By Bill Parry
The Queens Community House board of directors announced the death of an original founder this month. Forest Hills resident Kurt Sonnenfeld, one of the non-profit, multi-service, community organization’s original board members and a lifelong champion of human rights, died March 4 at age 91.
Sonnenfeld was a community leader who organized in support of a proposed low-income housing project in his neighborhood in the early 1970s, part of former Mayor John Lindsey’s “scatter-site” plan to build public housing in mixed-income neighborhoods and an experiment in racial integration. At the time, opposition to the development was heated and occasionally violent, catapulting Forest Hills into the national news.
The conflict was eventually resolved through a compromise brokered by Mario Cuomo, a then little-known Queens attorney called in at the mayor’s request. When the development was built and opened — as the Forest Hills Coop — Sonnefeld was on hand to welcome his newest neighbors.
“I can remember being hit by garbage from protesters as I brought my belongings into the building,” Blanca Izaguirre, a longtime resident of the coop and a QCH board member, said. “Kurt was there, serving as a buffer, letting us know that some of our neighbors were glad to have us in Forest Hills. It was a profoundly meaningful gesture.”
Sonnenfeld was one of the leaders who advocated for the inclusion of a community center on the campus of the new development, one that could serve the whole community. As a professional social worker, he understood the important role that social services play in bringing together people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs.
“When people are sharing lunch together at a senior center, or waiting to pick up their kids from an after-school program, they begin to understand that we all have the same needs and hopes,” QCH Executive Director Ben Thomases said. “Kurt got this.”
Sonnenfeld subsequently served on the board of the new organization, the Forest Hills Community House, for almost 35 years, helping to nurture the non-profit through its early development and overseeing its growth into a borough-wide organization, renamed as Queens Community House in 2006.
“At the time, many opposed to the development were predicting it would become its own ghetto and never be economically or socially integrated into the neighborhood,” Thomases said. “One resident is even quoted in The Times as saying ‘It’s the end of Queens!” Luckily, Kurt and others had a different vision, and were willing to stick around and put in the hard work needed to make that vision a reality. It’s an important reminder in these times when hate and divisiveness are on the rise again.”
Sonnenfeld is survived by his children Vivian, Debby, Marty and Janet and granddaughter Roseanne.
Meanwhile, the Queens Community House Immigration Specialist has been inundated with phone calls and appointments after strict immigration guidelines were laid out recently by the Department of Homeland Security.
Since 2002, the QCH immigration department has assisted thousands of immigrants on their path to citizenship but with current political rhetoric services are needed even more.
QCH has received a $7,500 matching grant from an anonymous donor which will help support the increased demand on free paralegal services. The non-profit is currently running a social media and e-mail campaign to meet this match.
“We’re hoping to raise $7,500 to meet the match within the next month so we can use it to deal with this current uptick,” QCH Communications Coordinator Angel Roggie said.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr