Queens lost a towering figure over the weekend when Claire Shulman, the first woman to serve as borough president, died on Sunday, Aug. 16.
Shulman, 94, passed away after battling lung cancer and pancreatic cancer.
In her 16 years as borough president, Shulman changed the way Queens ran its government, taking office during the dark days of scandal at Borough Hall in the spring of 1986. She ushered the borough into a new era of growth and economic revitalization, leading the way with the discipline and persistence she learned as a registered nurse during World War II.
During her humble leadership beginnings as president of the Bayside Mother’s Club in 1955, Shulman demanded the city renovate her children’s school.
“I told the Board of Ed I’d sue them for being slumlords and they weren’t familiar with the term,” Shulman said during a recent interview with QNS.
The renovation was completed a mere 18 months later and her fast results caught the attention of then-Borough President Donald Manes, who named Shulman director of community boards in 1972 and his deputy in 1980.
When Manes was embroiled in scandal and later committed suicide, Shulman was elected to replace him by a unanimous City Council vote in February 1986.
“She brought Queens through some of its most turbulent times with gusto, determination and love,” said Former Congressman Joe Crowley, the longtime leader of the Queens County Democratic Party. “Claire Shulman was a giant in the annals of Queens County. She did it all from being a scholar, nurse, spouse, mother and public servant.”
A lasting legacy
Shulman’s style of government depended on her leadership and the strength of her staff, which featured future leaders such as former Assemblywoman Marge Markey, current Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz and Councilman Barry Grodenchik.
“At a time when government and governance were at a low ebb in her beloved Queens, Claire stepped into the breach in 1986 and quickly righted the ship of state, giving the people of Queens the best government they ever had,” Grodenchik said Monday. “Her legacy of service is beyond measure but includes tens of thousands of new school seats, a new Queens Hospital Center, Queens Theatre, Queens Zoo, USTA National Tennis Center, Museum of the Moving Image, Queens Botanical Garden, Queens Museum, Jamaica Center of Arts and Learning, new terminals at JFK Airport, saving the homes of 20,000 families during the co-op and condo crisis of the late 1980s, the New York Times printing plant, Arverne by the Sea, a new civil and criminal court building, a restored Unisphere, SAGE (the first LGBT senior center in Queens), Louis Armstrong House, Thalia Spanish Theatre, FDA regional laboratory at York College, Queens West, countless local parks, playgrounds and libraries either rebuilt or built anew, Townsend Harris High School, and a new 107th Precinct, among many other projects.
Other projects overseen by Shulman included the Citicorp Building in Long Island City, the Langston Hughes Library, the Flushing Bay Promenade and Flushing Town Hall.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman. A strong advocate for the arts, her unwavering commitment put Queens on the map as a hub of culture,” Veronica Tsang, president of the board at Flushing Town Hall, and Ellen Kodadek, executive and artistic director of Flushing Town Hall, said in a statement. “Flushing Town Hall, like many of our fellow cultural institutions in the borough, would never have existed without Claire’s determination and support. Last year, at our 40th anniversary gala, we were proud to honor Claire, reflecting her staunch commitment to Queens. It would be hard to imagine the richness of our cultural life of Queens, and of the borough itself, without Claire Shulman’s hand. She will be sorely missed as a friend and supporter of our institution, and we thank her for her dedication. On a day of sorrow, we also celebrate her life and her legacy.”
Looking back at her track record, Shulman has said luring the film industry back to the city was one of her greatest 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,” Shulman once said of the former Paramount Studio that is Kaufman Astoria Studios today. “From zero dollars to $9 billion is not bad at all.”
After Shulman was term-limited, she was succeeded by Helen Marshall, and then Katz, who remembers Shulman as a trailblazer, a fierce leader who dedicated her life to bettering the lives of all Queens residents who paved the way for women leaders across the borough.
“I was honored to follow in her footsteps as Queens borough president and owe her a great debt of gratitude for her amazing leadership and profound dedication to public service,” Katz said. “Claire was absolutely pivotal to the vibrancy and prosperity of Queens County that we continue to enjoy today.”
Acting Borough President Sharon Lee said her office will host a special tribute in the coming days to honor the life and legacy of Shulman, who she called larger than life.
“She did not waste time and lived every single minute fully and with purpose. In a borough known for trailblazers, few have led a life of dedicated public service as robust and as effective as Claire Shulman,” Lee said. “You just couldn’t say no to Claire Shulman. She transformed the landscape of the city’s largest borough, and so much of what we see and enjoy today are the results of her extraordinary vision and decisions made over 18 years ago.”
Shulman’s legacy will be likely carried on at Borough Hall by Councilman Donovan Richards, whom she endorsed in a wide-open race for borough president. He won the June 23 Democratic primary.
“I lost a good friend last night. Queens lost a true gem last night,” Richards said Monday. “Her strength, tenacity and persistence is why she led the borough of Queens with honor and such distinction for nearly two decades. When I made the decision to run for borough president, I reached out to Claire for advice, mentorship and support. Our first meeting lasted nearly five hours at her kitchen table, where she proceeded to give me a history lesson on Queens.”
Shulman stood alongside Richards under the Unisphere in October 2019 as he announced his candidacy.
“But more importantly she was there for the entire ride. Yes, in her 90s, she texted me just about every morning to check in on the campaign,” Richards said. “In true motherly fashion, she would worry a little too much. When I won the democratic nomination, she was my first call. Last week, she called to tell me her final goodbye. She had no fear as she prepared for her next journey. I told her I loved her and we shall meet again. She will forever live on through my work and heart.”
Shulman was still working as president of the Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corporation when she died at her home surrounded by her children, former astronaut Ellen Baker, and Larry and Linda Shulman.