It was a gloriously sunny afternoon as I drove into Crystal Windows’ busy parking lot off the Whitestone Expressway.
Knowing it was being created, I had trepidation coming to the unveiling of the 6-foot-high sculpture of Claire Shulman that Thomas and Steven Chen had commissioned.
Claire was an extraordinary person who served as Borough President of Queens for 16 years. Even after her term was over, she continued to serve the borough until her death at 94 as the leader of the Flushing Willets Point Corona Local Development Corporation, overseeing the changing waterfront of that bursting community.
But most importantly, she was my best friend on earth.
We met when I was fighting to open what was to become the first group home in New York State for children with developmental disabilities from the infamous Willowbrook State School. Under the Willowbrook consent decree, these children were to live in communities near their homes, but in home-like environments with day programs to serve their needs.
The neighbors near the home that Life’s WORC purchased in Little Neck did not want us there and sued to stop us from being in their R1-2 zoned neighborhood.
During that fractious time, I visited Queens Borough Hall and met with Claire, who was running the community board offices, with her boss being Borough President Donald Manes.
Sitting at the far end of her large and imposing wood-paneled room, Claire was a very intimidating figure, but we took to each other very quickly when she understood what my mission was.
Life’s WORC won the lawsuit, giving every group home that followed the right to be in residential neighborhoods — and I won a lifelong friend.
From those challenging days in the mid-1970s to the day she died just over a year ago, we were in almost daily contact.
As the years passed, we not only socialized locally, but also traveled the world together from Israel to China, to Alaska, where we went for our last trip. Our husbands — both doctors — respected and appreciated each other, and that added to our friendship.
But I wasn’t the only one Claire nurtured with her friendship. She was, by profession, a nurse, and she cared for and worried about an endless number of people throughout her lifetime.
During her political career, she met Thomas Chen, who was trying to create a building for his window manufacturing business in Queens after starting in his garage. He turned to Claire for help in achieving his dream. She mentored and guided him through the bureaucracy of city government, even making it possible for him to get the permits to open his latest manufacturing building, just as everything was closing and crashing down during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A year before Claire died, Thomas told her he wanted to have an artist from Taiwan create a lifesize sculpture of her, and together we visited his 22-acre property upstate, where it would be placed. We had seen a sketch of the face, but never the entire figure.
Thomas, an extraordinary man, and his talented, brilliant son Steven endlessly show appreciation to the community for their great accomplishments in business. The family created a sculpture garden featuring the people who had helped the family achieve its success.
The day of Claire’s sculpture unveiling was one I was looking forward to, but it took me by surprise as the sheet dropped and revealed sculptor Yutien Chang’s marvelous work, a powerful and moving bronze, 6-foot-tall, lifelike portrayal of my friend Claire.
He perfectly captured Claire’s essence, with her looking ready to step into her next project! We all went “ooh” and “aah” as we looked upon her.
Thomas and Steven told the prestigious Queens leaders gathered for the unveiling that it would stay on exhibition in the lobby of his Whitestone factory until the end of October and then would have a permanent home on his upstate farm in Crystal Park.
As I reluctantly drove away, not wanting to leave her there, I thought, “Why not create a copy of the sculpture and keep it in Queens for everyone to see?”
I got on my car phone and called to ask the Chens what it would cost to make a replica. They told me, with shipping from Taiwan, where the artist works, it would cost $35,000! I asked them to make sure the artist saves the mold.
I want Claire here in Queens, where she inspired and made us all better people and transformed the borough into a better place.
After all, during her 16 years in leadership, she oversaw the construction of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the expansion of the New York Hall Of Science and the Queens Museum, the creation of a swimming pool in Flushing Meadows Corona Park and the addition of $100 million worth of sewers in southeast Queens, to name a few. She molded the face and future of Queens!
We must keep her powerful image in the borough she adored and shaped.
In a call with Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, he told me that he will work to allocate funds toward bringing Claire’s statue home.
We will find a way to continue to see her strong, inspiring figure!