care provider in the borough.
“You can’t do anything without a great staff. We worked together like a charm and I’m very proud of that,” Shulman said. “We called it Claire Shulman College. All of my staff are still doing great things in city government.”
One veteran of Shulman’s staff is the current borough president, Melinda Katz.
“Former Borough President Claire Shulman is a Queens giant, an extraordinary public servant who taught me how to get things done,” Katz said. “Throughout her distinguished tenure, she was masterful in making sure government served as an effective tool for the people of Queens and for achieving the positive change that has made our borough such an attractive place to live, work and visit.”
Shulman’s public service began with the Bayside Mother’s Club, the forerunner of the PTA, in 1955.
“I became the president because no one else wanted to do it,” Shulman said. “I wanted to make sure my kids got a good education. Their school was very old and shabby. I told the Board of Ed I’d sue them for being slumlords and they weren’t familiar with the term.”
Her three children went on to great success. Her daughter Ellen, a Space Shuttle astronaut, flew three missions. They each possessed Shulman’s can-do attitude.
“I was a registered nurse during World War II and all of our supplies were shipped overseas for the war effort,” she said. “You had to learn how to save people without any supplies. When I realized I could do that, I knew I could do anything.”
Looking back at her track record, she thinks luring the film industry back to the city was one of her best accomplishments. It generates almost $9 billion a year while creating more than 130,000 jobs.
“We got the 5 1/2 acres from the federal government for $1,” she said of the former Paramount Studio that is Kaufman Astoria Studios today. “From zero dollars to $9 billion is not bad at all.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr